World Building 101: What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name? When you are building a whole new world for your readers in a science fiction or fantasy novel, a name can make a huge difference. Maybe roses would smell as sweet if you called them “blaggentoffleworts,” but your reader would get pretty tired of tripping over that word if you used it frequently in your story, and your editorial team wouldn’t be too happy with you, either.

Would a blaggentofflewort smell as sweet?

I’ve been writing fantasy and science fiction for a long time. Making up names for characters who live in other centuries and worlds is something I can do easily. Early on in my writing career, though, I have to admit that I created some real clunkers.

So these days, how do I go about coming up with strong, original names for characters in a different reality from ours?

First of all, I’m the proud owner of five different baby name books, and for the record, my hubby and I are tidy sorts and have only made 2.0 offspring. My favorite baby name book has some fairly exotic names (does anyone really name a girl Arnoldine?) but I like its detailed explanations of the origins and meanings of names. I’ll often make sure that the original meaning of the character’s name fits that character, even if I’m the only person who knows that meaning.

But sometimes there’s a Latin root in a word, like malus which means “evil” or “bad,” that most people do know. Hence the plethora of villains out there such as the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty named Maleficent and Malfoy in the Harry Potter books. This isn’t the most subtle approach, but sometimes you may want to hit your readers over the head with associations, or you may want a humorous connotation or meaning associated with your character’s name.

Naming a character “Maleficent”or “Maldread” is NOT the most subtle way to name a character,
but sometimes you don’t want to be subtle.
Once I pick a contemporary name, I usually change one vowel in it, or a consonant, or shave off a syllable, and I often end up with something I like. If I don’t, I keep tinkering and adjusting until I create a name that sounds vaguely like one we have in our world and in our time, but still is different. For example, take the name “Jezebel.” If you shave off the “j” and the “e,” now you have “Zebel.” I probably wouldn’t use that for a main character, but it’s a serviceable name for a secondary character.

Telephone books (remember those things?) can also be a great resource for last names.

If I’m totally stuck and I need a more exotic, foreign name, I type random sets of keys and see if in those groupings I can find the root of an interesting name. But here’s a warning: this approach can often lead to an unpronounceable name. And THOU SHALT NOT use unpronounceable names.

Which reminds me, I have two basic rules for naming characters in other worlds.

1. Your readers need to be able to pronounce a name.

2. Even it if it is pronounceable, it still can’t look too foreign or funky on the page, or your readers will trip over it, and you’ll have an argument with your editorial team down the road that would be nicer to avoid. Plus it’s no fun un-naming a character once you’ve gotten used to calling him or her “Rycanthalcyr” for three hundred pages.

Here’s one final hint. Don’t ever let the need to find a perfect name hold up your writing. When I’m having a great writing day or week, I’ve been known to leave a secondary character unnamed for several chapters and just use a symbol or blank to hold his or her space.

But in the end, I will spend a great deal of time making sure that even my secondary characters have strong names because the Bard, in this case at least, was wrong. There’s a great deal in a name if you’re in the world building biz.

Polly Holyoke is June's first Affiliate Blogger. To find out more about our guest author positions here at the League, click here.

Polly Holyoke graduated from Middlebury College and earned her teaching certificate from theUniversity of Colorado. She loved working as a middle school social studies teacher and has been writing stories since she was in fifth grade. When she isn’t tapping away on her computer, Polly enjoys reading, camping, skiing, scuba diving and hiking in the desert. She lives with three rescue dogs, two spoiled cats and a very nice husband who tolerates piles of books all over their house.
The Neptune Project
by Polly Holyoke

The Neptune Project is set in a future where the seas are rising and wars and famines wrack the surface world. Nere Hanson and her teen companions are shocked to learn that they have been genetically altered by their desperate parents to live in the sea. Protected by her loyal dolphins, shy Nere leads the rest on a perilous journey to her father’s new colony. Fighting off government divers, sharks and giant squid, can Nere and her companions learn to trust each other before their dangerous new world destroys them?

1 comment:

Gina said...

And, may I add, pick names with CLEAR pronunciations, not ambiguous ones. Kahlan from the Sword of Truth series causes no end of disagreements between my husband and I. Is it "Kay-LAWN" or "KAW-lan" or "KAY-lan"?

(this is a poor example because the character was named after the author's best friend, so it's not REALLY his fault... but still. Good lesson to learn for the rest of us mortals ;) )