I’m rolling up my sleeves and preparing to write a series of posts on Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction (feel free to shout out any questions you’d like to see addressed!) In the meantime, though, I want to use this week’s post to talk about something near and dear to my heart: Naming schemes for characters in speculative fiction.
I am an easily distractible reader. I’ll buy into your world-building — your social structure, your magical rules, your gleeps and glorps and things I’ve never seen — or even imagined — before in my life. But if you feed me a blatant inconsistency, I am shoved out of your story faster than it takes for me to type this sentence.
For example, one fantasy series I otherwise love has its pre-industrial characters heading off to take a long, heated shower on the third floor of a country inn. (Um, how did the water get transported to the third floor? How was it heated? Why isn’t there any mention anywhere else in the entire series of indoor plumbing or of hydraulics?)
Another example: A character in an otherwise-medieval world picks up his briefcase and heads off to battle. Yes. Briefcase. Really.
Those minor events — neither is crucial to any plot point — threw me out of those stories so fast that I had to fight to get back in. But the real culprit in attention-stealing?
Names that don’t match a space or time. Names that don’t match each other. Names that I can’t keep straight. Names that make me fight for every single page as I read.
Now, I have a long history of doing battle with names. In my first fantasy series, The Glasswrights Series, social castes are indicated by length of names. Noblemen have names with five syllables; warriors have four-syllable names; guildsmen get three, merchants have two, and the Touched (the lowest caste, consisting of the poorest people) have one-syllable names. Oh, and the Thousand Gods have one-syllable names too. Yes, there’s a reason.
That naming scheme gave me fits at times. It was hard to make youthful or loving characters sound realistic as they chanted off five syllables to their colleagues. I needed to fit in some abbreviations, some accepted nicknames. (And I won’t even get into the fits I gave the narrator, for the recently-released audiobooks from Audible!)
But, ultimately, the names fit the story I had to tell.
In writing Darkbeast and its sequel, Darkbeast Rebellion, I thought about names for a long time before I began. I changed the naming scheme entirely three separate times. (In the original short story, which was the basis for the novel, I used cognates of French names.) Over time, I refined a system for naming my characters:
- Choose a language as the “home base” for names. (In Darkbeast, the people have names rooted in Celtic languages; the places and gods have names rooted in Latin.)
- Select individual names using those home base languages, awarding bonus points for meaning matching characteristics. (In Darkbeast, the main human character is named Keara, which means “dark” — an intentional parallel with the titular animals.)
- Review selected names to make sure they don’t share initial consonants or identical vowel patterns.
Step 1 provides some small guaranty that the names in your story will sound related to each other. Readers won’t be dumped out of your story by jarring shower-like, briefcase-like inconsistencies. For example, if you name your first four characters Aelfigu, Brecc, Cwene, and Ethelred, you’d better have a good reason for naming the fifth character Madison. Or Brandi, with an i (you know, the traditional spelling.)
Step 2 isn’t mandatory, by any means, but it creates fun resonances for you as a writer. Not all your readers will catch what you’ve done, but those who do will marvel at your genius.
Step 3 sometimes forces a revision in Steps 1 and 2. That revision is almost always worthwhile, though, as an aid to readers. If I write about four brothers — Edgar, Edmund, Edward, and Edwin — how hard are my readers going to have to work to keep them straight? If there is a reason to name your characters so similarly, it better be a very strong one, one that is worth all that reader-labor.
So. What naming strategies do you use in your work? What speculative fiction have you read where the names seem particularly well-chosen?
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