Thursday, October 2, 2014

Naming Characters: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a fantastic discussion of character naming. Most of the participants began with the idea that they name characters on gut instinct, but we quickly started digging into what lies behind those gut instincts - and the resulting discussion was very interesting! There's so much hidden in our subconscious...

Very often, people like to have the name reflect the nature of the character. The choice of a name like "Cain" or "Thor" says something very specific, because these names already exist and bring along context ("baggage") with them. We made a list of six factors that can contribute to a choice of name.

1. intertextuality (a name that has occurred before in another context, literary or not)
2. onomatopoeia (emotional/semantic associations sound of the vowels and consonants making up the name)
3. etymology (the origins of the name-parts making up the word suggest meaning, as in Voldemort, wanting death)
3. personal experience with people who have the name
4. similarity to actual words (in English or another language)
5. ethnic or foreign language associations (the name is common to a particular cultural group)
6. gender associations (the pattern of female names ending in "a" for example)

We knew of several cases where authors had deliberately tried to break the gender-name pattern link. Using gender-neutral names can be confusing for some readers, but it worthwhile in many contexts, and overly uniform use of a particular gendered name pattern is unrealistic.

Morphology can be part of names. This is when different pieces of meaning get added onto a name through the addition of meaningful affixes (prefixes, suffixes, etc). Brian gave us the example of "Sim" which would have the suffix "on" added to it for males and "el" for females. There can also be honorific suffixes added. A great example of this from N.K. Jemisin is the following:

"My name is Yeine. In my people's way I am Yeine dau she Kinneth tai wer Somem kanna Darre, which means that I am the daughter of Kinneth, and that my tribe within the Darre people is called Somem."

We discussed how, if you are choosing to use names associated with a particular nationality or cultural group, it's a really good idea to research those names (start on Google, but don't stop there!). Tolkien used names that had actual literal meanings in the elven languages he created. My Varin world has names from at least three different language groups.

You can also take a look at alliteration if you have a reason to link names, and considering the metric compatibility (rhythm) of names is also valuable. Kimberley gave us the example "Brighton and Rice."

We looked at the phenomenon of Apostrophes! in fantastical names. They are overused, but still can make sense if they are motivated, like the apostrophes that abbreviate the Dragonriders' names in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books. In general, though, names don't need distracting decorations.

We also spoke about whether we should care if readers pronounce our names correctly. If the language used is an existing world language, then accuracy is a really good idea, especially for audio/podcasts. I myself made a recording of myself saying all the Japanese words in my Clarkesworld story "Suteta Mono de wa Nai" to make the task easier for the (awesome) narrator Kate Baker. Generally, if mispronunciation of the names in your book makes you cringe, consider having a pronunciation guide as part of the book.

It's best not to let names get too similar to each other. Often it's helpful not to have the same first letter for more than one character name - if you get three people in the same room, all with names starting with M, it can be very confusing. You can also vary number of syllables, and final consonants.

Sometimes you'll find you need to alter a name mid-process, when it comes into a context where it bears too much similarity to another name. This happened to me quite recently when I discovered Yaniss and Innis were too similar in sound, so I changed the first name to Yanir. I also went through a process of spelling-changing when readers had trouble with the name Tagret, reading it as "Target." I tried a whole bunch of alternatives before landing on "Tagaret" (like Margaret).

We also spoke briefly about nicknames. Some people hate seeing them in fiction; others don't. Some cultures use nicknames a lot, while others tend to do so less. Nicknames are full of interesting information about community membership and relationships. They can mark people as insiders. They can also give people a very different feel for a character, revealing something about the difference between the way outsiders view them, and the way insiders do.

Join us next week, Thursday, 8/9/14 to meet guest author Jenn Brissett and learn about the worldbuilding in her new book, Elysium!

Here's the video:



  1. I spend quite a bit of time ensuring my characters' names sound right. If I can find existing ones with a meaning, then I will use those. Often the meanings are lost to the readers, but I know what they mean. Making them up, in a totally created world, takes much longer and more care. However, I tend to diverge only slightly from the present world.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Roland!

  2. One of my favorite things to figure out about a culture is also what is the significance of names? For example, in my fictional nation of Vardin, there are different subcultures, one of which does a great deal of world travel. Names are very fluid to them. They have working names in addition to their personal name and translate the meaning of their name into whatever language is native to the area they're in. They do have names in their own native tongue, but predictably, they aren't very attached to being called a particular thing.

    1. That sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing it!