Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding Names

This post was originally written and posted January 26th, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

And so, with the death of the king, the land fell into darkness. Bereft of the powers of light carried by his crown, evil filled the kingdom, spreading suffering and death in its wake. The people despaired as their once peaceful, idyllic lives were beset by crime, villainy, and evil. The once-chancellor Valkeriank—

“Wait, what?”

The chancellor. Valkeriank. You know, the one who murdered the king?

“Well, yeah, but what kind of name is Vala— … Valker— … Valla-something?

What’s wrong with it? It’s a perfectly ordinary name

“It doesn’t look like it.”

Well it is. Now, to continue with the story. As I was saying, the once-chancellor Valkeriank, assisted by his henchman Grotkkv—

“Okay, now that’s just ridiculous.”

What?

“Gro—Grot-kk— … Yeah, I have no idea how to pronounce that. Grot-kiv? Gro-tik-vee? And who spells a name like that? It’s got two Ks in it!

It’s a perfectly acceptable name in this kingdom.

“The king’s name was Jack.”

So?

“So what kind of kingdom has a range of names from ‘Jack’ to ‘Valkerwink’ and whatever that last one is?”

A multi-cultural one.

“Right. You sure you’re not just making stuff up? And what other cultures? The map at the front of the book doesn’t talk about any other lands! There’s just “The Known Kingdom.”

Oh, they’re out there. Look, can we just move on? You’re making this very difficult.

“Fine.”

Ahem. As I was saying, assisted by his henchman Grotkkv, the chancellor ruled with an iron fist. The only hope of the people was a name.

“Is it a real name?”

Shut up. Anyway, the only hope of the people during this time was the missing prince, Prince Shadow—

“What. The. Abomination.”

Oh, now what are you on about?

“Prince Shadow? Could you get any more cliche?”

What? It’s a perfectly fitting name! He’s like shadow of justice, moving through the night. Brooding and mysterious! It’s edgy!

“So his dad—who’s name was Jack, just to reiterate to make sure I’m not pronouncing it? It’s not Ja’ack? No, anyway, so his dad, the king, looks at his baby son and says ‘I’m going to name him Shadow?'”

Yes.

“I … You know what? Fine. Move on.”

I’d like to. Now, the only hope of the people during this time was the missing prince, Prince Shadow, a noble warrior who fought against evil …

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Nothing, nothing. Anyway … And so, all across the kingdom of Lt’Namur’ik””t’sephat—

“That’s it! I’m done!”

What? What did I do? Was it too few apostrophes? I knew it! It was too few, wasn’t it! It doesn’t feel authentic enou—hey, where are you going? We’ve only just started! We’re not even off of the first page? There’s still two-hundred and seventy-four more to go! Don’t you want to hear what happens when Prince Shadow faces the dark beast of the Undershadows? In the dead land of Y’rrr’itquart? You’ll love it! Come on! You’re missing out!

Names. They’re kind of a big deal, which is why we’re talking about them today (in case you hadn’t guessed). Because despite how entertaining that little clip above you might have been, a good chunk of the humor in it comes from having been that poor reader. You know, the one who suffers through names of places that have way too many apostrophes. Or the place name that’s completely unpronounceable. Or the character name that just entirely shatters the mold of the world simply because the author wanted them to have a cool name.

This happens all the time. And I’m not just talking about among internet fiction either, though it’s definitely a really common occurrence there (Raven Darkshadow, anyone?). No, this happens in plenty of published works as well. It seems that almost any time an author tries their hand at writing a science fiction or fantasy novel, one of the first things they do is just start coming up with crazy names just for the sake of having crazy names. Names that don’t mesh up with anything else.

It’s a turn off. Not just for the reasons that most of us would think either. Most of the time when you hear someone talking about bad names and a book, it’s usually because they couldn’t pronounce them, which is a problem in and of itself. But there’s a deeper problem at root there, one that likely will ripple through the entire work: If an author isn’t spending time developing his character and place names, there’s a pretty high chance that the rest of the work will have been given the same lack of thought. If an author has spent their time worldbuilding, one of the easiest ways to see that will be in how the characters are named.

For instance, have you ever picked up a work that’s supposed to be a fantasy epic set in it’s own, self-contained world, and found that the main characters are named things like “John, Mary, Elizabeth, Dave, etc?” It’s a little jarring, because it breaks the immersive quality of the world. We’re supposed to believe that this world, entirely self-contained and different from ours, has everyone sharing the same names as ours? With no similar historical background?

I could go on and point out all the other ways that poor use of names can be jarring, but we’ve already seen a couple of them in our intro above there, so rather than do that I’m going to shift gears: We know what makes a bad name, but how do we go about making good names?

Now, just a bit of clarification, this is one area where all I can really offer is a bit of my own experience mixed with some things I’ve heard from other authors. Funnily enough, I can’t ever recall this coming up on a panel, in a class, or even in a conversation. Despite bad names coming up, I’ve never really heard advice on “good” names, so what I have to offer here is mostly what I’ve discovered on my own.

Think of Consistency
First things first, whatever name you do end up using for a character or place, it needs to fit into the universe. I cannot stress how jarring it is to a story when the reader is reading through all these either A) ordinary names for things only to find that the characters have crazy names or B) unique names for things only to find that the character’s names are ordinary. Ordinary or creative, your names need to fit into the world you’ve created. Consistency matters. If a character has an unusual name, let us know that it’s unusual and have other characters comment on it. If the reader questions it, than odds are a character might. If your character is the only one in their world with an apostrophe in his name, why? Why doesn’t everyone else have a name like that? Is there a special rule of naming that exists within that character’s culture?

Basically, what I’m saying here is that people choose names based on societal and cultural reasons, so make sure when you’re writing your work that you have a basic idea of what those are/might be like if you’re going to have interesting or complex names. You don’t have to invent a whole set of grammar rules (though some authors have done that), but you should at least have a general idea of how the naming conventions work. For example, if you’re basing a lot of your world’s language and syntax on ancient Nordic, don’t start hot-dropping Spanish into place without darn good reason.

Keep it Simple
Look, we all know that there are people out there with really crazy names. These happen, and are totally realistic. For example, my last name is Florschutz. So what does that mean for me?

It means that most people call me by my middle name rather than my last name. And those in the past who have attempted to stumble their way over my last name (due to a job or trying to be polite) usually either resort to using my first name or settling on a nickname (like Alaska).

My point is this: You can have complex names, but make your characters treat them like a real person would, both for your reader’s benefit and the benefit of the characters in the story. In the real world, we shorten Matthew to Matt, Elizabeth to Beth, etc. If your character has a long, complex-to-say-and-pronounce name, they’re probably going to go by a much more shortened version of it.

And even if they do have a long complex name, don’t make it too complex. A good rule of thumb to go by is that the average reader should feel fairly comfortable with their own guess of the pronunciation. If they’re second-guessing themselves every time they see a name, they’re getting distracted. Even if they mispronounce it, as long as they’re consistent in their own reading and not second-guessing it each time, they’ll be fine.

Make it Cool, but not Cool
All right, this one’s a bit odd, but I think it’ll make sense pretty quick. Basically, you want characters to have memorable, neat names. Names that will stick with people but still fit in-universe. Something that rolls off the tongue and sticks in a reader’s mind.

At the same time, you don’t want to create a “Poochy.” Like the “Prince Shadow” above, there’s a definite line between “Okay, this character has a cool but believable and real name” and “This author is trying too hard.” Usually it’s pretty easy to spot, but if you’re having trouble seeing it with your own creation, my advice is to err on the side of caution. People will still remember a character with a less-than-glamorous name for what they do, but most of what they’ll remember about a character with a name that’s too over the top will be the name (which, in a fun turnabout, you can totally use to your advantage if you’re the type who wants to subvert something).

Look at How We Name Things
This is a fun one. A lot of the time, a great way to get a name for that city or for that character is just to look at how we (humans) name things. New York? Phoenix? What about people? How have common names changed just in the last forty years? Hundred years? Can we play with that? What would happen if once again a name got commonly attributed with one sex switched to the other? Could we end up with someone like Jayne from Firefly?

And don’t be afraid to attach meaning. With people, this can be a mixed bag, but especially for place names, things can be a bit more lenient. I mean, Death Valley? Los Angeles? Salt Lake City? Again, if you think you’re going too far, you might be. Keep an eye on things. But don’t be afraid to call the capital of the kingdom of King Don Arriciano the VII the city of Arrician.

Final Thoughts
This has all been a little less … streamlined, so to speak, than my other blogs, but I think you get the idea. Ultimately, you can’t just make up words and drop them into a story. You have to have some sort of background, some sort of logic and reason behind it. And while it seems like such a small thing, it really isn’t. Names are a place were you can win or lose a lot of readers, as the names you use will generally indicate what kind of work and effort you put into the rest of your story.

So, take your time and work on your names. Don’t just pick the first thing that comes to mind. Create names that are consistent with the universe you’ve made. Pick names that are both memorable but quick to recollect, names that are distinguishable. Make them readable, something your audience can latch onto and identify with.

It might seem small, but in the big scheme of things, it’s a small step towards starting out on the right foot.

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