Thursday, October 7, 2010

Talking about Names

While preparing my epic fantasy novel for the writing sprint known as National Novel Writing Month, the topic of names has resurfaced. Names can be difficult with a new novel for a number of different reasons. Some people have an easier time coming up with their character names while others struggle to pick the perfect name for each of the important characters of the story. Sometimes it's an issue with finding a new novel for those that start many different projects/stories, or it can just be finding the right one because a placeholder name just isn't the same as having the perfect name that really fits a character. So, let's talk about character names.

Where/How to find/create character names

Different Approaches: as stated above, different people have different approaches. For some, like my bf, the names just come to them. They think of a character and the name just appears ready for use. It doesn't matter the type of character for them either. Vampire, detective, teacher, child... they are all the same. For others, it's almost headache inducing with long periods of struggle in order to find the right name. I fall in both categories. There are times when I've just had a name pop into my head and I enjoy those times. However, there are plenty of times where it's not easy. So, I've used a number of different methods to come up with character names in novels and short stories.

The placecard name: This is where a general name or description is used until a better, actual name can be determined for a character (place, object, etc). I don't like to use this more protagonists, usually. The good part of this method is that it doesn't halt a great writing spree. Putting something there to hold the place for a better name later on means the writer can keep going without worrying about it for the first draft. Not so much help for later drafts but hopefully by then a name can be found.

Research: Can be used for a variety of names. Common names don't always need research but it can help when looking for a new name to look at a baby name book as research. Historical names can be very important when wanting accuracy. There are also different web sites that can help with fantasy names. There are also web sites that have name generators. These can either be rather silly or somewhat useful, depending on the type of generator.
Web sites:

The problem with some names: 
In particular with fantasy names, there can be a problem with pronunciation and the names can come off as a little too random. I once had someone in a critique group say that my fantasy names were made up nonsense. However, those were names I had created through my research with each section of the name having a specific meaning. So, sometimes the meaning of a name will not correspond to what the reader will interpret. Names that are too long will take up a lot of space and eventually the reader may have issues with it, but those can often be shortened with fun nicknames. I plan to keep the elf name I'd chosen for my main character because I think it's kind of fun for the one that is in denial of his sexual orientation to be called "feyn" as the shortened form of his name. 

There are also names that have already been taken that may cause problems for readers. I'll admit that in blogfests and even looking at fantasy books, if anyone names their main character Rand, I immediately think of the main character in The Wheel of Times series. I can't help it, that name belongs to that series in my mind and any other book using it will have problems.  Names can also make gender a little confusing. On twitter, I chatted with someone who had considered using the name Juniper for a male character. In Jr High I read two different YA fantasy books with the main character being a female named Juniper. It is, in fact, my favorite name for a female and I might even name a daughter that one day, if I ever have one. But I will have a hard time ever reading about a male Juniper. That's the problem with the common reader response criticism that most readers will bring with them to a book.

Where do you get your character names?
Are names easy?
What problems do you have with names?


Justin W. Parente said...

Hi Dawn!

I've always used the fantasy name generator. Like any generator, you can choose short, medium or long names; names that are consonant heavy and a variety of other things. It's a good source for straight fantasy names. They do generate some wacky names, but most are usable.

Here's the link: =""

coffeelvnmom said...

Ooh, fun! Love that we get to talk about this a little more! (And yes, I will admit to being the Juniper person! LOL!)

So with my MS FLORA (urban fantasy), there were three specific things that came into play.

1) I had to choose current names
2) I had to choose names that could pass as coming from another time.
3) A lot of the names I chose HAD to be names of plants.

Which meant the names had to do two things:

1) They had to be plausible as a male or female name

2) They had to have the correct meaning for the character

Some of the names were easy to choose (the MC's name is Dahlia), but others were harder. That was where Juniper came in. I was running out of names in a particular category, and I came across Juniper. As I was thinking of what a Juniper actually looks like, I personally didn't see it as a female kind of plant. It's an evergreen, with berries. To me, it just *seemed* like a male name. (Does that make sense?)

Anyway. I did decide against Juniper being a male name, for now. And who knows. After researching and learning what it means, I may be able to work that into a different MS;)

I think getting feedback from other people about names is a good thing - as long as most of the readers don't have a problem with the ones you've chosen, you should be okay. There's always going to be an occasional reader who might have a hard time with one, but if we do our job and make the names fit the characters', that's all that matters. :)

Dawn Embers said...

Justin - thanks for the link. Generators can be very useful in finding a name.

coffeelvnmom - wow! I think you stole the title of the longest blog comment on my blog from the last person. That is quite the comment. Ah, plant names. I'm actually allergic to juniper, which is a little ironic. I blame the book Juniper by Monica Furlong for my view of it as a female name. Great book. That is true about readers and in the end, not all will agree.

J. D. Brown said...

Awesome topic, not many people talk about how hard it is to find the right name. I'm one of those weirdos who gets really hung up on finding the perfect name for my characters.

I use this site:

It's awesome, it has names from all over the world and ever some ancient names. It tells you the meaning and also how the name came to be in case you need an older version of the same name.

Dawn Embers said...

J.D. - Thanks for the comment and the link. I've always used seventh sanctum or the baby name site for regular names, but that seems interesting too. Knowing the meaning is useful, for sure.

I should have posted the link for the angel/demon names, but that's on my old laptop so I'll have to eventually get it for this one.

L'Aussie said...

Dawn this is a great post on choosing names. I've been plugging your NaNo preparation and finding it invaluable..:)

Dawn Embers said...

L'Aussie - I'm glad to hear it's working for you.

coffeelvnmom said...

Oh, whoops. Sorry the comment was so long.

This one is much shorter.;)