jmclean

Four Ways to Name Fictional Characters (Particularly in Fantasy/Sci-Fi)

Character names are vital. They’re often the reader’s first introduction and repeat more than most words in a book. Because a name represents the character in a single word (or a small number of words), it must be a perfect fit.

Names that are easy to pronounce are best for major characters, so the reader doesn’t trip over them.

Even reading in their heads, many people try to pronounce words, and a difficult name can be a serious obstacle. Besides, when they tell their friends about your book, don’t you want them to be able to name some of the important people in it?

With this pressure to get the perfect name, choosing one can be an arduous process. We’ll look at some methods I use for names. This isn’t a comprehensive list; there are plenty of other approaches available. These are simply the ones I find work best for me, with the least hassle.

One consideration, regardless of how you choose names, is to keep names as unique as possible. Starting each name with a different letter is the easiest and most obvious way to do this.

Unique names help the reader distinguish characters in their mind. Imagine a reader confused between two characters because one is Alice and the other is Aliss! That’s a pretty extreme example, but you get the idea.

As always, I’m approaching this topic from a fantasy angle, though these techniques also apply to science fiction and most can, with slight modification, apply to real-world stories. But keep in mind your genre and audience: you don’t want a name as wild as Daenerys Targaryen or Morrolan e’Drien for the real world.

Finally, never stop writing to find a name. Come up with something quickly, and you can change it later. Several of my characters have gone through three or four names as I test them out and see what fits. And sometimes (rarely), the first random name that pops into my head ends up being their final name.

Often, writing with a name will help you realize whether it fits, and writing may help you stumble on a better name with a typo. Always follow the number one rule: keep writing!

Method 1: Name Generator

One of my favorite tools it the Behind the Name random namer tool which allows you to select from various cultures including ancient and mythological names. There are also whimsical and fantasy categories.

Behind the Name works best if you have an idea of which real-world culture has similar names to the character’s fantasy culture. Then again, you can use this tool to find something you like and do world-building for the character’s culture from there.

Even more than matching culture, you can use this website to match meaning. Clicking a generated name takes you to a page with details about the name’s origin and meaning so you can make sure the randomly generated name fits the character. You can even use this as a tool to create new characters based on the name’s meaning.

If you want more name generators, there’s nothing better than to do a Google search for it. Some of my other favorites are Squid.org and the Reedsy name generator.

Method 2: Give It Meaning

If you have a more specific meaning in mind, you can search Behind the Name by meaning instead of using their random naming tool. Although it’s difficult to find things that are too specific, this can be a better approach if you’re less clear on the character’s culture but have a clear idea of who they are.

Obviously, we don’t all become what our name means in real life. “God is deliverance” doesn’t exactly describe me, for instance. But in a story, it can help to back up a name with meaning as a sort of Easter egg, so when your fans look up the name they say, “Oh yeah! That fits them perfectly.”

Method 3: Mash Up Words (or Names)

Sometimes, a single name doesn’t cut it, and you need to smush a few together to get something that sounds right. That’s a perfectly valid way to get a unique-sounding name.

You can even use normal English words for this. Take a word, or two, or three, and mix them up. Rearrange the letters. Put them together. Cut one in half and sandwich the other between. You’d be surprised how well-hidden these words can be when you’re done.

One worry is that it’s too obvious to use recognizable English words in a name, but you’ll notice much more readily than the reader. How about this name: Brechider. Think about that name for a second.

Okay, done? What words do you think made that name?

I bet you didn’t think “chicken breeder.” And that wasn’t even terribly obfuscated.

Method 4: Foreign Languages

If you want to evoke the feel of a specific culture but can’t find a fitting name on Behind the Name, another option is to use foreign languages to construct a name. The benefit to this is you can use any words you like, and Google Translate can do the work for you.

But be extra careful that you read through alternative meanings for the words, so you don’t end up giving your character’s name an unexpected and unfitting connotation. If you know a native speaker of the target language, you might want to check with them for a more accurate meaning of the name.

Then again, like in method 3, you can mash up words and change them to the point where they’re unrecognizable, even to a native speaker. Remember Brechider? Do something like that with foreign words, and no one will be the wiser, but you’ll have a name that evokes the right sense for your character.

I hope these four methods have been helpful in your search for a strong character name. What other methods do you use for your characters? Ever been surprised by a name you constructed? Share in the comments below!

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Posted by jmclean in Writing, 0 comments

Camp NaNo 2021: Preparation

To prepare for a creative writing graduate program in 2022, I’m exploring process, building confidence, and searching for my productive stride, expecting a heavy workload.

My first step was a short story for a Reedsy contest (Forest of the Sorceress). This was fun and enlightening but one week isn’t enough for a finished piece, so I’m unlikely to participate again.

What drove me to be confident enough to publish that story? Haven’t a clue. Though I’m proud of the work, it could do with fresh eyes and a dozen more revisions.

So what can I do to continue my journey? Write more, of course! I’m now working seriously on a novel with the help of Camp NaNoWriMo.

What is Camp NaNoWriMo?

Camp NaNoWriMo is an event running two months a year as an offshoot of the original NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo (or NaNo for short) is a challenge every November to write a novel, or at least 50,000 words which is more like half a novel, in 30 days.

Camp is a bit different in that the goals are flexible and, at least in July, you get an extra day.

The NaNoWriMo forums are filled with people who love writing, and the website hosts tools to track your word count and statistics.

I also use a spreadsheet on Google Docs to track and calculate more statistics through the month, but the NaNo website provides extra perks like badges, buddies, and groups.

Preparation

I knew earlier this year that a Camp NaNo would happen in July, and was even considering participation, but somewhere along the line I forgot. My sister reminded me about the event with only a few days to spare.

After tossing around ideas about a new novel, revising City of Monsters (a 95k-word draft I wrote in December-January), or doing a short story collection, I settled on finishing a story I’ve been writing since my first NaNoWriMo in November of 2006. Or at least, starting to finish.

My goal is 1,000 words a day for a grand total of 31,000 words, which amounts to at most a third of a novel. I’m not fond of heavyweight doorstop epic fantasy, so my brand aims to fall under the 100k mark.

My usual NaNo is a deluge of words ready to overwhelm me with dread once I start to revise it. This month, I’ve set the goal low so I can outline, edit, and revise along the way. I know a final draft in one go is impossible, but I at least want to avoid the fear of further revisions.

Organization and Process

My current process involves three core tools: MediaWiki, Scrivener, and Microsoft Word.

I host a personal MediaWiki with all my worldbuilding notes. Many of the wiki pages are a chaotic, unedited mess of conflicting ideas, but it allows me a space to organize the worlds, characters, and events floating around in my head.

A wiki isn’t great for outlining or writing, but it’s super helpful for tracking ideas and looking up concepts in an attempt to maintain a consistent canon.

Scrivener is my outlining tool of choice. Although I’m not terribly fond of its word processing environment or overly complicated compilation tools, the outline view and index cards are essential.

I’m using labels and keywords to track scenes, and it’s nice to have chapter and scene synopses on index cards that I can rearrange visually. This is a work in progress since I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the software’s power. I’ll be sure to bring it up in future blog posts.

I love Microsoft Word. It’s an amazing tool. A lot of small things appeals to me, like the controversial way it animates the motion of the writing cursor (it feels oddly natural to me) and the way it replaces double dashes with my favorite punctuation, the em-dash.

The editor helps guide good grammar and style as well as ensuring consistent spelling (particularly character names) and it’s convenient that I can use essentially the same tool online and off.

My main document is set up to look like an actual book as I write. Small pages, narrow margins, gorgeous Palatino Linotype at size 10.5, justified text, automatic hyphenation, and dropped chapter headings (I might write about how I did this; it was a bit awkward).

The comments feature has also been very helpful. When I stop writing, I leave a comment about where the story should go next, often pulling from the Scrivener synopsis with additional details.

Comments can also keep the story on track if there’s a long scene and I’m worried about getting lost in the details. And the nice thing about comments is they don’t count toward the word count, so my NaNo tracking is always honest.

How It’s Going

As I write this, I’ve finished three days of Camp NaNo with 4,114 words. That’s more than a day ahead of my goal for 1,000 words a day, which is great because I need some wiggle room in case I need to spend an entire day editing or rearranging what’s already there.

I’m still in the first chapter, which is getting a bit long, but I’m trying not to worry too much about those things. Revision might split the chapter in two. So far there are three scenes and I have one more planned before the chapter is done.

Before each scene I’ve revised the previous one, mostly cleanup and clarification. Some critical components of the first scene changed, though, so that revision was more major. The third scene remains unedited, so tomorrow(July 4) that’s where I start.

If you’re interested in learning more about Camp NaNoWriMo and the main NaNoWriMo event, check out the website here.

I will be posting weekly to explore various aspects of the creative process, such as plotting, character naming, writing tips, world building, random grammatical pedantry, and building magic systems.

Hope you’ll join me on this journey! If you want blog posts delivered to your inbox, sign up for my newsletter here.

What would you like to hear about? Please leave a comment with suggestions, and any thoughts you have on NaNo! If you prefer a private conversation, you can contact me here, and please follow me on Twitter if you’re into that sort of thing.

Posted by jmclean, 0 comments