What’s in a Name?

One of the things I find hardest about writing is coming up with character and place names.  For my first novel found some clever solutions.  I used a baby name book for first names, and tried to stick with “fantasy” sounding names like Roderick, Lisandra, Amaryllis, and Declan.  For last names I flipped through a bird field guide and used the names of people who have birds that “belong” to them, like Harris’s Sparrow, Townsend’s Warbler, and Forster’s Tern. 

I was most pleased with my solution for place names.  I scanned the index of scientific names in an encyclopedia of animals and wrote down a whole list of genus names that I liked.  Latin genera like Saimiri, Platalea, and Drymarchon became locations in my fantasy world.  When I tell people where the names came from, they often ask what animals became the sources.  The answer for most of them is “I don’t know.”  I didn’t look up what animals were attached to the names, I just used the names!

My new novel is harder when it comes to names, because I have fantastical beings in this novel, not just humans.  I had to come up with names for the races, place names, and character names.  For the Yniall, which are a variation on elves, I started with a human-sounding nickname and played with longer versions until I found one I liked.  For example, Lana became Stelanais (pronounced ste-la-na-EES) and Eli became Eliasyn (ee-LIE-ah-sin).  To make life easier, I devised a rule for the names of another race, called the Khai.  The first syllable is the family or clan indicator, followed by a two or three syllable personal name.  The whole thing is used as a single unit.  Ar’Rastet, Sa’Brean (sa-BRAY-in), and Te’Kalyn (tay-ca-LEEN) are all names for Khai characters.  And then, on top of everything, I had to come up with MORE human names and last names.   

I have found a few times when I’ve had to change a name I liked after re-reading a section.   With one of my main characters called Lisandra, I discovered that I couldn’t name a side character, no matter how minor, Cassandra.  The names are just too close.  And sometimes a name looks great on paper but sounds really silly when said aloud, like Sa’Myim.   (I pronounced it out loud as sa-MY-am, or Sam-I-Am.  Okay for Dr. Seuss, not okay for a serious character.)  My favorite example is when I thought the genus name for honey buzzards sounded like an awesome name for a town.  I even hand-wrote it on the map.  After I saw it typed, however, I realized that someone who reads fast might miss the R and think the town had a really inappropriate name.  I used Acris instead.

When I’m writing and I know a character, but I don’t have a name for him or her yet, I often use a filler word, like  M.C. for the main character, SISTER, ARTIST, etc.   Typing the filler in all caps, or even bolding it, reminds me that I’m not finished with that scene yet.  Someone still needs a name!


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jannatwrites
    Jul 11, 2010 @ 22:22:29

    Oh my goodness, the naming seems so complicated. It took me days to think of a fictional suburb of a real city in my novel. It’s not even that creative, either. Perhaps this is why I don’t write Fantasy?

    At any rate, I do like the names you mentioned in this post. I smiled at the Sam I Am, but actually laughed out loud at the honey buzzards genus name – I can see why you changed it!


    • leighwhitted
      Jul 12, 2010 @ 17:40:23

      How do you name your characters? That’s one of the hardest for me.

      I’m glad I could give you a laugh.


      • jannatwrites
        Jul 12, 2010 @ 22:39:31

        I have no organized process for choosing names, but I do keep a spreadsheet so I can make sure I don’t use the same name twice. Sometimes I use the name of a friend’s dog, an acquaintance, or someone from my past-but I never use the full first and last name of a person I know.

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