Naming creatures, places, and characters can be a difficult
and—let’s face it—shitty task. There are those precious, wonderful times when a
name just comes to you. But then there are the many other times when you need a
name and your brain only comes up with utter crap. When you’re like, “I need a
powerful, epic name for this demi-god anti-hero! What have you got, brain?” and
your brain is just like:
It’s not cool.
This post isn’t an easy one to write because so much of this type of thing is entirely contingent upon your specific world. Naming advice that works for Sam over there isn’t going to work for Jordan. They’re writing two different world with two different language systems, two different cultures, possibly two different ideas of gender norms. And what about when Jo here asks for some advice? I can’t give them the same thoughts I’d give Sam or Jordan. Things very quickly get complicated.
But I’m here to do the best I can. So let’s get started. Keep in mind that all of my advice in this post is going to be regarding a fictional world. We aren’t talking names of people or places in real-world, as those can easily be derived from established cultures and language. We’re talking about worlds where there is none of that to fall back on…your newly invented world.
General things to consider:
- Names of characters and places from the same culture or area should sound like they belong together.
- Sometimes in our very diverse and meshed world, we forget that it isn’t necessarily common for names with various language roots to be heard in the same group or family. In the US, it’s probably not that weird if one sibling’s name is Aaron and his sister’s name is Deirdre, even though one of them is a Hebrew name and the other a Gaelic name. If you’re writing an older, small, or enclosed society, then having a phonetic theme in your names will help them sound more unified, and will also make your conlang and your proper nouns feel more real.
Can the name be drawn from words or sounds from your already-established conlang?
- If you’ve been working on a fictional language for this world, use the rules and phonetics from that to help you create a name that sounds like it belongs (or, if needed, doesn’t belong).
Does the name have meaning to the culture? From where is that meaning derived? If you’re rooting your words/names in Greek or Latin, is there a reason for this within the world? Your readers will know these root words when they see them, so make sure that it is internally consistent. Don’t make names and sounds as “unique” and complicated as possible. If your readers are stumbling over all the proper nouns, their less likely to be able to focus on the meat of your story. Do not overuse hyphens or apostrophes. These have not been original in quite some time. Before choosing to use them, be sure they actually mean something.
Jumping-off Points: Ideas for creating names
Create suffixes or prefixes that can be used to secure meaning and consistency into your names
You can do this with gender, station, families, location, importance, class, or any other markers your culture finds important. Feminine names might more frequently end in -ix or -ir where masculine names tend to end in -io or -ea.
Upper class people might have a prefix marker that serves as a partial surname. A wealthy character named Brok might be named Ina-Brok Thalla, whereas that name to a lower class character would be simply Brok Thalla or even Chor-Brok Thalla.
The place of one’s birth might be of great importance and be incorporated into their name. People from the north favor the use of -th- or -cho- where people who were born in the southern regions favor the use of -in- or -shir- in their names.
Use your established conlang to find sounds that work together and then give them meaning
If you’re like me, then even if you’ve got yourself a world with a rather thoroughly established conlang, chances are you still don’t have a good word for the name of the place or character that you want. I want to have this characters name mean “Great warrior” but my word for “great/awesome” sounds stupid in a name and I don’t have a word for warrior yet.
Never fear. If you’ve got a language to work from, then you’re still in a good spot. (Check out my Languaging post if you’re still needing a language.) So for example:
My already-created word for “great” is othii. All right. But I need a word for warrior and it needs to sound pretty cool. Now, this language leans pretty heavily on tip-of-the-tongue sounds. Th, Sh, L, N, as well as short i and the long a. The character I’m naming is female, which is good to keep in mind because in this word, female names tend to end in -li or -m. That might be important, might not. But it’s worth keeping in mind. (Since male names tend to end in -a or -u, [and in this culture, that’s important] I would want to be sure that ending her name with a masculine sound is an intentional choice.)
So given the knowledge I have, I’m going to brainstorm some names and from that, decide on my word for “warrior.”
Othaeli, Othriil, Othiim, Thiishli, Thiilar, Araethii, Parthii, Varoth, Varothli, Baeothli…..
The list could go on. I also know that nicknames are almost expected in this world, and since of this list Varothli is my favorite name, knowing she could go by Roth or Varo pretty easily, I’m going to choose that one. My arbitrary letters in that name were Var…so I can use that and create a “root” word for warrior, like Vara or Varshii, or something like that. I end up with a name that could easily be translated as “She, the great warrior.”
Use a generator and alter names as you see fit
I’m not going to lie, I use word generators a lot. I rarely use words or names exactly as I find them, but generators can do a lot to help my brain think outside of its box. Here are my standards:
Other idea wells:
- Watch the credits at the end of a movie
- Thumb through baby name books
- Dictionary – find interesting words and use them as inspiration for names
Writing habits to help with naming
- Every time you hear a unique place or person name you like, jot it down. Either exactly as it is, or slightly tweaked. Keep a list on your phone or on a notebook that you can reference when you find yourself needing to name a character or place.
- Don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself. If a name doesn’t come to you immediately, give it time and just use a placeholder. (And, like Bioware did with Thedas [The (D)ragon (A)ge (S)etting], you might find that your “placeholder” works perfectly!)
- If you feel like a name is forced or sounds a little dumb, ask beta readers. Let someone give their objective opinion. We’re often a lot harder on ourselves than others are on us.
- Don’t throw out any ideas. If you have brainstorming session where you write down twenty names and choose one, keep all of them!! You might find one of your not-perfect names for this character will be perfect for something else down the line.
- Keep names, especially unfamiliar ones, different enough from one another that your readers don’t have a difficult time keeping them apart. You don’t want your reader to have to thumb back to the first chapter to look and see if it was Poratha or Parrtho who was the main character. Names need to flavor the story and help set characters apart, not becoming a stumbling block.
- Keep in mind cultural associations with certain names. Only call to mind that historical or pop culture figure on purpose if it adds to your story. (i.e. Elvis, Adolf, or Beyonce)
Check out the rest of the Brainstorming Series!
Magic Systems, Part One
Magic Systems, Part Two
Politics and Government
Belief Systems & Religion
Guilds, Factions & Groups
War & Conflict
Science & Technology
Wildlife & Ecosystems