On naming characters and places

This post by Brenda W. Clough at Book View Cafe caught my eye this morning. In particular, I liked this bit:

In this day of interconnectivity, it takes maybe five minutes to find the top-rated Chicago-style pizza restaurant in downtown Ulan Baator or the highlands just outside Luang Prabang. Just fish it up off of Yelp, and send your characters over for a pie and a brew. You can probably view the menu on the restaurant’s web site, look at the street facade through Google, and email the owner for permission to reproduce the sign on the book cover.

That’s so true! It’s not just names. I have an idea what New England towns look like, but I totally called up images of Vermont towns when writing BLACK DOG and PURE MAGIC and the associated short stories. Those street level view are so awesom!

Of course there’s a big difference between naming characters and places in contemporary or contemporary-ish settings, vs secondary world settings.

Brenda Clough’s written related posts, on contemporary and fantasy names. I must say, I didn’t do this for my BLACK DOG names:

All names, and in fact all terms and invented places, should be shoved through Google. If someone with your hero’s name was just executed in Beijing for sex crimes, you want to know this. You say nobody will likely notice? It is possible you will sell those Chinese-language rights, you know.

That’s true, come to think of it. I ought to have googled my names. Oops. As far as I know, the only character I have with someone’s real name is a minor character in PURE MAGIC who happens to have the name of my agent’s grandfather, or something like that.

For contemporary names, one great resource which Clough doesn’t mention is the website Behind the Name, which lets you dig into not just the origin of names, but trends in popularity over time and stuff like that. I admit that most often I just open a phone book and flip through it till I find names that “feel right.”

Or, for secondary world fantasy, I open a foreign language dictionary and start picking out words and switching letters around. Granted, that added a layer of weirdness to The Griffin Mage trilogy when it came out in Germany: I’d used German to create the sounds of the Prechen language, and then naturally some of my names sounded very strange to German speakers, so they went through and re-named some of the characters and places when doing the translation (with my permission) (which I would have been insane to withhold).

I wonder how “Katherine Addison” created her names and words for THE GOBLIN EMPEROR? That one was, for me, the one that stood out for names and words last year.

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5 thoughts on “On naming characters and places”

  1. You know, it hadn’t occurred to me how easy it is to fish up real-world details for your contemporary fantasy. I wonder how many writers do that.

    And googling modern character names is a good idea too — Rachel may recall how a lead character from the unpublished TENAI duology at one point shared a name with a moderately well-known author.

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