Naming characters

Fun post here at Anne R Allen’s blog: Naming Fictional Characters: 10 Tips to Avoid Pitfalls

Ooh, pitfalls! This is a great way to sell the post. First, I just thought of a handful of characters with TERRIBLE names that just about killed the story,** and second, I instantly want to know what Anne R Allen sees as specific pitfalls where authors go wrong.

Well, she starts by explaining some methods she uses to name her characters:

For me, spam is turning out to be one of the best places to find unique names. Every week I cull a few from my email and blog spam folders. … And I love the creativity of the three-first-names catfishers who try to friend me on Facebook. I’m using the catfisher name “Brownie David Jack” in my current WIP, Catfishing in America.

Oh, that’s funny! An actual use for spam! Who knew? This is making me think of the fake guys who try to get women to Friend them on Facebook. Sexy Older Guy In Sexy Pose, with no posts and no photos, but a friend in common because somebody got suckered into hitting “friend.” I used to get quite a lot of those fake friend requests, but maybe Facebook has tweaked something, because the Sexy Older Guy Friend Request seems to have become less common in the past year or so. Or maybe I just haven’t been on Facebook enough to get targeted lately.

This is not yet a post about naming pitfalls, though. Oh, here we go: But beware. There can be pitfalls. Okay, let’s see what those are …

a) Google your characters’ names.

I have to confess, I never think of doing this. Let me see. Well, it looks like nearly all the hits for “Ezekiel Korte” comes back to my character. Whew!

Anyway, this is only going to matter for contemporary and contemporary-ish settings, of course. Allen does provide a persuasive anecdote about why it’s sometimes unfortunate to accidentally name your character after someone with the same name and a too-similar background.

b) Choose names that fit the character.

Good advice! It’s just that the author’s feeling about what name suits the character may not agree with readers’ perceptions of the fitness of that name. I don’t know what to do about that except cross my fingers that readers will like the name “Ezekiel Korte” as much as I do.

This is making me think of someone explaining — Craig, was that you? — that Tolkien meant to call Aragorn “Trotter” rather than “Strider” for an astonishingly long time after developing the character. THERE is an example of a name (nickname, whatever) that totally does not fit the character AT ALL.

I will add here that Terry Pratchett’s character names absolutely do not work for me. I mean, Sam Vimes, sure. But I hate, hate, hate that he saddled Carrot with the name Carrot. That character is too serious a character to deserve that stupid name.

My advice is, when in doubt, do NOT give your character a deliberately stupid name. And always be in doubt about that.

c) Choose names that begin with different letters.

Yes! Also, we need an alphabet with more than 26 letters. It’s just impossible to stick to this rule throughout an entire long series, however excellent a rule it may be.

Worse still, it’s easy to introduce a very minor character without worrying about this. His name is only going to occur a handful of times, so it’s fine! Then, oops, he turns into a more important character than you realized in Book Three and suddenly you have a problem.

That’s what happened with Cassandra and Carissa in the Black Dog world. I had no idea how bad a name choice “Carissa” was going to be. Hence declaring that she’s going to call herself Riss. I mean, what else was I supposed to do?

If you start names with the same letter, you can cheat — if you think ahead — by making the names dramatically different lengths or by giving one a lot of tall letters and the other only short letters, or both. If one ends in a tall letter and the other in a short letter, that helps. But yes, I agree, it’s nice if you can make it through the book without ever giving two characters names that start with the same letter.

d) Avoid generic names.

Yes, probably a good idea to pick only names that aren’t in the top fifty baby names of the moment.

e) Choose names that are creative but pronounceable.

Well, I do my best. Sometimes. Not with the griffin names, of course. I think nearly all the names in the Tuyo world are pretty easy to pronounce. I’ve had just one person comment about “Inhejeriel.” Actually, I think that’s very pronounceable. Just line the syllables up in a row and spit them out. I was going for a somewhat Tolkien-Elvish look there, that’s all. I know the other Tarashana names are harder. But they only occur just a tiny handful of times. If we ever go back into the starlit lands, I may well regret giving them such difficult names. I guess I could come up with character names that were in the same basic theme but easier to recognize and pronounce, if necessary.

My mother asked where I came up with the names in the Tenai trilogy and I actually remember even though I wrote this story so long ago: I have a handy handbook of the mammals of Borneo. That’s where almost all the character and place names came from, usually with a letter or two changed.

f) Name only Featured Players, not Walk-Ons.

It’s a tough call, deciding who’s important enough to get a name and who isn’t. I don’t know if I always call it correctly.

Allen offers a handful more tips, with a bonus link to genre name generators — click through to the post if you’re interested — I will add that I had to laugh at the fantasy names. I wouldn’t have used any of those! But if I were really stuck, that would be a way to get started.

There’s also an important bonus tip that I can fervently second:

Bonus tip: Run a final search-and-replace if you change a character’s name.

Absolutely! But! If you do a find-and-replace, be AWARE THAT YOU CAN SCREW UP RANDOM WORDS THAT WAY.

My personal favorite — not a name — was when I did a find-and-replace to replace “arrow” with “bolt” because I changed bows to crossbows partway through the story. “Arrow” is not a piece of very many words, but it does happen. I suddenly had spbolts fluttering here and there through the pages of the story…

The other times to run a search on a character’s name:

–You are replacing that character with a different character. You better get the replacement complete or you will be super embarrassed later.

–You are removing a character from the story. Again, you have to get every. single. instance. of that character out of the story. It can be stunningly difficult to get them all. Always do a find. Never rely on your own reading skills to do this kind of task.

** Pug in Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga. I mean … seriously … Pug? There has never, in the entire history of epic fantasy, been an epic fantasy character with a worse name.

By all means, prove me wrong by dropping your contender for “worst ever epic fantasy name in the comments.

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18 thoughts on “Naming characters”

  1. I don’t care how good the Riftwar Saga may be; I’m not spending hundreds of pages with a character named Pug.

    I have an inordinate fondness for certain letters of the alphabet in names — T, R, K, and D primarily — so I have to restrict myself to only allowing one name starting with that letter per story. (Usually my favorite character gets my favorite name.) And then making sure names in different stories aren’t too similar or don’t start with the same favorite letter again!

    As a teenager I started compiling a List of Fantasy Names, stealing like a magpie from books, encyclopedias, dreams, etc. It grew to 16 or so pages of 4 columns, alphabetized (separate lists for male and female names). For years after that I’d just go to the list to pull names for minor characters. A lot of dangers with this approach—I could no longer remember where I’d stolen certain names from!—but it did help me remember to use my less-favored letters!

  2. I know, there are times I have to say to myself “NO MORE Ts AT ALL, CUT IT OUT WITH Ts!”

    For me it’s the same as yours, plus “L” and “N.”

  3. To be fair to JRRT “Trotter” was intended to be a hobbit for a very long time, and so is a little more appropriate, but…!

    Passive Guy picked that one up too, and the first comment has another example of the pitfalls of not searching the name first, and this one went to court.

    I’ve learned I can search a word with space on each side, or one side, which would minimize incidents of ‘spbolt’.

    The kid was just going on about comparative translations of Verne’s Mysterious Island wherein the original English edition changed a character from Cyrus Smith to Cyrus Harding. I guess the translator thought Harding fit the character more, but really, why? also apparently messed up other parts, but the name change seems especially random.

    I get the desire for a name to fit a character but let’s not go the Remus Lupin is a werewolf route. That’s way too obvious. And sometimes people’s names don’t fit… there’s always the go by the nickname or middle name (whichever fits the setting), or simply “Dear friend, Grant, why didn’t you tell me your real name is Aloysius?” “Would YOU use that name?”

  4. The Smith to Harding transition does seem particularly random.

    Now, “Cyrus” is not random at all. I bet the character would seem quite different when first introduced if his name were, say, Trent.

    Yes, I’ve learned to be more cautious when doing a search-and-replace … but sometimes I still forget. Last time was when I decided to capitalize “nda” — a title — without sensibly adding spaces on one or the other side. A startling number of words have “nda” in them, it turns out. AgeNda. FuNdamental. RecommeNdation. I think I’ve cleared all the extra capital Ns out of the middles of words, but oops.

  5. My favorite article on the fraught dangers of naming characters is ‘Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan’ by Tom Simon. His first example of bad naming sense is quite striking:

    “I am sorry to make a bad example of my friend Jonathan Moeller, but when I first began to read his Demonsouled series, and the first two characters I met were called Mazael and Gerald, I was thrown out of the story long enough to cry aloud to the unheeding night: ‘Mazael is good; Mazael is right and proper. There ought to be a fantasy hero named Mazael, and now, thank God, there is one. But why on earth is he hanging out with someone whose name is a foreign monstrosity like Gerald?’ In Le Guin’s terms, Mazael is from Elfland and Gerald is from Poughkeepsie, and there needs to be some explanation of how they ever came to meet.”

    I, too, keep a list of names in every letter of the alphabet. I also tend to search for name meanings and give my character a name that reveals a facet of their character. Or I just string letters together until they look right. There’s not one right way to name characters, in my opinion, but if you’ve named your character ‘Pug’ you had better explain *why* you would commit such a travesty . . . and why he hasn’t changed his name.

  6. Scrivener has a Name Generator option, which can help if you’re looking for a name for a side character. My most recent ms has a character who’s Finnish, and by golly Scrivener was able to provide one. (Though it let me down when I tried to find a French name.)

    I’ve created Fantasy names inadvertently through the odd typo or two.

  7. Keep count of the letters.

    (The worst part is that X, Z, and Q might as well not be there.)

    OTOH, remember that generic names like Jack can hit a kind of archetypical status.

  8. I’d forgotten the excellent Tom Simon essay, which is here

    In it he offers Terry Brooks’ wizard Allanon as the worst offender, although sounding exactly like some other word is different from a name that just sounds bad. Pug, I suppose, is a twofer.

    Yes, when Strider started as Trotter he was a hobbit. If I recall correctly, he was a grim and serious hobbit, who wore wooden shoes to hide the marks of the Enemy’s torture.

    Tolkien would be the first to admit he tended to revise too much, but you have to give him credit for revising out bad ideas. Frodo was named Bingo Baggins for a while, my hand to God.

  9. That’s a great article by Tom Simon.

    Bingo Baggins, wow. I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than Trotter.

  10. @ Mary Catelli, (The worst part is that X, Z, and Q might as well not be there.)

    I’ve been reading a lot of Chinese webnovels lately and sometimes it seems like X, Z, and Q are the most favored letters! The worst part is that names like Xie Lian and Xianle look so similar in English but might in fact be written very differently in Chinese. And two people might have names transliterated exactly the same way in English but be written with different characters in Chinese. (There are multiple ways to write the name Ying, for example, and a book might have two different people who use those different renderings, but it’s impossible to convey in English translation!)

  11. I guess if I were going to have to translate a book with two characters named Ying … hmm. I guess if I were translating that story into English, I’d probably ask if it would be all right to re-name one of the characters. The German edition of the Griffin Mage trilogy has different spellings for quite a few names because to a German reader, the names would look weird or stupid. (That’s not quite how the German editor put it, but that’s obviously what they meant.)

  12. Well, with those Chinese names using different spelling/characters for the same sound, why not do the same in translation?
    Xian and Ksian, Ying and Jing should work for those two pairs. Not as great a difference as you’ld ideally want, but better than identical names!

  13. I would be leery of changing Chinese names significantly in translation mostly because it mirrors the (sometimes traumatic) experience many Chinese people encounter when English-speaking people mangle their names in real life. In the translated webnovels I’ve read, I’ve sometimes seen a translator add a footnote that, for example, this “Ying” is written differently and means something different to that “Ying.” Also, many books always use a character’s full surname + personal name (so, Wei Ying versus Lang Ying) which helps a lot too. But it does take some adjustment for the eye accustomed to English names!

  14. Oh, yes, using the full surname-personal name sounds like an ideal solution — as long either of the names is very different, that sounds like a much better option!

  15. Re: Pug, it’s been a very long time since I read the first Riftwar book, and I never read the rest, but IIRC he started out as a young kitchen slaveboy when he was given that name, and he kept it to remind him of his humble origins. An explanation of sorts, though it remains jarring.

  16. Hanneke, yes, but I don’t care, any more than I care why Pratchett called that character Carrot.

    The decision process ought to go like this: “Hey, this character has humble origins, so he should have a humble name. Let’s see, how about Pug. No, ugh, that’s a terrible name regardless of his humble origins. How about xxxxx? Yes, that’s much better.”

  17. *laugh* I once named a male character a FEMALE name and didn’t realise for several years. By that stage, he’d been “Elen” for so long that he wouldn’t let me change it, and I just managed to justify it *somewhat* by making him named for his mother. (However, nobody’s called me out on it, so clearly it’s such a rare name that nobody knows the way it’s supposed to go anyway. Or maybe it’s because it’s a fanfiction piece and therefore it doesn’t have a huge readership).

    Another character in that same piece is named Rajeshwar Mukhopadhyay… simply because I love the nickname “Rajah” and needed his REAL name to be impossible to pronounce… particularly in a hurry. So impossible names DO sometimes work. But only if they’re hardly ever used in favour of a much easier nickname. Or if, as in Walter Moers’ Zamonia books, the whole POINT of them is to poke fun at the whole idea. Echo is a sensible name for a protagonist who’s something along the lines of a talking cat, but in the same book we meet Theodore T. Theodore (we never find out what the middle T stands for; Echo doesn’t dare ask in case it stands for “Theodore”) , Vlad the First through Vlad the Six Thousand Nine Hundred And Twenty-Eighth, Succubius Ghoolion, Izanuela Anazazi… and in another book we briefly encounter a character named something like Klapaan Kapplakaan Plankaplakaan. I kid you not. And it’s hilarious (the character belongs to a group of nomads who strictly follow rules that were laid down by a madman). :-)

  18. Well, in a fantasy novel, “Elen” would probably look pretty much okay for a male character — though “Ellen” would look a bit out of place! I don’t know, maybe your readers took “Elen” as a more ambiguous name, not as clearly female as “Ellen.”

    That’s a clever and believable justification for a nickname. I’m going to have to remember that, especially if I accidentally give a character a name that turns out to be a bad choice. I hadn’t thought of just tossing the name and using a nickname! Next time I will remember that option.

    I have to admit, I would absolutely have asked Theodore T Theodore what his middle name was — and I would have hoped it WAS Theodore! That reminds me very much of Major Major Major Major in Catch-22.

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