And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part One – Character Names

Leslie Nielsen
Image via Google Images

Deciding on a name for a character can be like trying to decide which sandwich to have for lunch. Sometimes you know exactly what you want and it works for you (Chicken and Bacon). Sometimes you struggle and you end up with something that doesn’t quite sit well (Crayfish and Rocket). In rare cases, you abandon the pursuit altogether and slack off while your novel (stomach) screams in protest (McDonald’s).

When I first started writing, I was working on a typical ‘epic’ fantasy story. The story was predictable, the creatures were stolen (elves, dwarves, giant eagles) and the hero was a self-obsessed arse. But the names were good. At least, I thought so. I’d always loved history and the English language, which gave me the drive to create names while borrowing from different periods in time.

For example:

Thail – Heavily influenced by Norse mythology and naming. Thor, anyone?

Mithas – Maybe influenced by Tolkien‘s fictional ‘mithril’?

Drall – A bad guy. Definitely influenced by the word ‘droll’ (curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement).

Of course, these characters had no surnames or had names like Mithas Dragonslayer. It’s a fantasy cliché that I now steer clear of as much as possible. In a way, it’s historically accurate. People in Ancient Greece didn’t have surnames as such, instead going for the Tolkien-style ‘Aragorn, son of Arathorn‘ or Michael Moorcock‘s ‘Elric of Melniboné‘. The sad fact is, these sorts of names often, but not always, bring attention to an immature or inexperienced fantasy writer in this modern world of gritty superhero movies, gritty reboots and Mr. Tarantino.

The rules that I apply to my naming conventions nowadays are as follows:

1. It should have roots/stem from a historical name in reality. If not, it must mean something in the language(s) of the fictional world.
2. It must be consistent with other character’s names from the same region/country in the fictional world.
3. It should include a surname/family name/title. If not, there must be a cultural/personal reason why.
4. It should be easy to say out loud and easy to read.

Here are three good examples from my fairly recent writing:

Drust Ironmane – A Celtic-style name. Drust was a real-world name. The character’s family earned the name ‘Ironmane’ because of their wiry, dark hair.

Decimus Sulla – A Roman-style name. Both were real-world names. The Romanesque names have been rehashed and put into a table I created so combinations are consistent.

Tomas Gadden – Tomas is a real-world name (more unusual than Thomas). The surname was invented and just came to me at random. Further regional surnames follow the conventions of ‘Gadden’ so they are consistent.

I suggest using baby name websites/books sparingly. It’s best to read plenty of fantasy and non-fantasy fiction, read up on a bit of history that roughly relates to the general feel of your fictional world/region and be on the lookout for unusual words/names in your day-to-day life.

Next Tuesday, I’ll cover place names in the final part of this article. Hope you can join me then and thanks for reading!

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4 thoughts on “And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part One – Character Names

  1. hereticfox 24-Jan-2012 / 15:14

    Aaah names… both a dreaded and beloved part of world-building. They can go so well, and unfortunately seem to always end up so wrong.

    I agree with your methodology, though, it’s very close to my own styles of choosing names for characters. A resource I’ve often found to be invaluable in deciding the foundation for names comes in the form of two websites: http://www.behindthename.com and its sister-site, http://www.surname.behindthename.com. Both look at modern and historical names from all over the world and also the etymology of those names. It’s uncommon that I use exactly what they give me, but my favorite method of coming up for character-names is to research the real world equivalents, then design the chosen name to fit the setting.

    Take for example, “Alexander,” which is a Greek name with the meaning “Defender of Men.” Look at the culture of the character’s birthplace, and then modify “Alexander” into a more appropriate form, such as Aleksendir. As a result, you get a name that — although clearly fantasy-oriented in appearance and sound — rings familiar enough to your readers to open up the door for that essential empathy between reader and character.

    Fantastic post, and I can call myself one of your followers now, for certain!

    • James 24-Jan-2012 / 15:32

      Thanks for the links to those sites, I’ll have to take a look. Appreciate your comments greatly and thanks for reading!

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