Authorguy's Blog

A rose is a rose

Posted on: September 3, 2010


I came across my umpteenth post a while back, on the subject of names and how to choose them.  I checked my own archives, spread across three different websites, and found that I’ve never done such a thing myself.  So, in the interest of craft completeness and giving myself something to link to when the subject comes up again somewhere else in the future, I’m going to address this burning issue now.

Bear in mind that I am a fantasy novelist, so the business with names is rather different than it is for a book set in the normal world, even for urban fantasy or a paranormal.   In some ways.  In UF or PN the characters can have more fantasy names, but they’ll also usually have a nickname or short form that interfaces well with the normal human population.  Since I have both fantasy and paranormal stories, I’ll handle each separately.

Generally, when coming up with a name, I don’t want to use a standard name in a fantasy context, since that would sort of burst the bubble of fantasy-ness that I’m trying to construct.  Tom Bombadil is not a name I’d choose, and Sam was only good because it was short for Samwise.  I have been known to use human but non-standard names in my stories, but only for the sake of a mid-story twist.  In general I’d start with a naming convention and generate names from that, rather than select random syllables that sounded cool.  Names have rules, usually the same ones languages have.  A commonly used word is usually a short word, and names are intended to show how the bearer fits into the community in at least one level, usually family, with clan or village designations also possible.

When I first started writing Unbinding the Stone I hadn’t given any thought to a naming convention, I just had the hero’s name, Tarkas.  Spinning out the logic from that one seed, I decided on a convention that had a family name in the first syllable, the personal name in the last, so Tarkas’ parents were Tarmel and Tarsis.  Beyond that I had a village designation, although I don’t know why I did that.  Since he didn’t stay in that village long it wasn’t really important, but it sounded nice.  ‘Tarkas tel Kwinarish’ has a much better sound in certain contexts that plain old ‘Tarkas’ does. 

That is another point to remember as a writer: poetry.  Names should have a certain rhythm, a flow, that makes the sentence and paragraph work.  The reader is going to be reading that name pretty often, so make the experience a pleasant one.  Tongue-twisting combinations usually don’t do that.  This is a point also overlooked in the editing process, where the importance of auxiliary words like ‘was’, ‘had’, and ‘that’ is overlooked in the mechanical exercise of removing them with more active verbs.  Sometimes they are not there for the verb but for the poetry of the sentence.

Anyway.  Tarkas eventually got a new one when he shifted to a new realm, with a more military view of things.  In that context, families were subordinated to clans, and the city of residence didn’t matter at all.  The name of the city had its own convention, though.  In this realm there was a central artifact called the Eye of God, and all cities took their names as a reference to this artifact.  Over time the custom degraded, and the reference dropped out, but the directional nature of the name remained.  I did not come up with any of this as an abstract idea, I’m showing this in the course of the stories I write, so we see that naming conventions can have significant backstory possibilities as well.

My paranormal book is a futuristic, with pretty normal names.  As a number of people have recommended, however, most of these names are not ordinary names like Jack or Tom.  The hero is named Joseph, but he is never called Joe, usually Major or Marquand.  The administrator is always Robert, and my bad-ass villain Bertrand is always Bertrand.  There is a Ron, but he’s Dr. Ron.  For each I have a variety of secondary titles to use in place of names, so constant references to them by name don’t get dull. 

Sometimes the name is not what matters, but the function.  That’s what I did in my short story ‘Chasing His Own Tale’, where Author Guy has to deal with Fearless Hero and Evil Enchantress et al.  Then even an ordinary name like Loretta (the Damsel in Distress) will stand out.

What conventions do you use?

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7 Responses to "A rose is a rose"

I always wondered how SF/F writers came up with names. I write paranormal contemp romance, so I can’t be too off-the-wall, but I do love to use names that are somewhat unique. I usually go with a name based on ethnic/cultural background, then tweak it to fit.

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To be honest I started by inventing names that sounded cool. I didn’t think of the structure of Tarkas’ name until I introduced a couple and had to think of a way to indicate that they were married, so I gave their names the same first syllable. The structure of the clan names in the second realm developed similarly. Being a pantser to the second power I didn’t know any of this beforehand. I developed the system after I’d written something that needed a system, but fortunately for me most of the names already fit the systems I came up with.
Thank God for word processors.
In my paranormal, I didn’t bother to come up with a name for Marquand’s home city, I just called it Greater Not Relevant until I sent it out, then replaced it with Outer Denver. I came up with that after I thought I remembered that the fallback location for the capital was Denver, and then thought there should be some way to designate the capital district from the original. There are references in the text of a period in US history called The Shambles, but I didn’t say much about them.

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Just found your blog through divine intervention. I don’t read SF/Fantasy but I enjoyed reading your last few posts. This one caught my eye, because in the novel I’m presently editing, The Plunge, I had a reader of my blog (The American Writer) tell me that he’s been reading the chapters I’ve been posting and he doesn’t like some of the names. It was like someone walking up and telling me my little granddaughter was a snot and something ought to be done about her wandering eye. Anyway, I’ll be visiting. If you’re interested, my blog for writers can be found at blog.tomeubanks.com (shameless plug, I know). Onward!

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Thanks for calling it divine inspiration, instead of some other kind! Did he say why he didn’t like the names? There may be a real issue in there somewhere.

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One character is a smart meth cook named I.Q., which would be be cute, he wrote, if it weren’t the character’s real initials (Ivan Quist Sonneborn). Another bad guy–a big “bear” of a man–I named Bear Adams and he wrote that it reminded him of Grizzly Adams. I think he has a point. Another character–an actor and ex-private eye–named Dutch Youngblood sounds like I’m mixing Holland with American Indian. I may be using my “Find and Replace” Tool soon–what do you think?

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IQ is good. Bear is good, if a bit trite, but you might want to lose the Adams. Dutch Youngblood would only work if he was an actor on a soap opera and that was his screen name.

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Good advice. Thanks. How about Dutch Reagan? Kidding.

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