Being a Better Writer: Names

Bit of a shorter post today, as it’s Thanksgiving week here in the US and I’m trying to set myself up for a trip to visit the relatives. With that in mind, no time to socialize: let’s dive right into it!

So, naming things. This is, as you might guess, a requested topic. And to be honest, I think it’s one worth talking about.

See, naming things can actually be pretty tricky. When creating a world from scratch, or even just a redesigned/repurposed version of our own world, often one of the first things a lot of young writers do is assign their characters, places, and things very interesting names. It’s kind of a trope by this point, but if I had to guess my prediction would be that to the new writer, the goal is to excitedlyshow you how fantastical their world is. So they don’t have people with names like Joe or Samantha. They have people with names like Krul’Qa’pin or something like that.  And they live in the city of Byulnqualalaltipo! Aren’t those fantastic?

Well, in sense, sure. They’re also completely unpronounceable, for a start. And that is just the start.

See, there are a host of problems with names like this. The first being that they’re difficult for the reader to read, pronounce, and parse. They’re these very out there, fantastical names that are hard to make sense of, and the more of them a writer puts into his story, the harder it will be not only for the reader to keep interest, but to keep everything straight. Especially if the writer has gone and made a number of the names similar through conventions such as “I’ll stick apostrophe’s here and here and that’ll make a name.” And while it certainly might create names that look impressive, the truth is that a lot of “name creation techniques” that novice writers go for tend to create a whole host of problems like what we just discussed.

Okay, so this is writing that, if not bad, is certainly not good, clearly. But in order to avoid this trap, it’s worth understanding why it’s a trap in the first place. Why are writers doing this? What makes creating a multi-syllable name that defies typical English attractive?

One of the answers is complexity. A lot of young authors want to prove that they can create a varied, complex world with a lot of different  worldbuilding. They want to reader to see and know how good they are at this, how much thought they’ve put into creating this book you’ve picked up. And so they take city, people, and in many cases the names of ordinary things and give them complex, convoluted names as if to remind you “Hey, look how creative this is!” Since names are some of the first things a reader encounters, nothing will tell them how much work you’ve put into the world like having the name of the very first location they read be Kar’daski’asuur’l.

Another reason is to jar the reader and remind them that they’re reading Fantasy or Sci-Fi. Sometimes it’s not just to say “look at how complex this world is” but instead a  case of “look how different this world is!” A reminder that “Hey, this world isn’t yours! Isn’t that cool?” In other words, it’s almost insecurity on the author’s part. They do something like swap out a common English (or whatever language they’re writing in) word (such as pants, no joke) for something strange and alien as if to say “LOOK AT HOW DIFFERENT I AM! HOW COOL IS THIS!” when all they’ve really done is given you a large, ridiculous word to stumble over every time something ordinary comes up. I won’t discuss this one later for time, so I’ll sum this one up here: unless you find a very, very good reason to do this—such as to show an individual’s unfamiliarity with a language—don’t.

Finally (and understand we’re skipping other, smaller reasons for time today), a big reason a lot of young writers do this is because they’re mimicking the footsteps of other authors. A lot of these young writers have grown up in the genre, reading things like Tolkien or Jordan, and it’s hard to forget for them that both of those authors (and a lot of others) do have a lot of strange, fantastical names running through their works, and they want to be like the authors they idolize. So when the time comes for them to write they “mimic” their favorite authors in creating names (this and Tolkien, I’m convinced, are the root of so many names with apostrophes everywhere).

The thing is, none of these are really good reasons for creating a good name, nor are they solid places to start when building names. Because when you come right down to it, a lot of those reasons for creating names don’t at all mesh with why cultures create names.

First of all, look at complexity, and then look at the names of many places you know in your country. How many of them are overdone, complicated names … and even then, how many of those complicated names have been simplified for convenience’s sake?

No, what’s complicated is how a name becomes a name, not how the name is said. Writers that pick a complex name based on its complexity miss the point when building their world. Rather than asking “How can I use this name to show how complex my world is?” what they should instead be asking is “How did this city/place/person get this name?” and thereby build those complicated elements. By tracking a name backwards (okay, this city started out as a small trading post named for a trader named Larn, which became Larn’s Keep, which then was shortened over time into Larkeep) you not only build a name that sounds real, but you actually create a history behind it that is far more real than simply tacking a name to a city because it sounds impressive.

But of course, it’s worth keeping in mind that if you are creating an alien world that some of these names might end up being complicated anyway. After all, what about Tolkien and those other complex-named authors?

Again, this is a case of working backwards. While a lot of Tolkien’s names seem complex (and full of apostrophes—Strike this, it was hyphens and accent marks Tolkien used, not apostrophes), Tolkien could do it because all of these names were internally consistent with their own rules of language, which Tolkien created. You’ll see similar in other grand, complex works of fantasy. Those authors aren’t just assigning breaks and sounds willy-nilly, but rather crafting a whole set of language rules which those names (as well as other words in that language) must follow. Which is actually why they may be complex but still work far better than the average newcomer’s attempt to mimic the style. Mimicry of something like Tolkien’s apostrophes hyphens and accents will create a complex mess with breaks and symbols thrown in where it sounds or looks cool, while actually reading Tolkien’s names will show a regular pattern that a reader can adjust to and pick up on, luring them into the world as they read.

Okay, so then how to go about crafting some cool names for things? Well, here are the rules I’ve found that serve me well when coming up with my own.

First, keep it simple. No joke. This one can be a bit hard to parse, but it especially applies to names for characters and places. Keep in mind that this is going to be a name that people say with some routine in your world, so even if it has a complex form, it’ll likely be simplified by a lot of people (just as we let Samantha or Richard become Sam or Rick). Especially if you’re creating a name for your main characters, make it something that readers can easily read and (hopefully) pronounce.

For example, the first name of one of the main characters in Shadow of an Empire is Salitore. Not too removed from some names in our own day, but too many syllables for most to say over and over, hence why in the book, the main character is frequently referred to by a shortened form : Sali. While there may be some who debate over pronunciation, the name is still straightforward and quick to both recognize and read.

Second, keep the names grounded and internally consistent. Don’t fall into the trap of “Aerith and Bob” where you give some places incredible, fantasy-esq names and then give others very plain and simple names without reason. Keep internal consistency. For example, what vowels or vocal sounds are going to be common in your culture? What written rules will they follow? You don’t have to go die-hard crazy with this (I sure don’t) but at the same it helps to make sure that names follow certain conventions. Griffons in Beyond the Borderlands, for example, had a lot of names with a hard sound in the first syllable, such as Stal, Kalos, or Arcos. This gave their naming convention a loose rule (certainly not all of their names did) that added to their culture. Making sure that your names are grounded in the culture you’ve created and internally consistent can help keep them feeling real to your reader as well as fleshing out your world.

Third, make it fit. I feel less needs to be said about this one, but play with your names a little. Say them aloud, try the pronunciation out. Does it fit? Does it sound right while still rolling off the tongue? I’ve muttered names to myself before and then discarded them because they don’t fit a character or place. Don’t be afraid to give it a whirl aloud.

Lastly, and this is, of course, another rule to take with some salt, don’t be afraid to have a little bit of fun. We can play with names to do clever things and raise the reader’s eyebrow (such as having a male character called Sali—though in-universe it makes perfect sense) while still keeping them consistent and straightforward. We are in a fantastic world, after all. Experiment a little.

So, in creating a name be sure to 1) Keep it simple, 2) Keep it consistent with your world, 3) Make it fit, and 4) Have a little fun with it. Build your background. Create the complexity, rather than mimicking it. Follow the evolution of language.

And have fun. And a Happy Thanksgiving if you’re celebrating it. See you next week!

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4 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Names

  1. I usually stick with easy to pronounce names, or with sci fi, fantasy ones that are easy on the eyes. Although it can be nightmare I’ve discovered with working out the minor details such as world currency

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    • Ah crud. That’s what I get for making a speedy post. I’ll rectify as soon as I get computer access. Corrected, it’s hyphens and accents he makes heavy use of, which likely inspired in later fantasy (such as Dungeons and Dragons) the mass apostrophe cult. I’ll retract one I get to a computer and clarify that ASAP.

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