Starting with Lesson Nine, we are finally going to get into the the story elements that really make your plot come alive: and that’s characters. There are a lot of places to start on this topic, but since the name is the first thing your reader is going to notice about your character, a good one is vital. Naming a character is like naming a child; the personality of your character will grow to fit whatever name you give them.
A name says a lot about who your character is. A common name, we assume the character is common. A very weird name, we assume the character either has a huge ego-trip and named himself, or his mother hated him. (I do not recommend naming ANY character “Vortex.”) Some stories are full of really terrible names for characters that make the reader wince every time they come across a new one.
Avoid any name that sounds like a grade-school insult, a verb, a new type of medicine, an appliance, or an architectural term. For instance, Anne McCaffrey in her Dragonriders of Pern series had a terrifying tendancy to end up with characters whose names sounded like F’loor and M’at and R’ug. We were kept on the edge of our seat reading her books, just waiting for her to come out with T’oilet. Your readers should not live in fear of what you're going to name your next character!
And do we even need to get into the Star Wars Prequels?
Avoid mental parallels with unattractive English words, like Count Duku, which sounds a lot like Doodoo. Or General Grevious, who was obviously grevious. And avoid repetitious single syllables stacked on top of one another, ESPECIALLY when they have to do with the kitchen or bathroom, like Jar-Jar. Good Lord.
Avoid the cliches of having the bad guy named “Baddmar Black” or naming your good-guys “Flash” or “Victorious.” Danger Dan comic book style names are no longer popular... if they ever were. Do not use a name that describes your character’s occupation, unless it’s a nickname. And if your character is a werewolf, please do NOT look it up in Latin and call him that! Your character is not a botanical specimen! Using Greek and Latin words sounds really bad in stories unless it is done really, really cleverly so that the connection is invisible to anyone except the author.
Think of it; your character was once an infant. He had a mama. What would she name her cute new baby? REALLY? She probably won’t name him Sinister Black. Put yourself in Mommy’s shoes.
Why not have a Villain named Bob? Why not have a Hero named Sniffles? Give them real names that have nothing to do with their position in the plot, and could never be mistaken for second-grade name-calling. (There are exceptions to this, which can be very funny. I once made an overblown super-badguy named Ubarratutu. Yes, it was based on a real old Babylonian name... for this guy, it didn’t hurt that the Heroes were laughing at him the whole time because his name sounded like “tutu.”)
In fact, most of the time common every-day names are just better than anything bizarre because your reader can actually remember it. What are you going to remember? Let’s say you just met a new guy at work. If his name is something even a little out-of-the-ordinary, most of the time you will be wracking your brain trying to remember what exactly it was. But if his name is ‘Bob,’ it sticks. You want your reader focusing on what’s important about the story—the Plot—rather than insignificant details about your character’s personal coolness factor.
And unless it’s a humor book, do not name the strong guy in the book “Flex,” or the magic girl “Magica,” or the horse-princess “Horsea.” Yikes, people. Have some heart.
One cautionary note about using normal names: If you have most of a supporting cast with names like Samantha and Jake, don’t name your main character something like Vortex just to set that one apart as different and cool. Give them a normal name if everyone around them has normal names. The weirdest I would go is Cecil or Elvis. And although you might think it’s funny to have one normal name like Joe thrown in to a Fantasy name scheme with other names like Galagon and Megotarsis, resist. It usually doesn’t come across as funny unless the entire work is tongue-in-cheek humor written just right. (Sometimes it’s funny to have that super bad Heroine named Priscilla, or for someone to have a name that seems counter to their character, like naming the big buff hero ‘Ninny.’ These are the exception to the rule, and your character should get a lot of guff about it.)
Good ways to find names is to look up REAL NAMES. These names have been used by the human race for centuries uncounted, and there are reasons for that. They are easy to remember, catchy, and have solid meaning. You usually can’t improve on what has been tested and proven by time. Again, usually the best thing to do in a story is just to use common every-day variety names you hear around you all the time, so your reader will remember your character’s name easily. ‘Larry’ sticks in the mind better than ‘Anglosarma.’
If normal names just will not do, and you need new names for a strange new culture, look up ancient Babylonian names, or Assyrian names, or old Celtic names. Use the name databases we have all over the internet! There’s a lot of them, and that is where we get most of ours. I have a folder full of documents that are merely collections of names from ancient cultures. African, Basque, Czechoslovakian, Egyptian, Gaelic, Hindi, Nahuatl... read through names from other cultures, sound them out, and if necessary adapt the spelling to your normal language.
When you do this, pick all your names for your alien culture from the same names-database, so they all seem like they match. Don’t give one a Japanese name, another an old Irish name, another one an old American-Indian name. They won’t sound the same, and your reader will lose faith in your story universe. Remember, the ability to suck the reader into the story and make them feel as if it is real (even if the sensation only lasts for a few seconds) rests upon making your fiction as consistent to itself as possible.
A few times, I’ve come up with a marginally alright name by spelling words backward. (Opening a large old-fashioned dictionary to a random page and stabbing the finger down does the trick.) Usually this is a dismal attempt, however, and only good for a laugh on a bored Saturday afternoon. This method, if it works at all, works better for naming cities and places than people.
I’ve collected good names from studying star maps as well, but beware; a lot of people will recognize the name as belonging in our night sky. Be sure your setting and culture is appropriate for that kind of a name. A note here: if you are naming planets in a Science Fiction story, your alien race will probably NOT call their planet by the same name that Earth star-maps call it! Why should your aliens know (or care) what we called their sun?? Naming planets after stars on a star-map is only really useful for Earth colony-worlds.
My personal most common method for coming up with original, cool-sounding ‘alien’ or other-worldly names is to simply speak aloud a jumble of syllables slowly. I let my tongue pick out what sounds good together. When it makes sense to the ears, and it is less than three syllables long (two or three is best), I jot it down on a scratch paper, writing it phonetically. Once I have a list of five or ten of these, I can assign my favorites to just about anything, from characters to cities to strange alien types of animals.
Finally, if you are really stumped, there are the good old random-word generators. A big note of caution here: the nonsense random words generated by these little programs come up with some of the WORST “Fantasy Names” I have ever heard. For example, I just can’t stand reading a Fantasy book where the main character is named something like Oclo Drod or worse yet, Fuwag. Please do NOT use the first word on the list! Comb through the results very carefully, and do not use the words if they are too long, complex, or have a lot of apostrophes in them. You will only annoy your readers if they have to puzzle out the pronunciation of your Hero’s name. (Most won’t bother to try and will just skip it, and mark it—and you—down as ‘ridiculous.’)
I only use the random-name generators when I am pretty desperate, and I try to keep the use of them to middle and some few last names. Two of my favorites are David Wheeler’s TOTRO, and Samuel Stoddard’s Fantasy Name Generator. The latter one can get very complex, with lots of variables to choose from. Sometimes I set my variables, get a name-list, and then just write down the two or three possible good names per page on a scratch paper, and keep hitting the ‘refresh’ button on my browser until I collect enough of them.
After you have gone through the trouble of coming up with oodles of possible new names, keep your list of possible names in a document on your computer for quick reference. That way, when you need to make a new character on the fly, you can open up your Name List and pull a good one from your collection. Remember to erase, cross-through, or otherwise mark the names you use up, so you don’t keep using the same ones over and over!
To test any made-up names, the best method I have ever discovered is to have my mother or grandmother read it, and see how she pronounces it out-loud. If you can stand how she slaughters what you thought should sound cool, then you may have a good made-up name.
Good luck, and may the Force be with you.