Having recently been on the topic of names, I figured I’d talk a little about creating them. One troubling thing that comes with writing a fantasy, sci-fi or futuristic piece is coming up with character names. If your story is set on a distant planet, it’s not very likely that you’re going to have an abundance of Bobs and Alices. Although you may not think it, there are times when you have to put some serious thought into a name.
So, what kind of things can we consider when making up our own fantasy character names?
There’s every chance you know a little bit of French, or maybe some Spanish, Japanese or German… no matter how limited your comprehension of a language, just knowing the prominent sounds and a few key words is a good start. One prime example is J.K. Rowling’s character Voldemort, from her Harry Potter series. As you probably know, it’s a French phrase combined into one word: ‘Vol de Mort’ or otherwise, ‘Flight from Death’. Of course, you have to make sure your translations are sound once you do pick a name; you don’t want to have any awkward mistakes in there. But widening your knowledge of the world’s languages can be very inspirational when naming your characters.
Let’s take a look at another contemporary example - The Hunger Games. I’m going to use Peeta Mellark for this one. Peter: phonetically, ‘Pee-ee-ter’ or ‘Pee-ee-ta’. Condensed? Peeta! This especially works well for futuristic works because names evolve all of the time, and different spellings and versions of once common names crop up year-by-year. The variation in dialect and accents across the world also transforms a name like Peter to Petah. Focusing on the sound behind any given name can change it from something ordinary, to a totally different title altogether.
This might seem like a strange tip, but you’d be surprised how many character names are related to plants/herbs. Back to The Hunger Games, there’s Katniss and her sister Primrose, little Rue, the tribute Clove… all in one book! The botanical names of plants and trees, whilst maybe unsuitable for our characters in their purest form, can also be a great source of inspiration. Thinking about it, a lot of names are taken from things in the world around us. Descriptions of name meanings tend to begin with ‘Derived from the ______ meaning ______’ and in the second blank it could be something ordinary like ‘stone’, ‘field’, ‘grass’… Tolkien’s fantasy names from his Sindarin language are comparable at times: Legolas translates to ‘green leaves’. People have also taken to using names we give to certain types of weather, precious stones and even fruit when considering baby names! You can consider the same for your characters.
When naming humanoid characters who have attributes that separate them from regular humans, it’s a good idea to look at names that have (mostly) fallen into disuse. A character with other-worldly powers or allure will often have connections to the distant past. It’s why Rowling and Collins (as my main examples) can get away with naming so many of their characters with Roman cognomens. The target audience doesn’t have to be majoring in Ancient History to recognise these Latin titles, but the names are almost ‘renewed’ due to how rarely we hear them in our day-to-day lives. In an alternative universe piece, it’s these more flamboyant, unusual names that set your ‘different’ humanoid characters apart from the ordinary humans. The same applies to angel characters, and the use of Biblical names.
This is something done again and again in works of fiction. There’s the obvious example of Snow White and the seven appropriately named dwarves, and then more subtle attempts such as Rowling’s use of the name Severus on Severus Snape. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the name is so befitting, but it works well for all it might seem obvious. So long as you juxtapose this with writing your character well, then there’s no reason why you can’t do it. Just don’t let your reader’s interpretations rely heavily on the title. If Grumponius is going to be grumpy, he has to act it!
Of course, there’s every chance some of your fantasy characters have a human or alternative name. That’s an acceptable thing to do as well. If your main setting is earth and your character won’t ever have to rely on their true title, then that’s fine as well. There are also those that are an exception to the rule of their kind and have a name that doesn’t match their surroundings at all.
Making up character names doesn’t have to be a chore! It can be really fun just seeing what you come up with, even if it doesn’t make the final cut.