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The Significance of Names (Part 1)

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Nov. 27, 2020
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Picking a name for your character is a pivotal moment. Almost like breathing life into them, the name you pick for them will give their identity a hue, a flavor that wouldn't be the same with any other name. Yes, a Rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but “Briar Rose” predisposes you for a whole different kind of fragrance than “Bush Blossom.”

Every creator has a different method for picking names. I think it is so unique to each one of us that it can't really be put into any one mould.

What can be done, though, is highlight some aspects to name picking that we all consider to some extent when we're picking names for our characters. These are not rules per se; it is my deep conviction that there's nothing you can't get away with if you are an accomplished enough creator, writer, character designer. But that said, it's nice to be aware of some trajectories before we veer off them.

1. Etymology is your friend

Most names have some kind of meaning to them. Either because the root of the name means something in some form of the language in which it was created, or because they are associated with certain archetypes, schemas, or impression imprinted in our common unconscious (like “Arthur” or “Victoria” or “Adolf”). If you are one for symbolism, or if the name is supposed to be significant to the character's personality or destiny or general existence, this is the way to pick a name that won't feel like a slap in the face with a slice of ham. (Like “Ace Goodheart” for your good-guy pilot…)

2. Historicity matters

Every era, from the most ancient times to the most modern ones, have names that match them in terms of style, sound, frequency, spelling, and even social rank. It is important to be aware of the era's norms when you are picking names, even if you decide to go for the unusual or the exotic- exactly because you need to know what would count for exotic at any given time. Even when you are designing a fantasy world, you are going to be mining its general setting, technology, social structure and regime from some era of the real world. It's good to know what kind of names would go with that era, and keep elements, sounds, or approaches to naming authentic between your fantasy world and the era you're basing it on. It will add a sense of authenticity and realism to your story and your world which will in turn help immersion and suspension of disbelief.

3. Make them pronouncable

How do you pronounce “Brn'c'len'wg”? Names are given to individuals with the explicit purpose of being easy to use in order to call them, relatively easy to remember, and relatively lending themselves to being shouted across crowds. So though a difficult or extremely bizzarely spelled name will perhaps give a sense of outlandishness (or pretentiousness, depending on the audience), it will also run the risk of throwing the reader from the story trying to parse and understand/retain the name. If it becomes hard for you to remember how the character's name is spelled, then perhaps it's a flag for you to reconsider it.

4. Don't give similar names

It might be confusing for an audience to remember who is who in a cast that is named Pat, Pete, Paul, Paulie and Patricia. And while this is an extreme example played for laughs, Amy and Amelie might still be too similar, or even Ron and Don. The more dissimilar the names of your different characters are the better. They will help them be distinguishable and memorable faster than when they sound similar or even alike.

At the end of the day, however, remember: The name wears the character at first, but in the end it's the character that wears the name.

What I mean by that is that, just like in real life, no matter what name you choose for your character, if the design is solid, the name will eventually (or immediately) fit, even if at first glance it sounds off to others.

And then…. there's naming places- from your stand-in imaginary village within an otherwise historically accurate world to a full blown fantasy map where everything needs a name. But that's for Part 2!

How do you name your characters?


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anonymous?

usedbooks at 6:52PM, Nov. 28, 2020

Oh, and I took an antagonist name "Dirk" from the protagonist of a book series my mom liked and made us listen to audiobooks on long trips. Because I hated that pompous Mary Sue character, and I thought he had a ridiculous Mary Sue name. XD

usedbooks at 6:47PM, Nov. 28, 2020

I am a notoriously arbitrary namer myself. I picked several main character names randomly from university rosters, phone books, or video games.

usedbooks at 6:45PM, Nov. 28, 2020

I had to take this concept meta the other day. I have a character who insists on giving nicknames to everyone (actually, I have a couple nicknamers). So I did a name brainstorm with my brother not for *good* names but for names this other character would give to his companions. (Tbh, that's almost a separate subject, nicknames and terms of endearment. It says a lot about both namer and namee.)

Tantz_Aerine at 9:47AM, Nov. 28, 2020

I'd read it Gunwallace

Gunwallace at 11:50AM, Nov. 27, 2020

Is it wrong that I now want to write a story about a pilot called Ace Goodheart who at one point gets hit in the face with a slice of ham?

fallopiancrusader at 9:00AM, Nov. 27, 2020

I try as much as possible to steal words from real languages and use them in ways that they weren’t supposed to be used. I feel that his makes them easier for readers to remember. For example, one city in Tusk is named “Cloudrail”, and a city in Mindfold is named Tuft.”One culture in Mindfold always names individuals with anatomical terms, like Amygdala, Trochanter, Fossa, or Piriformis. Etc. Even if the names I use come from dead languages, they still sound familiar enough to english speakers to be (relatively)easy to remember. For example, “Khthonis” is a bad spelling of chthonic, meaning “subterranean” in Ancient Greek. The name of the species known as “ailaurs” in my comics is a portmanteau of “centaur” and “ailouros,” also Ancient Greek words. Some characters will have nicknames, which are usually whimsical. “Kit comes from “kitten caboodle,” who was a character in the “peanuts” comic strip, and Khthonis is sometimes (jovially) called, “Tusk,” describing her prominent lower teeth.

TheDeeMan at 4:42AM, Nov. 27, 2020

I'll get a name from anywhere. For example, when I did "GAAK" the lead character Zach and his family were named after my friend Scott's kids, Jemmy (who's name was "Jemimah Butterworth") was named after the after the breakfast I had the sunday I was trying to think up names for the characters in that story, which was Aunt Jemimah pancakes with Mrs. Butterworth syrup. In "the Continentals" the character of Lady Fiona Fiziwigg got her last name from a character in "The Christmas Carol" and her partner Smythe was named after a character I saw in an old episode of "I dream of jeannie" a british agent named "Jeffrey Tiffen Smythe".

giovanni at 4:17AM, Nov. 27, 2020

other than that, whenever i manage to find a name, i try to make up an entirely new word

giovanni at 4:11AM, Nov. 27, 2020

i somehow hate the principle of etymology of names. like a character cannot be itself without being shackled to the signification of its name. in a way, i much prefer things like Goblin Slayer where characters do not have names but rather descriptives. as a sort of proof that names are not a good signification of a character's identity


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