What’s in a Name?

Mindy KlaskyMindy Klasky
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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.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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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41 comments to What’s in a Name?

  • Ken

    Hi there Mindy,

    Great post! After reading it, I discovered that not only do I need to get rid of the battle briefcase that features so prominately in my epic historical fantasy, but I’ve been following a similar system to naming characters that you have.

    I’ll choose a base language for a group of people that will present me with a high level look at the differences between populations and regions. I think it’ll also work in a large enough urban setting as well (Chinatown anyone?). A pleasant side effect of this is that sometimes I start thinking about what could have caused these difference. Secondly, I’ll pick some characters and base the meaning of the names on those character’s personalities. I don’t do this for every character, of course and I try and stay away from my biggest movers and shakers in the story for fear of tipping my hand, so to speak, but I might do it with a prominent secondary character.
    Then I’ll see how well the name rolls off the tongue and, unless I really, really want one, I’ll get rid of things like alliterative names and real tongue-stumblers.

    Here’s where Scrivener comes in. I love Scrivener’s Name generator. It’s not the only tool in my name creation tool box, but it’s kinda like the duct tape. It’ll allow me to pick different languages for both male/female characters and I can use different languages for both first and last names so if I wanted a list of female names with Finnish first names and Native American last names, I can do that and sometimes just going wild like that will yield some very interesting results.

    What I’ll do is set Scrivener to generate about 20 names and I’ll create a short list of 5 to 10 and then I’ll mix and match and tweak the names until I get something that fits. This is primarily a focused brainstorming session that helps fix in my head portions of the character. Very rarely will I simply use a name as it’s presented, but there have been some that have needed minimal altering. In those instances, I always follow my gut.

  • I love names and naming – it can be a lot of fun!

    In reading this post, I realized I’ve been using Steps 1 and 3 without thinking about it, although with a slight twist. I might base my naming convention on a language or region, but I will twist them a bit (i.e., Timothy becomes Kimothe) or making the last letter combo a gender designate. I’ve also applied some conventions similar to your Glasswrights, but where a name gets longer as a person ages and goes through passage-rites and life-changes. That one became tricky as a character could potentially have multiple dimunitives.

    The one thing I haven’t done is Step 2.

    Good post, this. It has me thinking about more than names, though. If a people within the story has its own language/dialect, the names have to fit within that, as well.

  • My current WIP is the first time my setting is a world different from current earth, so for the first time my names are more “made up.” The system I ended up with is acutally quite similar to your steps 1 & 2. What I’ve learned writing this novel is the need for #3. When I kept getting some of the minor characters mixed up, I realized that readers would’t have a chance of telling them apart so now I’m in the process of changing some of the names to make them more distinctive.

  • Ken – I’ve never been a huge fan of the Scrivener name list — I find that the database isn’t large enough to give me the variety I crave (either in nationalities or in number of names.) I haven’t looked at it in about a year, though, so things might have expanded in one of the various updates. (I totally like your idea, though, of using Scrivener — or any other source — as a brainstorming tool!) And yes, yes, yes — gut feel wins out every time!

    Lyn – apropos of your last sentence, I read your note on Timothy and Kimothe thinking “I wonder if the rest of the work supports those consonant and vowel shifts?” (I only had one linguistics class in college, but it made a deep impression :-) ) Oh – as for the gender designate – I love the idea (and have tried to use it before), but I find that it can really confuse readers (on the “Edwin-Edward-Edmund” concept — people reading quickly might not get the gender designations…

  • SiSi – Your note about writing in “current earth” reminded me of something I could have included in my original post. I regularly use the Social Security Name Index (which lets me see which names were most popular in which years) so that I can name characters in keeping with their ages. (If I’m writing something set contemporaneously, and I have a 70-year-old woman, her name is *not* going to be Tiffany, Madison, or Brittany… Similarly, a 10-year-old isn’t likely to be named Susan or Julie…) And bravo on double-checking for readability, my point 3!

  • I am a stickler for names. I have some rules that I follow and really really require the writers that I read to follow as well.

    1) The names have to be consistent in style and syntax. Basing them on a real language helps this but it isn’t required. Sometimes, I just chose what sounds good at the time. Which leads to my next rule….

    2) You must be able to pronounce the names without doing verbal gymnastics. One of my biggest turn-offs for a new book I pick up is when the naming scheme is random, almost like every time the writer needed a new name, he let his cat walk across his keyboard. Malazan Book of the Fallen is my favorite and most ready example of a series that I cannot read in part due to the names such as Baaljagg, Dassem Ultor, and Dejim Nebrahl. I read all my names aloud to ensure that they are indeed pronounceable. A name should not take the reader out of the story or force the reader to make up their own name for the character.

  • I try to be very careful in naming characters and usually do a decent job of sticking to “home base” origins for names. With the Forelands and Southlands books, I actually had different home-base language origins for different kingdoms, and tried to give the world a bit of naming diversity that way. The interesting challenge with Thieftaker has been coming up with names (for my fictional characters — my historical figures come with names pre-installed…) that fit with a real-world historical setting. So I have consulted sources that use social data (estate papers, birth and death notices) to determine the most popular given names of the time, and then I use history books to come up with last names that are plausible and “sound right” without actually using names of real people. Fun post, Mindy.

  • sagablessed

    So far I have only written UF, so naming is not an issue. However, if I venture into classical fantasy, I shall bear this post in mind.
    I know I refer to her a lot, but MZB did a great job with names and language.
    Questions? Yes. How high-fahlootin with words can you go with YA (not middle-grade) works? I fear I may be using words too obscure for the target audience: words like ‘polychromasia’ and ‘relucent’ appear occasionally in current WIP. I just hate being stuck with a fourth-grade vocabulary. I could go on a rant about the state of our educational system, but shall refrain from such at this time and on this forum.

  • You might be able to describe through visual what the words mean and you not only show, but teach. ;)

  • Many of the words I know now I learned from reading genre fiction in junior high and high school. And playing D&D…

  • Julia

    I very much enjoy creating names. I often use baby name books as inspiration, but a lot of times, I find myself playing with sounds and visual appearance of the name.

    I’ve found that difference in both sound and appearance is key for helping readers keep characters distinct in their minds. When I’m naming a new character, I try to make sure that the name starts with a different letter and also doesn’t include similar letter clusters. In one story of mine, I learned I had a perchant for names that included “vowel + y” combinations and I changed those up to avoid confusing readers. The sight of the name on the page seemed too similar.

    So now, with a new WIP, I keep a name list with major characters in one list and minor characters in a second (or second and third) column. Before a new character gets named, I check the list to see how whether the name causes too much repetition. I split the names into lists so that if something needs to be changed, I can easily figure the names that are less important to me.

  • sagablessed

    I do use visual descriptions before the words pop out, Daniel. But I worry they might be too advanced, even though the character is a poet and college student.

  • Mark – I absolutely understand your dislike for “Cat Keyboard” names. (Those and N’eedl’ess A’postrophe names drive me batty!) As a kid, when I read a lot more fantasy indiscriminately, I often made up my own names in my head. “Oh yeah, the D.U. name, du(h)…”

    David – I’ll admit when I was reading THIEFTAKER, I was surprised by Jennifer’s name, because I think of it as being *much* more modern. Of course, when I did my research, I found that you had already done yours :-) I wasn’t surprised, given how much work you did on making your other historical details correct. (And using names that were just coming into vogue in a historical period could be the subject of a whole *other* post, for what those names say about characters!

    Sagablessed – I think that naming challenges still exist in contemporary world books! For example, if someone is named Shoshana Chang, I’m going to wonder about the Jewish/Chinese background of her family, and I’ll want that explained in the text! As for your other question (and I’ll be talking a lot about YA/MG in weeks to come), I definitely don’t believe in writing down to readers; I offer DARKBEAST as an example of a book where I changed precisely one word for the age group (that word was reticule.) That said, I can only apply language skills to guess what polychromasia and relucent mean. My theory on very obscure words — for any age group — is that you have to “buy” their use. In other words, you have to have a specific reason for using such obscure language, and you can only do it very rarely, lest you alienate your readers. Perhaps I’ll post more about this at a future point in time!

    Julia – I completely agree that both sound and appearance matter! (Perhaps that’s my background as a trademark attorney, because trademark similarity is judged on “sight, sound, and meaning”!) I find lists of used names useful too — especially because it helps me to see “Gee, I haven’t included a single character whose name starts with M, when I have dozens of Ls and Ns!”

  • Saga – If I needed to use “alienating” words repeatedly, to show that my character is more educated than other characters, I would make sure that everyone else reacts to his usage, consistently, and with edification for the reader. (“Polychrom-what-i-a? Say it in English, college boy, if you want me to give you an answer!” “Too many red blood cells. Is that clear enough for you, you peon?”)

  • sagablessed

    :)
    Wow. If *you* are having issues with those words, I may need to re-write some of the languaging in the text.
    I do not alienate the reader on purpose, it just happened. So I must re-consider either the target group, or my language -before my mother washes my mouth out with soap.
    The example is helpful if I decide to keep the wording as is. Thank you.

  • Saga – ::grin:: And with that, let’s turn back to names and naming conventions. We can pick up more about vocabulary in future posts! ::hiding soap::

  • Gypsyharper

    I think I use pretty much the same kind of system you do, I think, though I’d never laid it out so concisely. Sometimes I write out the alphabet and put a little tick mark every time I use a name that starts with each letter. I found out I gravitate towards names that start with ‘M’ and ‘L’. :)

    Currently, I’m working on what I’m calling a paranormal mystery set in the real world, so I don’t have to worry about making up naming schemas, but as you said, there’s still the issue of not mixing names from different cultures (or maybe even regions) without explaining the reason. I was really excited about the name generator in Scrivener – until I tried to generate names for American men (I have the WORST time coming up with male names). I’ve never met or heard of any American male with any of the names it suggested – they were all kind of strange and exotic. So far that’s the only feature of Scrivener I’ve been disappointed in though. And it’s still good for brainstorming ideas for fantasy type names.

  • Yes, I do this, too! In my YA high fantasy, part of the story is set in a land slightly based on a certain part of our world. They still speak the same language as my MC, but my MC notes that it’s softer, more lyrical (as I’ve noticed people with this accent tend to speak). Their names definitely have the traits and characteristics of that geographic area. It feels more authentic. Which to me, makes it more real.

  • Mindy, I am horrible. I know it.
    But (laughing) polychromasia comes from poly (many) and chrom (colors). In the lab, it refers to red blood cells that show evidence of low iron, and therefore many colors of pale pink to red red cells. The *asia* part (in the lab) means *widespread and present*, as opposed to polychromatic, which might refer to one cell. I know. Shut up, Faith. But I really do have something to say about names.

    I am dealing with a name problem on my WIP. First, it is a UF, and the characters often come from different centuries, but all living in the US in the South. I have an Adelaide (in her 80s) and an Adrianna (much older). There is nothing at this stage that I can do about changing the names, as they have both appeared in books already, though not the same book. I never intended to bring them together, but … well, the series plot lines decreed otherwise, and like an idiot, I let myself be led. I am resolving the annoyance by having my main character address Adelaide as Ads. I don’t like it but it is helping. I wish my system was better. I wish I had a system.

  • Gypsy – Another person who’s had my experience with Scrivener’s names! Here’s what I do: Go to http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/ and look up names for the year my character was born. Then go to http://genealogy.about.com/library/weekly/aa_common_surnames.htm and choose a last name. Combine and permutate as necessary :-)

    Laura – Yep – it’s fun to integrate real-world places (or, really, our interpretation of real-world places), in names and elsewhere in our fiction. It *does* lend a sense of reality.

    Faith – I don’t think you’re horrible at all! (I had heard of the blood condition before but didn’t remember the name of it. And I stand by my statement that if you’re going to use the disease name, you need to “earn” the right — either by using more common words elsewhere, or by making it an issue of characterization. As for Adelaide and Adrianna – I think it helps if readers have met them in the past and know them from other settings. My grandmother, Adele (close to Adelaide!) went by Del, so my mind immediately went to that shortcut…

  • Razziecat

    This is one of my favorite parts of creating a new character. Sometimes the name comes first, sometimes the character pops into my head nameless and I have to search for/create a name. I have baby name books that have been used for so many years they are falling apart :)

    If I have a particular characteristic I want to emphasize, I’ll search for a name with that meaning, then play with different versions of the name. If the book gives an “original” or root form of the name, I might use that, sometimes tweaking the spelling. I try to find or create names that aren’t too hard to pronounce and don’t sound silly when spoken aloud ;)

    Some characters give me their name right away, some require a bit of work. If by some chance I find I have to change the name, it tends to change the “shape” of the character in my mind, so I’m careful to choose something I can live with.

    I love the name Carol Berg creates for her characters. They’re always a perfect fit for the character’s personality and culture, their place in society and her created world’s history.

  • My naming system is also very similar to yours, Mindy, but with one exception: When I wrote the first draft of my WIP, I didn’t pick a home base language. I ended up with three main characters called Flannery, Demetrius and Janessa, all three names from completely different origins.
    In the second draft I dove into world-building with a vengeance. I changed my setting from an alternate universe to a fictional island off the west coast of Ireland and built a history based on refugees escaping from Ireland during the Norman conquest in the late 11th century. Naturally, my characters then had to have Irish names. Flannery was still fine, but a lot of the characters – and all the places – had to be renamed.
    Demetrius and Janessa all but gave me fits of frustration. There was no way that I could rename those two; I knew them too well. Demetrius ended up being quite easy, as the fictional society was grounded in Christianity and Demetrius is a name from the Bible; but Janessa… Well, with her, I cheated. I ended up naming the first queen and princess in the history of the island Jane and Nissa. Make Janessa’s mom an imaginative character who likes to think out of the box, and Jane + Nissa = Janessa was born.

  • I disagree with Point 3: If I as a reader can’t keep Edgar, Edmund, Edward, and Edwin straight (not to mention Big Ed, Ed Sr. Ed Jr., and Mr.Ed), it’s not the names that confuse me (any more than I’m confused by Ann and Anna and Annie in Real Life). Rather, it’s because you haven’t made them distinct enough characters in my mind for the unique parts of their names to “stick”.

  • Razziecat – I often “meet” my characters before I know their story, but their names rarely come first to me. (Sometimes, I wish that they did!) I, too, love Carol’s naming schemes — as a consequence of her incredible worldbuilding, the names often feel inevitable…

    Unicorn – Ah, the “precious moments” problem with names… I’ve built stories around characters with names that I can’t use for one reason or another, and it *does* hurt to change those names. (In SEASON OF SACRIFICE, one of the lead characters was named “Merrick” the entire time I wrote and revised the ms. Just before the book went to *galley proofs*, Anne Rice came out with a book called “Merrick.” I had to make a global change (to “Maddock”), but I *still* have to double-check myself when I refer to the character!

    Reziac – Interesting point. When I read about real people named Ann, Anna, and Annie, I get sometimes get confused ::wry grin::. I guess I agree with you, if we wrote and read in a perfect world. But I think that most authors don’t have the skill to introduce and differentiate multiple characters with nearly identical names. And most readers don’t read with the level of attention to absorb character differentiation in those circumstances. YMMV, of course!

  • quillet

    I pretty much use your three steps, though I don’t think I’ve won many bonus points in step 2! I tend to go for gut-feeling sounds-right, and haven’t done much with meanings.

    I really sympathise with you and Unicorn on the difficulties in renaming characters. I have one character whose name, Connor, was chosen before I solidified my base language, and now it just doesn’t fit. Too Irish. But will he submit to a renaming? Ha! I’ve tried it at least three times and finally settled on Conlan, which is still Irish but fits better with my other male names, as -an is a common male ending in my language. But in my head he’s still Connor (and I swear he just laughs at me when I call him anything else). It’s maddening.

    As for well chosen names…nobody beats Tolkien IMO, especially for your steps 1 & 2. But of course, he was a professional linguist and ~very~ talented philologist, and could run circles around most people in inventing languages and names!

  • ajp88

    For my own books, I use a variety of systems. First, I always start off with the creation of a language or two, to give a grammar structure that I use to give a cohesive feel to the names of any number of things, including characters. So, certain sounds/suffixes/prefixes for male or female names, various titles, etc.

    I also manage restaurants in my day job, so I plunder customer receipts for unique, fantastical sounding names. Sometimes they’re too cool to change to fit the grammar structure (i.e. Jabr Altairy) so I simply invoke the English rule to my language (English breaks all of its own rules constantly, why can’t a fictional language do the same, now and then?) and other times I slightly adjust the real name to mesh well within my syntax rules for each dialect.

    Sometimes I have a really cool character that needs an equally cool name. One example is a crime lord’s lead thug/bodyguard that walks with a fake, alternating limp on a wicked cane, with vivid tattoos along his arms like a thicket of sharp, thorny vines. He’s instrumental in one of my POV’s stories, and I wanted a cool name, so I went with Arrick [fits the grammar] Thorn [not so much]. Looking back, I’m not sure which came first, the thorn tattoos all over his hands, or the name, but I like the end result!

  • I’m so glad to see a post on how names can kick people out of the story. I recently read a fantasy where all the character names were very common American names with just one letter changed, often in a way that didn’t substantially change the pronunciation. In certain settings that would work – a future Earth story maybe – but here it just read as juvenile.

    I don’t remember where I read this, but one trick for generating fantasy names is to write contemporary names backwards. Then play with the spelling and pronunciation. It’s a good way of getting your head out of the often unconscious rules we have about what letters go where in a word. [skipping linguistics lecture here] My own rule of thumb (for writing or reading) is that character names MUST be pronounceable in the reader’s head. No silent letters, no sequences that can’t be sounded out. Otherwise I start thinking of characters by their initials and don’t actually know what their names are. PG Wodehouse got away with having a character named Psmith (the P is silent) but that was only because the name was the character’s own affectation and a running joke.

  • Mindy, I could kiss you! I love Del! Totally stealing it. Thank you!

  • wrybread

    Re. Point 3, the Edgar-Edmund-Edward-Edwin conundrum: I agree with Mindy that unless you have a really essential reason for the theme naming (maybe for some deep personal reason the brothers’ father really likes the “Ed” suffix), you might as well differentiate them a bit more. You hope that you can make the characters unique enough that they all stand out in the reader’s mind, and that your readers are able to tell them apart without a scorecard, but it’s always best not to complicate things for the reader unless you have a good reason to do so.

    This is one of the main areas where I think fiction should be unrealistic; in real life names repeat all the time. My dad has three good friends named Jim, three good friends named Dave, and at least two good friends named Paul. Yet if I was going to make him a character in a story, I would make it a point to rename all those characters so the reader could keep them clear. There are two exceptions to this, though. One is if you’re working in a visual medium, like Film or even a Graphic Novel, since the viewer/reader can always tell the difference between characters based on appearance, but when you just have the page names are the easiest way to differentiate a character. The other is if it’s a work of historical fiction; books like Wolf Hall as well as shows like The Tudors have at least 3-4 important characters named “Thomas” running around, but many of the most important figures from that period happen to have had the name Thomas.

  • Sorry I’m late to the party, but I loved this post! I was having trouble in my New Shiny just recently, because two of my characters’ names ended in -o-. My characters tend to walk into my head with their names already attached, and the two of them only spend one scene together, but it was still enough to drive me to distraction. Fortunately, while doing research, I came up with a name for one of them that solves the problem, so all is right with the world again.

    One thing about names in other people’s stories…the apostrophe. When I see names with apostrophes, I take a mental breath where the apostrophe tells me to. So in my head, I hear La’Nodya as La Nodya. Two words. If the authors uses lots of apostrophes, it ends up making me tired and even if the story is well-told, I can’t work up the enthusiasm to fight with the names. It sets me at a distance from the story, when I’d rather be completely immersed.

  • I’ve confuzzled characters that have completely different names, but were not really distinct individuals in a given work. That’s when I started thinking.. ya know, it’s not the name, it’s the characterization. And that’s when I stopped worrying about similar names.

    Besides, the naming traditions on some of my planets… I swear those people have only three names plus variants. I argued and argued with ‘em and they did as they liked anyway. :)

  • Misty – my middle name is D’Lee, so I don’t have any issues with apostrophes in names! :-)

  • Sorry for my slow replies here — I’m on a babysitting-mission-of-mercy, taking care of my two under-seven nephews, while my brother and his wife travel to see the world, so things are a bit out of whack in Klaskyville!

    Quillet – It’s amusing to me, how stubborn our brains can be about taking on new things, like changed character names! Your Connor/Conlan switch seems like a great balance! And yes, I think that Tolkien’s philology leads to great naming schemes in his work!

    ajp88 – I’ve always been fascinated with the creation of languages (and the evolution of real-world languages), but I’ve never created one for my own work. I can’t *imagine* going through the labor of creating two for a novel, before I ever started meeting my characters! (I’m amazed at what a lot of other authors do… makes me feel like such a slacker!)

    Sarah – That backwards-name trick sounds interesting. I’d worry that the potential for *really* throwing your characters out of the story would be high, just because of the grammar rules we internalize so readily!

    Faith – My Grandma Del would be thrilled :-)

    Wrybread – (Love that handle, BTW!) Your point is an excellent one – in fiction, we so often have to fiddle with the “real world” rules — and I think that naming is one of the key areas where that’s the case. (And yes, the Tudors would have you believe that over 65% of the males were named Thomas, and at least 50% of the females were named Katherine (spelling variants) or Anne!)

    Misty – Yay for research solving problems! (As for apostrophes — I generally find them quite affected, and I think they *shout* “beginning fantasy writer.” Except for the handful of good uses where they don’t :-)

    Reziac – Yep, we can force some things to work. If, you know, our writing skills are good enough :-)

    Lyn – I’ve never heard the name D’Lee. Does it come from a family name?

  • Thing is, you can’t just change a name randomly. Each name has a certain rhythm, beat, and sound — and the prose around it was (if you have any ear for it, which sadly a lot of writers don’t) written to fit that, the new name must also fit as the old one did — or you’ll need to adjust the surrounding words to maintain (or shift, as the case may be) the “feel” so it matches again.

    I actually started in poetry lo those many decades ago (having had it beaten into my head throughout my school years) so maybe I notice this more than most.

  • Mindy – My mom was 8+ months pregnant when my dad had to go on an extended business trip – something about testing nuclear bombs. His parting words were something like, “Johnny Jr for a boy, and Linda Lee for a girl.” My mom nodded, smiled, and sent him on his way.
    A couple weeks later, I came along. Now, understand, my Mom was a bit of a rebel and Linda was one of the most popular names for girls in the late 50s. She didn’t want to add another one to the world, so she got creative. Change the inital ‘i’ to a ‘y’. Scoot the ‘d’ over and capitalize. Replace the ‘a’ with an apostrophe.
    I was a few days old when my Dad was able to call home using ship to shore radio. “You have a daughter,” my Mom told him. We call her Lyndy (Lyn D).
    I was 2 and a half before my Dad knew my name.

  • Mari

    There are so many aspects of writing I’ve never studied. This is one of them. While reading your article, my concerns about this subject piled up on top of each other like a stack of delicious pancakes. I usually use names of family members and my own name for characters. I wouldn’t be surprised if that limits me in developing the character (although I’ve never thought about that possibility). The idea that I could create a nameless character and then thoughtfully choose an appropriate name is interesting. I’ve never thought the name itself to hold import, just the actions and feelings of the character; after all, none of us chose our own names, did we? Did our given names affect our lives and character? Lots of room for thought. Of course, if I wrote historical fiction, I might have thought more about this subject. I love the article, and it is food for thought. Thanks.

  • Megan B.

    (Sorry if I repeat anyone; I haven’t read through the comments yet).

    Two things I cannot stand are easily-mixed-up names (like the four brothers with E names in your example), and unpronounceable names that just sound like syllables strung together. Oh, and related to that, I also hate superfluous apostrophes in names. If I read a synopsis about T’ylleaugh and his adventures in the land of Nmariax, chances are I will just put the book down. It’s a huge turn-off for me, and (rightly or wrongly) I view it as a sign of uncreative writing.

    In my own work, I tend to choose real names, or if I make up a name I have a good reason for it.

  • Reziac – You and I are absolutely on the same page, when you say that a new name has to fit the story and the existing narration. (We split a little on the level of perfection expected — I balance my narrative to the best of my ability, but I don’t actually craft every syllable of every word with conscious thought (as I do when I write poetry.))

    Lyn – I *love* that story. In fact, I might contact you at some point in the future to steal it for characters in a story :-)

    Mari – I’m so glad that my post has you thinking about your writing!

    Megan – Thanks for chiming in! (And your example made me laugh!)

  • Gypsyharper

    Thanks for those links, Mindy! I will definitely check them out.

  • Mindy – it’s my Mom’s fault I like to change names (i.e. my Timothy to Kimothe). She did it to ME!