Wardscrawl: The Name Game

Every writer has a bête noire. Some grapple with synopses, others with character development, and yet more with the long, dreaded edit once the manuscript is done. Mine comes much earlier, when it’s time to name the characters. And I’m not alone. I’ve seen names go back and forth like a tennis rally while people wrestle with imponderables of character or tone. While naming never gets easy, it does get less difficult with practice.

I particularly struggle with naming men. Don’t know why. Some of it’s probably because there are lot more interesting women’s names out there to riff of. Don’t believe me? Take a look at just how many variants there are on Elizabeth, or Helen. To my ear, a lot of women’s names balance nicely between terse and pretentious. Men’s names? Not so much. They’re at one end of the scale or the other. But I digress…

Names are important. A good name has resonance, either with the character itself, or the world in which he or she lives. The shape, the sound, the texture – all of these things add to the reader’s growing store of knowledge, so it’s important to get a name right. Not perfect, because as we all know, perfection is unattainable – or at the very least subjective.

So, how do I grapple with this one?

As far as I can tell, there are two solid starting points for pulling together a character’s name.

The Naming Convention

The first is to work within a naming convention. You see this a lot in Tolkien. Hobbits have soft, indolent – sometimes comedic – family names, such as Gamgee, Bracegirdle and Proudfoot (Proudfeet!) that evoke the quiet pace of life in the rural Shire. Head further east, to Bree, and the naming convention grows even stronger. Characters have names taken from plants and ferns, like Butterbur, Ferny, Heathertoes, Rushlight, and so on. None of it’s meant literally. Matt Heathertoes doesn’t have heathery toes (probably), but it helps highlight Bree’s rural nature.

Head out of Bree, to Rivendell, Rohan, Gondor and the like, and the naming conventions change again. Characters aren’t named for the things that exist around them, but for desirable traits, or scenes from nature. The latter might seem quite similar to the Bree-landers’ way of doing things, but as Tolkien filters these names through the language of those lands, the reader ends up with distinct shapes and sounds that mean it’s often easy to tell which land a character is from before being formally told.

This is not only a clever trick – half of writing is trying to tell your reader something without actually telling them – but it provides the writer a roadmap for creating new names. By creating the naming convention, you’ve a set of rules you can handily re-apply. More than that, it gives your world cohesion – without doubt, the interplay of language and names is one of the key reasons Middle-earth is so compelling.

You’ll also notice that Hobbits and Bree-landers alike have names like our own, with given names and surnames used alongside – Frodo Baggins, Peregrin Took, Ted Sandyman, and so on – while those from more distant lands have only a single given name, such as Boromor, Imrahil or Haldir. This is a clever trick, associating the reader more closely with the addled-witted hobbits whose lifestyle is a mirror of our own, than the darker, legendary lands further south and east.

As the Bree example shows, you can create a naming convention quite handily in your native language, providing you’ve a strong enough theme. But what if you want an entirely invented naming convention, like those that exist in Gondor and Rohan? Or might exist in that fantasy world, or alien race you’re creating? How do you build that without full-on creating a whole language (which is a touch time-consuming)?

First, have a think about the sounds you want your names to include – especially the vowels. E and I tend to give lighter, more ethereal names – particularly when used alongside L and S – whereas O and U create fuller, deeper ones. A often creates a resonance of strength –especially in combination with short, hard consonants like D, B and P. Have a play with a few combinations, and build up some syllables, and then whole words. You’ll soon find shapes and sounds you like.

From there, it’s simply a matter of picking the ones you like the most, and applying them to your characters.

If you want a dirty trick to help tie your names together, forbid yourself access to five or six letters from the alphabet, including at least one vowel. This will press your names closer and closer together, giving a strong foundation. Consider it to be a bit like heraldry. If you take a look at medieval heraldry, you’ll see that the same colours get used again and again. Green is incredibly rare, and half-tones such as orange and purple are almost entirely non-existent.

Sure, there are plenty of practical reasons behind this, but the upshot is that an array of knightly shields can have as many designs as there are stars in the sky, but still the commonality of colour – or, more precisely, the absence of certain colours – binds them all together. That’s what you’re aiming for in a naming convention. Even in writing, you can use negative space to create a larger image.

The Evocative Name

The second way to crack the name game is to have your character’s name mean something, or actively tell you about the character. This is a common trait in a lot of fantasy, where the name isn’t so much a name, but a statement of deeds. We’ve all seen them. Bob the Bloody, Bob Headsplitter, and so on.

Like I said, these types of names are common as muck in fantasy settings – particularly those operating in a setting comparable to the European Dark Ages where an individual’s personal legend is more important than his lineage. But they do appear in sci-fi, too. There’s one particularly famous example that I’ll come back to later.

You might be thinking that names of this kind lack for subtlety, and you’re right. But sometimes, that’s okay. If a chap allows himself to be known as Bob the Skullcruncher, then you can make a pretty good bet as to what he enjoys doing, and give him a wide berth. It doesn’t work so well with more contemporary characters, however, who generally go by lineage-based names, rather than titles. But can you play the same trick? Sure you can.

One way to do so, is to trawl around for a name that has a tie to the trait (or sometimes destiny) you associate with the character you’re naming. Most given and family names have meaning – sometimes the reader has an unconscious understanding of that meaning, just from who has borne the name in history. Pretty much any name ending in ‘ric’, has regal connotations, for example. Maybe your reader will pick up on it, maybe they won’t. But it’s important to remember that you’re not just world- and character-building for your reader – you’re doing so for yourself, too, to build confidence in what you’re creating.

(Sometimes you get to this point by happy coincidence. Shadow of the Raven’s Edric Saran has an accidental kingly name. Unconscious competence for the win.)

The other option is to invent a surname based on your character’s personality or desires. That sci-fi example I mentioned earlier? It has a protagonist who dreams of slipping the surly bonds of the planet where he grew up, and is a talented pilot… a Skywalker, you might say. And he ends up in the company of an outwardly-selfish smuggler who prefers to go it alone… or Solo, perhaps. I happen to think these are clever, efficient names (certainly more so than most of the random noises that comprise most Star Wars names), but your mileage may vary. Either way, they’ve become iconic, and that’s what every writer wants, surely?

The Most Important Bit

Okay. So far, I’ve discussed a couple of guidelines, but now we come to an actual rule. It’s very simple: Almost all names sound awful the first couple of times you hear them. Honest.

Sure, sometimes you’ll hit that perfect note first try, but most of the time you’ll look down at what you’ve written with mild disgust. Thing is, that changes. A lot of the time, that indescribable dislike comes not because the name isn’t suitable, but because it’s unfamiliar. Take my advice, walk away for a bit, let it settle in your brain. After a couple of days, if you’re starting to associate the character with the name, it’s probably the right one after all. If you still hate it, that’s when you go back to the drawing board.

 

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