N: Names in Writing

Names have many uses in fiction, both inside and outside of the book. (Pen names, anyone?) As such, this is going to be split into three sections.

​Character Names

This is probably the first thing you think of when you think of names in stories. After all, the characters are the most important part, right? Well I don’t think that’s entirely accurate, but character names can play a big role in your story.

Telling of Genre

One character name superpower is easily showing a book’s genre. Now generally you’d know what genre a book is from reading the synopsis or looking at the cover, but sometimes one or the other of those things isn’t done well (I recently saw a fantasy book with a cover that screamed historical fiction) and names can be a big clue. A character named Caltraxor is probably a sci-fi character, I character named Veldana is probably fantasy, a character named Elizabeth could very well be from a historical fiction, etc. How do you know if your character’s name fits the genre? Well… Sci-fi names tend to have a more exotic edge to them, with more letters like Z, X, and Y. They can also have apostrophes in weird places, but please spare your readers the agony of trying to pronounce a name with too many apostrophes. Fantasy names tend to have a more regal, noble air to them or can be a bit mysterious. Names like Celaena, Veldana, Wisterin, and Rea can be good fantasy names. (Ending a female name with an A is also fairly common/easy.) For dystopian/post-apocalyptic names there’s actually a tip online to say normal names (like Jane, Maria, James, Peter) with a mouth full of Oreos. The results are things like Dannel, Marth, Rith, Brickney, and Mayhem. I don’t actually know what formula you’d use for making them just off the top of your head, but the Oreos thing works pretty well from what I can tell. (Plus, you know, Oreos.)

Telling of Character

One of my favorite things to do is choose character names based on their meanings. I don’t always do this—sometimes I just pick what sounds cool—but a lot of times it’s fun to select a character’s name based on its meaning. Choose something important about your character—maybe they’re fierce or reckless or have a big heart—and look up names related to that thing.

Another fun thing can be looking up a name’s meaning after you’ve already chosen it. My character Coraline‘s name means “heart,” which fits her absolutely perfectly, and I picked her name way before I knew what it meant (in fact, it was one of the first things I came up with). Lucienne‘s name means “light,” and she serves as a light to both Nissa and Detren over the course of The Shadow Raven. I have two brothers, Sulien and Ciaran, whose names mean “sun born” and “little dark one,” and the names are reversed from their personalities. In one of my earliest stories, the first one I ever outlined (which poisoned me to outlining for a while, lol) included a character named Rhianna, queen of the fairies, whose name I later realized means “great queen.” There are obviously a lot of names that don’t end up having weirdly fitting meanings, but it’s a lot of fun when they do work out that way and, at least for me, it’s oddly frequent.

It can also be telling of character if their name really doesn’t fit them, if they know that. Obviously the easiest way would be meanings (I have a jerk of a pirate character whose name means “grace”), but what if they just don’t particularly like their name? I’ve never particularly liked my name – partially because it associates me with the Little Mermaid who happens to be my least favorite Disney princess, and also because I know it means “lion of God” and I’m not at all bold or brave so I don’t think it fits. If your character doesn’t like their name, do they still use it? Do they go by their middle name instead? Do they jump at the chance to come up with a screen name? Do they ever have it legally changed or just not use it?

Then there are also those characters on the run who change their names to keep themselves safe. In Unstoppable, almost all of our characters have aliases because they’re on the run from Grantech and think it will help. (This is Grantech. It doesn’t.) One character in particular, Dagmar, changed her name mostly to leave her past behind, and changes it again in a later book after more stuff happens and she wants to reforge herself again.

Telling of Setting

In a speculative fiction world, it’s quite possible that your setting could have naming conventions. In Kersir, I have a few words for each country that many of their names are based on. Having a running list of names for each one makes it easy to name a character from one of those places, and it’s easy for me to know where they’re from (honestly your readers likely won’t know what your character’s name means and it’s mostly for your benefit as the author to select it based on meaning). Other kinds of naming conventions could be things like “All girls’ names must end in the letter N,” or “All boys’ names must be six letters long.”

Names That Come… And Names That Don’t

This isn’t really a tip, just a commiseration. Sometimes names will come immediately to mind for a character and fit perfectly. Other times you’ll spend a month trying to figure out a name that kinda-sorta fits as a placeholder. I’m generally fortunate enough to be able to come up with a character name quickly, but there have been other times when I’ve had to search and search and search for a name that worked; Catessa went through at least two official names before I settled on Catessa, and I have a whole page of names I kind of considered. My new character Ash, from the Grantech scene I posted several days ago, went through about three names and I’m still not 100% content with his name. Naming can be a struggle, but it’s wonderful when you’re finally able to settle on the right name.

​Place Names

Place names are almost as important as character names. I say almost only because character names are used more and thus have an edge on place names, but really there’s little difference in importance.

Telling of Genre

Just like character names, place names can help determine a story’s genre. If all the places are unpronounceable, you’re probably reading sci-fi. (I do not suggest making your names unpronounceable). If they’re regal – Erilea, Parenna, Minas Tirith, Paravel – they’re probably fantasy. If they’re really boring nouns that simply describe the place itself, it’s probably dystopian. (Please at least be creative with those). Another possibility with dystopian/post-apocalyptic names is to modify the existing name of the place. For instance, calling Washington D.C. Warden in Mournseeker. While these names aren’t particularly similar, I started with the letter W because the original was Washington. Bella from While I Was Sleeping and Rebellion Ever After lives in Minton, formerly known as Mineral, Idaho. This makes things a little easier on you trying to come up with the names and may or may not give your readers a clue as to where they are in the world they know.

Telling of Setting

I poked fun at dystopian stories for naming things simple descriptive nouns – The Maze, The Scorch, Pures, The Selection, Dwellers, etc. – but descriptive names can actually be helpful… when used well and creatively. For instance, super-powered humans in Concordia (the country where Grantech is located, a.k.a. future America) are called Genetic Deviants, Deviants for short; while this is a descriptive noun, it’s also not the most glaringly obvious noun I could have chosen (like “Mutants”), so it’s not so obtrusive. Feel free to use nouns subtly.

There are also settings like Camp Green Lake in Holes. The opening paragraph of Holes is this:

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.​

Misnamed settings can be really interesting and offer deeper insight into the world. Why was it misnamed? Was it originally misnamed or has something simply changed, like in Holes?

You could also pick a place name based on its meaning, or give a made-up name a meaning in whatever fantasy language it’s in. Again, your reader likely will never know that it means what it means, but it can be fun or helpful for you to know, as the author.

​Pen Names

This is almost like a bonus section, since it’s not naming a fictional thing. Pen names are obviously not necessary to publish, but some people choose to use them because they want to write in multiple genres and want to keep them separate or because they want to remain anonymous or for some other reason. I’m using one because I think it sounds cooler and more fantasy-ish and because if my dad ever finally finishes and publishes his book he’ll be using a pen name and I kind of followed his example.

Whatever your reason for using a pen name, you’ll want it to be one that fits you, that you can be comfortable using everywhere for yourself, and that fits your genre. For instance, if you’re a fantasy writer you probably don’t want a pen name like Rosie Mallard, which sounds like either a mystery or historical fiction romance author. (Tip: Initials tend to be popular with fantasy authors. J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc.)

One thing you can do when developing a pen name is base it on your real name. My pen name, R.M. Archer, is based on my real initials. Even when I use a screen name it always starts with A, like my real name.

Or, of course, you could totally deviate away from your real name and go by Parsley Marigold when your name is Terra Patterson. Pick something that fits you and fits your writing and you’re good to go.

Do you enjoy naming things? What method do you use?

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4 thoughts on “N: Names in Writing

  1. You were talking about names not fitting a character or a person in real life; my sister heard it said that what your name means is the thing you most struggle with, like you said your name means bold and you tend to be less bold. It adds an interesting dynamic to your character if all their life they struggle to be “what they’re supposed to be”.

  2. Random fun fact, just because one of the last few sentences made me think of it: Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorn Clemens.

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