A King Named Sue: Picking Perfect (Character) Names

Susan J. Morris on August 26, 2012

Writersdontcry NamesNames have power. And no one knows the power of names like those in the public eye. Why else would Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta go by Lady Gaga, Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Mark Twain, and Frederick Austerlitz by Fred Astaire? One of the first things you learn about someone, names can help you stand out or blend in. They can be the difference between coming off as authoritative, elegant, or cutesy. They speak to your heritage, and people assume they say something about your character. And as a boy named Sue knows, if you have a strange name, the reactions it causes can have a huge effect on your life.

It’s amazing what a difference a name can make! Based just on a name, we, unfairly or not, get an instant impression of someone. And even though we typically don’t get to choose our own names, what we choose to be called still tells you a lot about a person. Does your character go by one, two, three, or four names? Is a title part of that name? Does he go by a nickname, a nom de guerre, or just his last name? Does he flip the hell out when another character calls him “Mr.” instead of “Dr.”? All of these things tell you something about a character.

There’s a lot to consider when naming your characters. But luckily, if there’s one thing writers have sunk more research into than perfect first lines, it’s perfect character names. So, pulling from the knowledge of the ages, here are just a few things to think about that should help you zero in on the best names for each of your characters.

Is the Name Common?

The Damiens of the world will never escape that evil child’s shadow. The Lancelots all have quite a reputation to live up to. And that knight-errant named Madonna who adventures with a priest named Obama? Forget about it! By virtue of being on the unusual side, and being owned by significantly famous people, those names are now officially off limits. As are the names Drizzt, Belgarath, Katniss, and those of other famous fantasy people. Unless, of course, you are specifically referencing them.

You can run into something of a similar problem with common (fantasy and real world) names, in that people form strong impressions of even the most mundane of monikers. Anything Biblical, for instance, will have a different weight to it, and names foreign to a readership will also play differently than names culled from domestic sources. Of course, all real-world names will have personal associations, which you can accept, or else make up all the names in your books.

Can You Pronounce It?

Fantasy names have a reputation for getting a little out of hand. With hyphens, apostrophes, multiple names, and inventive capping, authors sometimes seem willing to do anything to help their characters stand out! But if a name is too long, too hard to spell, or too hard to pronounce, he or she will suffer the unfortunate indignity of getting a mental nickname along the lines of “Mr. S,” “Bad Dude,” or “Beardface.” No joke!

Names provide wonderful ways to play with a reader’s understandings and expectations and to give color to your fantasy world, but above all? They are meant to be easy ways to refer to characters. And the moment they stop doing that is the moment you know it’s time to cut Phauly’riaiticus back down to Paul.

Tip: If, for some reason, you must have an extraordinarily long and complex name, try to make it out of pieces we are used to seeing, like “ness”, “elle”, or ”son.” That makes the name both easier to remember and pronounce.

Avoid Similar Names

Even if you’re not writing the next seven-book saga penned entirely in Middle Elvish, fantasy demands a lot of its readers. Readers must pick up in passing complicated words for kingdoms, gods, monsters, people, things, magic, curses, and whatever else the writer deems flavorful. So that brilliant idea you had of having all the villains have similar-sounding names that all start with the same letter and are all the same number of syllables? Forcing your readers to take notes just to keep who’s who straight? That’s just plain cruel.

To avoid falling into this pitfall, keep a list of all your character names, spelled the way you want them spelled. Not only does it allow you to make sure that not everyone’s name starts with a D, it also makes an excellent cheat sheet for checking the spelling of your characters’ names later on.

Think About the Syllables

To take your names to the next poetic level, you may want to spend some time thinking about the rhythm and flow of your names—as well as how many names your character has and what order they appear in.

Jack. Ron. Jill. Single syllable names are strong, simple, and straight-forward. Two single syllable names together doubles down on the strong and removes the simple. Think James Bond and Grace Jones.

Harry. Hannah. Jordan. Two syllable names are standard fare—balanced names that blend in. Interestingly enough, according to a study by MIT, for men, it is more attractive to have a stressed front vowel syllable, and for women, a stressed end vowel syllable.

Vivian. Selena. Aria. Three syllable names are elegant and a touch mysterious without veering into indulgent excess. You don’t have to simplify these names to be a hero, though with a three syllable name, I get the impression your motives are more complex than that of a simple knight.

Hermione. Maximilian. DiCaprio. Four + syllable names are heavy and complex. They imply aristocracy, complexity, intelligence, and a slight sense of pretension. For some reason, they’re also much more likely to be the names of villains than heroes. For example, I imagine any hero named Maximilian would go by Max.

Unbalanced names, as when the first name and last name are different syllables, have an interesting effect. A single syllable last name seems to ground longer first names, like “Sirius Black,” but a longer last name can actually overshadow a short first name, like “Ann Hathaway.” Mess around with the syllables and the beat of different length names until you find one whose music suits your character. And don’t forget to play with forms of address and titles as well! Calling someone a Mister, Miss, Madam, Sir, Lady, Count, Duke, etc. radically changes the read on a name—Michelle d’Winter is a very different creature than Lady d’Winter.

The Personality of Letters and Sounds

Sounds have strong personalities. Names can sound delicate or strong, vapid or intelligent just based on their sounds. But letters—even when the sounds are virtually the same—can also make a huge difference in our perceptions. Sibilants tend to be sinister, lots of “a”s and “e”s and “i”s tend to be elegant, and exotic letters tend to be . . . exotic. And sometimes evil. Think about what a difference it makes when you end a name in an “i” rather than a “y,” like Patty and Patti or Amy and Ami. What immediately springs to mind? Or the difference between Zach, Zak, and Zack, or Erin, Aeryn, and Aaron (and please tell me you’re not putting all six in the same book!).

Of course’s it’s not just about the letters of a single name—it’s also about how the letters of all a character’s names and titles interact. Typically speaking, use consonants to ground a name, use vowels lighten it, and use alliteration thoughtfully, as if you’re not careful, it can make even the sternest name read a trifle silly.

Cultural Considerations

Names vary so delightfully with culture. Classrooms of students in France, Japan, and Russia will all have very different names—as will classes within the same country generation over generation. And as a name junkie, I love that. Even among just the English-speaking countries, the differences in names can be pretty stark. Just so, it’s important to think about the sounds, syllables, and varieties of names that belong to each fantasy culture in your world—as well as what constitutes an age-appropriate name. Someone from the elfy kingdom of Elfiness should have a different sounding name that someone from the dwarfy kingdom of Dwarfiness. You can do this by feel, but it’s also handy to come up with a cheat sheet for different kingdom names. (Also: this baby name site groups names by similarity, which is dead useful!)

And don’t forget—names in different cultures don’t always have the same construction. Perhaps the dwarves put an emphasis on family and clan first, so their “first” name is actually their clan name, followed by their family name, followed by their personal name. And perhaps the elves are matriarchal, so they take their mother’s name, or are called “daughter of Emily” instead of “son of John/Johnson” in their tongue. Or maybe they create a new last name for their child to symbolize the union between two clans—or give them both names, so they have four names.

Of course, fantasy isn’t always engaged in its never-ending love affair with the history of England. Sometimes it ranges into Ireland, Russia, Egypt, Japan, and more. The Killing Moon, for example, is an excellent example of an inspired, less Englandish fantasy. But when dipping your toes into the cultures of other countries for your fantastical inspiration, it’s super important to do your research.

Tip: Be aware of the origins and meanings of the names you use and do a cursory check to make sure your names aren’t curse words or anything gross in other languages—or even an unintended double-meaning in your own language. While a cool meaning or origin can add an extra layer to your characters, a bad one could really come back to bite you!

7 Ways to Brainstorm Names

  1. Baby name sites. (Here’s one of my favorites, with origins, meaning, popularity, groupings by similarity, and so forth.)
  2. Scan newspapers, film credits, maps, plant books, phone books, solar system books, video game credits, folk tales, and magazines for cool names (you may want to keep a notebook of them…)
  3. Dictionary Dickens’s Portmanteaus: play with the sounds from two dictionary words, like “Murdstone” a combination of “murder” and “stone.”
  4. Make a list of some of your favorite syllables on cards and play with them like magnetic poetry. (Beware: real babies may be named after your characters! Like, I’m pretty sure Drizzt and Raistlin were invented by the authors, and not found on a baby name site…)
  5. Use one of the thousands of fantasy name generators out there.
  6. Browse the Census Name Lists
  7. Browse rare word dictionaries.

Of course, though a name does have a surprising impact on first impressions, the strongest impression you can make with your characters is through their actions. A perfect name is just icing! So don’t worry about it too much if you can’t find the ideal syllables to suit your situation. Who knows? Your character could even redefine how people see their name!


Happy Writing!

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