On Naming: Vol. 2, the Quest for the Name

by Brenda W. Clough

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA You write fantasy or science fiction novels. And, unless you write very philosophical Olaf-Stapledon type fiction about colliding universes and enormous spans of time, you have created science-fictional or fantasy characters — elves, Klingons, Martians, Wookkies. They need names — and this time you cannot resort to Robert, Mildred and Susie!

This is particularly hard for those of us who need to have the names in hand before starting to write. Because names imply enormous things. We do not notice this so much, because modern Western culture pervades all we see and do so thoroughly. But step out for a moment. You don’t need a rocket ship and FTL to travel to another world. All you need do is learn another language and culture. And suddenly names mean something different. Paul Atreides changes his name to Paul Muad’Dib in Dune. The change of name shows the spiritual change. Or open  your newspaper. Some Midwestern kid moved to Syria yesterday and joined ISIS. What did he do, just before that? He changed his name from Jason to Ali.

So, somehow, before you’ve invented the world, figured out the plot, or anything, you need a character. And to handle him  you need a handle — a name. In fact in inventing this name all the rest will follow: because the world is encapsulated in the name, and the name embodies character which will inevitably lead you to plot. Pantsers have it hard! But even if you are not a pantser — names are so important that you might well start here as well. J.R.R. Tolkien had Middle Earth and its languages mapped out in fanatical detail long before he sat down to write The Hobbit. But to start that work he needed Bilbo Baggins, who is not (as Gandalf notes) in any of the material about the Eldar at all. All those appendices at the back of LOTR, they were not the story. Bilbo was the story.

So let’s brood like Jehovah over the primordial chaos, and pluck a name out of nothing. It would be helpful at this early stage if you have some idea of what kind of book it is you’re going to write. Even the most general parameter will help you here. A romance novel, a space opera, a hard-boiled detective novel — this directly affects the characters’ names. If you don’t have the kind of book in mind, hopefully you have a grasp of the tone. People named Paul Atreides or Elrond HalfElven are not going to be slipping on banana peels, but a Bilbo Baggins might well be impaled upon the social embarrassment of twelve  unexpected dwarves to tea.

Keeping all this in mind, start shopping for words — words that have the quality you are looking for. Atreides for example, is not original with Frank Herbert. It is the ancient name for the Greek royal house of Mycenae: Atreus, Agamemnon, Orestes and the gang. Herbert recycled a name with the perfect resonances for what he needed. You can too. Cut-throat Bronze Age dynasties don’t do it? How about NASA engineers? South Asian deities? Zelazny did great with those in Lord of Light.

C.S. Lewis, a notable name-smith, did it by ear. ‘Maleldil’ was chosen because of the liquid flow of the L sounds over the vowels. Notice how many of the names in his Narnia books — Trumpkin, Puddleglum, Dufflepud — are modifications or chop-and-splice from English. His buddy Tolkien was of course the greatest namer of them all, and dipped from the pure fountain of language. All the Elven names in LOTR mean something in the various Elven dialects.

I instinctively work by eye and manipulation, as many crafty and handy people do. The name has to look right, and I have to forge it by moving stuff around. And I have a cheap and blatantly mundane trick, especially for names in volume — Scrabble tiles. Get yourself a Scrabble set, and use the little wooden rack for the tiles. Lay all the tiles out in the box lid, and start sorting. What letters of the alphabet look right for the names? You could sort them by groups — families, gender, status, titles. Certain syllables or combinations of letters look better — move these over to another wooden rack. How long should each name be? Long ones can be strung together out of nice-looking syllables. Perhaps all high-class people have names beginning with Vor, like Lois McMaster Bujold’s heroes. Keep track of all your favorites in a Word file or something, and you can fish one out every time a flunky needs a name.

And! Don’t forget to shove all of your creations through Google. If that fine alien-sounding name is NSFW slang in France for an skin-crawlingly gruesome type of genital piercing, you want to discover this -before- you write that entire novel.


The ebook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe. And it is available now in an audio book edition which is read by Bronson Pinchot!

How Like a God, by Brenda W. CloughMy newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.




On Naming: Vol. 2, the Quest for the Name — 7 Comments

  1. Thank you for the Google reminder! I actually had to take a word out of my reprint of Night Calls. It’s an old, common word for a critter–but it also has a recent slang meaning that would have catapulted new age adults right out of the book.

    • You can’t cover all these bases, for all time. Poor Prince Albert (husband to Queen Victoria), what they’ve done with his name would make the poor man drop dead all over again. (If you google this, for all love do not do it at work!) But you can at least begin right, and get your chops in first. Later on, when the pornographers take off with your neologism, at least the Wikipedia entry will always refer back to your character.

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  3. And let’s not forget that if you are going for realistic near-future fic, you will want to calculate what names adults will have when your story takes place. It was jarring for me, reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars”, that the American main characters had names like Phyllis, John, Ann, and Frank… the book takes place in 2026, which means the characters would have been born in the 1980s or 90s. It would have been far more realistic for them to be named Jennifer, Josh, Heather, and Brandon! I suspect Robinson was unable to envision names younger than his own generation as heroic-sounding enough, but the detail is seriously anachronistic.

    This century’s American leaders will be named Tamika, Jayden, Luis, Mackenzie, et al. They might not sound “presidential” to us now, but that’s part of what contributes to the imagined future’s culture shock.

  4. Pingback: On Naming: Vol. 3, A Place for Every Thing | Book View Cafe Blog

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