I’ve been thinking about names in fiction a lot recently, and the naming of characters in fantasy and science fiction, specifically.
When you’re working in a world created from whole cloth, or even in one loosely based on an historical time period or culture, there are certain considerations when it comes to naming characters, places, and things. It’s essential for a writer to avoid false exoticism, using fantastic names to describe objects or creatures with real-world equivalents. As James Blish wrote, don’t call a rabbit a smeerp.
“they look like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps that makes it science fiction.”
Unless your creature walks, talks, and acts like an entirely unique being, there’s no need to rename it. Start your story with the assumption that you and your reader have a pact: let’s just assume that this world has its own language(s) and what’s on the page is a translation, a localization effort by the writer to bring this story into our world.
But character names are a different matter altogether. Here the writer has a little more free reign. Not to say there aren’t common pitfalls; I try to avoid apostrophes as a matter of course. It’s a tired trope and painfully derivative. Unless you’re a linguist like Tolkien and familiar with glottal stops or the use of umlauts to indicate pronunciation differences, leave those out. Aside from remembering to Google all your names before writing to make sure you’re not accidentally stealing from previous works, my main piece of advice is to keep your cultures internally consistent. Names are a common cultural signal. Most names have a meaning unique to their language, often coming directly from root words for power, faith, purity, hope, and objects of beauty and strength. If a writer has multiple cultures in their world, it’s important to remember how names and their meanings are influenced by language and social custom. You don’t need to invent a whole language (unless that’s your thing) but you should think about common phonemes and how consonant-vowel structures might differ between your races.
Recently I decided to change the name of one of my main characters. It was way too similar to a name I’d seen another author use, and that was starting to bug me. So, even though I hated to go through my drafts and replace it, I knew it was just going to annoy me until I changed it. I like to use baby name books and websites to get some basic name ideas. Sometimes I’ll do a search for a specific meaning or letter of the alphabet and see what strikes me. This tends to work well for names of main characters. The meanings are important to me, so I usually use that as a deciding factor. For my main race, a human-equivalent, I’m going with names that sound more typically European. Easy pronunciation for an English reader, with a familiar cultural feel. For the pannari, my non-human race, I wanted to keep the sound a bit more guttural. I searched for names with hard consonant sounds and frequent uses of k, g, and t at the ends. I also avoided names that end with a vowel. This applies not just to names of characters, but proper nouns within their languages like cities, religious terms, and unique objects and cultural references. I want my reader to get a feel for the culture through the sounds they use, and hopefully be able to differentiate between characters from different places and groups using just their names.
Not all the names and places I use are real. Some are names that I’ve created to fit the cultural profile and that sounds for that race. They may sound or feel familiar, but they weren’t directly taken from naming sites the way the others were. That said, here are some examples of character names and their real-world meanings I’ve chosen to use.
Kerron: (Hebrew) Horn; a vessel of power.
Typhan: (Greek) Adapted from Typhon: a child of Titans.
Tomas: (Spanish/Portuguese) Twin
Brigid: (Celtic) Power, strength, virtue.
Lylah: (Arabic) Night
Briac: (Celtic) From the root bri (force, strength), brîgh (valor, strength), or bruaich (a hill, steep, high).
Kesav: (Sanskrit) Adapted from Keshava: one who has long, beautiful hair.
Marit: (Aramaic) Lady.
Abbas: (Arabic) Stern.
I’m sure every writer has their own particular way of naming characters and developing cultural cues. If it makes sense for you and your particular story, use whatever rules work for you. Hell, go ahead and throw in an apostrophe or two, I can’t stop you. I’d love to hear about your own naming conventions and methods.
Just don’t forget to Google your names though, or you’ll be picking through first draft like me in order to change every possible instance. It’s not fun.