How to Choose Names for Fantasy Fiction Characters
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Character names are important! These are the names that bring your fictional people to life through a 400+ page book or even several books in a series. The rule to remember as a fantasy writer is to keep your readers under your spell. Keep their disbelief suspended. Give them escapism.
Above all, don't jar them out of your story with a name that makes them burst out laughing, wrinkle their noses in disgust, or crinkle their brows in confusion. They just might put your book down and not pick it up again. This can be especially bad if they're standing in the bookstore and haven't bought it yet!
Anatomy of a name:
Not all cultures use the same types of names or every possible combination of name-parts. Examples: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
Nickname or Diminutive
Patronymic or Matronymic
Surname or Family Name
Things to do to "test-drive" a character's name before you decide to use it:
My advice at here Obsidianbookshelf.com? Pronounce the name aloud. Do an internet search to uncover any unfortunate connotations.
Pronounce the name. First, does it sound stupid? I read somewhere that you should never name your kid without first pronouncing the name and adding, "Attorney-at-law." See how believable it sounds. This may save you from naming your daughter Bambi and dooming her to snickers later on when she becomes a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court or a Member of Parliament.
Fantasy names can sound infantile, especially when they have only one or two syllables. Consider the planet Naboo from the Star Wars universe. Try saying with a straight face that you represent Naboo in the Galactic Senate. Other names that sound as if they were chosen by George Lucas's young children include Jar-Jar Binks, Boba Fett, and Count Dooku.
Second, does the name look unpronounceable? You want your readers to feel comfortable chatting about your character or reading your book aloud. Take Hermione's name from the Harry Potter series. Unless you're Greek, Hermione is not a common name. Many had no idea how to say it until the movies set us straight. If you must have an unusual name, you can always drop your reader a hint. Have another character mispronounce the name on the first page and get corrected.
Another tough name: Eilonwy from The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. I feel sorry for all the librarians and teachers who had to read these stories aloud before the author provided the pronunciation guide that now comes with the books. My internet search turned up the following: Eilonwy should be said "eye-LAHN-wee" . It looks to me like an Anglicized way of pronouncing what's supposed to be a Welsh name. But then what do I know?
Do an Internet Search on the name. This helps to reveal any unforeseen negative associations. Writers of non-fantasy fiction (or urban fantasy!) have to worry about weird meanings that form around ordinary names. For example: John is a common first name and Holmes is a common last name; put them together, and you've just named your hero after a famous porn star. Ralph has somehow become a verb meaning to vomit. Slang terms for penis include the names John Thomas, Peter, Rod, Roger, and Willy. Such are the perils involved in picking a mundane name.
We epic-fantasy writers may breathe a sigh of relief that we've dodged that bullet. Where we err is in choosing names that we think we've made up – but we've really unconsciously borrowed from elsewhere. For example, names that are too reminiscent of characters from famous works: Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, or the vampire villain Kraven from the 2003 film Underworld. Such names distract the readers and make them wonder if the associations are intentional. An internet search can help you turn up these unfortunate connections.
Fantasy Name Clichés to Avoid:
Certain naming styles have become worn out. What's an author to do? The following are some clichés that I'd like to urge fantasy writers to avoid. I'm not one to say you CAN'T do any of the following – I'd just urge you to think about the downside before you do.
Cliché #1: The One-Word Name. The one-word name often carries an identifying label: Conan the Barbarian. Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Taran of Caer Dalben from The Chroniclesof Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.
This naming tradition is one of the most worn-out tropes in fantasy. I'm guessing it comes from the Scandinavian custom (still practiced in Iceland) of not using surnames. Instead, a baby receives a given name plus either a descriptive trait or a patronymic (a name based on one's father's given name).
Here is an Icelandic name: Erik the Red (the guy who gave Greenland its misleading name). I like his patronymic (Erik Thorvaldsson) better because it sounds more like a "real" name to me: that is, a given name plus surname.
A name like Conan the Barbarian implies that the world is so sparsely populated that people only need one given name plus a descriptive trait. To be fair to Conan's creator Robert E. Howard, he based Conan's people upon a prehistoric tribe   when maybe the world really was that small – at least region to region. But most fantasy is set in populous, quasi-medieval times in which a one-word name seems unrealistic and quaint.
Cliché #2: Heavy-Handed Names. These are names that give the reader an overwhelming connotation to hang around the neck of the character: EVIL or GOOD or SILLY. Do writers think we readers are so stupid that we can't figure out a character's intentions without a huge hint? Some writers like J. K. Rowling or Charles Dickens use such names for fun, but I still find it distracting.
Take the Harry Potter series. How can the reader not know that the Malfoy family will be villains, especially when their names are Lucius, Narcissa, and Draco? How many bad associations spring to mind here? Malfoy contains the Latin word (mal) for "bad." Lucius suggests luscious, licentious, and Lucifer. Narcissa must be narcissistic. Draco reminds one of dragons, Dracula, and snakes. Lord Voldemort? Well, this name contains the Latin word (mort) for "death." Delores Umbridge? Bellatrix LeStrange? I don't even have to explain those associations.
Then there are the silly names: Dumbledore, Hogwarts, Hufflepuff, Luna Lovegood, the Weasleys, the Dursleys, and especially Dudley Dursley. And where do the Dursleys live? Little Whinging, Surrey? You've got to be kidding! I know Rowling is having fun, but it jolts me out of the story with a snort of disbelief every time I hit one of these names.
An example of a heavy-handed GOOD name? I'm going to risk getting carloads of hate-mail, and point out the name of the heroine from the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer: Bella Swan. Bella (which derives from Latin for "beautiful") is fine on its own. Swan is iffy because animal names can be too literal unless the person is Native American (though I would have believed Swann). But Bella Swan is just too much: it overflows with beautiful connotations – and the reader, feeling led by the nose to bow down before the character's beauty, might just think to himself, "Yeah, right."
Cliché #3: Names with Weird Punctuation. A phenomenon from out of the 1970s and 1980s, these names usually take an apostrophe and are intended to look exotic. For example, Vulcan names from the Star Trek universe: T'Pol, T'Pring, T'Lar, T'Prell. Fantasy and science fiction writers can't get away with this anymore.
Cliché #4: The Porn-Star Name. This occurs more often in the Romance genre than the Fantasy genre, and connects back to the heavy-handed GOOD names such as Bella Swan. Evaluate your female characters' names with a cold eye for over-the-top glamour. Usually these names will have multiple syllables, a sumptuous sound, or a beautiful meaning such as Jade, a precious stone.
Examples: Cadence, Esmeralda, Gwendolyn, Jade, Marissa, Raven, Rhapsody, Vanessa
Likewise, do your male characters' names sound ridiculously virile and heroic? Such names are usually one-syllable and have a warlike sound or an obvious meaning such as Dirk, a type of knife.
Examples: Ash, Brand, Dirk, Kirk, Lance, Rafe, Rock, Troy
Male names can get too grand as well: Ashley, Heathcliff, Jordan, Montgomery, Sebastian
It's not that you can't use these names. It's just that certain names can be too potent especially when you combine them with a main character's prominence. You're really asking for trouble if you further combine such names with a grandiose-sounding surname such as Blackthorne or Montclaire or some such.
Cliché #5: Inconsistent Names. This usually happens when a fantasy writer has characters of the same ethnicity in a region. All the characters are, say, generic white people in a remote farming village, and yet their names reflect different ethnicities or naming patterns that are not consistent to everyone. For example, the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Our characters are named Rand al'Thor, Mat Cauthon, Perrin Aybara, Egwene al'Vere and Nynaeve al'Meara.
Hmmm. Mat Cauthon sounds Celtic and Perrin Aybara sounds sort of Mediterranean, possibly Spanish. Egwene's given name sounds Old English, and Nynaeve's sounds Celtic.
The last names get really interesting: the "al-" construction looks like some kind of patronymic or family name that means "of-." In Arabic, it means "the" and appears in names: al-Bis means "the Cat" , and al-Nasrani means "the Christian." 
So we've got an Arabic naming pattern going with Rand and the ladies, but not the other characters from the region. This sort of inconsistency can yank the readers out of the story and make them wonder what is going on.
Cliché #6: Bland Made-Up Names. This kind of name is hardest to explain, but if you read a lot of fantasy fiction, you will start to recognize them. Often only one or two syllables long, they have a colorless feel as if they were randomly generated by software. They usually have either no ethnic flavor or a pseudo-Celtic sound and are too simple like those names in the Star Wars universe we were discussing earlier: Naboo, Boba Fett, Han Solo, and Count Dooku.
Here are some examples of names, randomly sampled from my library of fantasy fiction, that sound like nothing anyone would really be named: Arn, Bartim, Byar, Cenn, Coren, Cyrin, Deornoth, Duac, Ducon, Elyas, Gelb, Kelvar, Kyel, Lan, Logaine, Lluth, Mag, Neth, Rok, Royce, Sol, Tam, Ter, Valon, Ylon, Yrth
Tips on Choosing Good Names:
So what is a fantasy writer to do?
Use a Given Name Plus a Surname. The best names in fantasy fiction and science fiction have a solid, convincing feel and it's because of the given name + surname combination. You may have to tinker with each name to strike a balance between too mundane and too outlandish. Here are some examples of good names:
From A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin: Jaime Lannister, Robert Baratheon, Eddard Stark. They all strike a balance between a mundane first name, and an unusual surname. By contrast, the name Daenerys Targaryen goes WAY over the top: see Cliché #4, the Porn-Star Name.
From the Soldier Son series by Robin Hobb: Nevarre Burrell.
From Perdido Street Station by China Mieville: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin.
From Dune by Frank Herbert: Paul Atreides.
Try real ethnic names. This works best if you're basing your fantasy fiction upon a certain culture and you keep the names consistent to that culture. Otherwise, readers might start wondering why you have the brothers Pedro, Gaston, and Toshiro starting an adventure together, and their obviously ethnic names are never explained. You also will have to do a bit of research to get the names correct.
I love Russian names – which can be complicated! I'm by no means an expert, but here are some characteristics of Russian names. There is a given name that can be turned into a nickname or diminutive, and the nickname is sometimes longer than the given name. Example: Ilya becomes Ilyusha or even Ilyushenka.
Then you've got your patronymic, which is a name that reflects your father's given name. In historic times, the commoners had patronymics that ended in ev, in, ov, or yn and only the aristocracy got to use the ovich/ovna form that has become widespread today . Example: Sergeyev, Sergeyevich.
Examples of successful use of ethnic names in fantasy: the Japanese-based Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn. Some of the Latin-based names such as Lupe dy Cazaril in the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold.
Use a Consistent Naming Theme. In his series The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, Ricardo Pinto names his characters after semi-precious stones: Carnelian, Obsidian. In her Farseer series, Robin Hobb names the royal characters after virtues much as the American Puritans did: Chivalry, Dutiful, Regal, and Verity.
Research Real Examples of the Names of Nobility. It can be especially hard for writers such as us Americans who have no monarchy in our history to come up with convincing names for nobility. Aristocratic naming traditions can be hard to grasp. Read Shakespeare and you'll see the Dukes of Norfolk and Gloucester referred to by the territories with which they are associated: What will Gloucester do? I am Norfolk!
For a modern example, Princes William and Harry used the name "Wales" (which refers to them being the Princes of Wales) when in school and in the military.  If you do an internet image search, you can see Prince Harry in uniform with his nametape reading, "Wales." But this is not considered their surname.
Consider the Meaning of Names. In the Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin, one's secret name contains the essence of one's soul and can be used to control a person. The characters have an everyday name and a secret name: the revealing of the secret name happens in dramatic scenes that foster intimacy between characters, or put them in a harrowing situation in which all is laid bare (for example, speaking with a dragon).
The way Arab names are constructed tell a lot about their culture. (Everything in this paragraph comes from . My apologies if I've misunderstood something.) The given name often refers to a virtue: Karim means generous. There is another type of name known as the kunya which designates that one is the father (Abu) or mother (Umm) of one's firstborn, and the kunya is combined with the firstborn's given name and used in place, or in front, of one's own given name. Then there are patronymics (ibn or bin); descriptive phrases (al-Rashid, which means "the righteous); and geographic designators (al-misri, which means the Egyptian) that can get appended to one's name.
The entire effect suggests a tribal society in which lineage, family, location, and devotion to God are all important. Many Arabs trace their lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed, and their names reflect this.
If you can work this much meaning into your fantasy names, you will be way ahead of the crowd in terms of vivid and believable world-building.
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- http://www.embracingthechild.com/aalexander.html, retrieved 9/4/08
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conan_the_Barbarian, retrieved 9/4/08
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cimmerians, retrieved 9/4/08
- Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, Penguin Books, 1959, reprinted by Penguin Classics 2007, page 185.
- Arabian Sands, page 238.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_William, retrieved 9/4/08
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_names, retrieved 9/4/08