How to Name Characters, Creatures, and Places Without Regret
Naming characters, creatures, and places for your fantasy or sci-fi stories is hard stuff. It’s hard even for people who write stories about our real world. (You can’t just name everyone Steve or Barbara.) When we were naming our pets, my dad had a rule. “I have to be able to call the dog in the field,” he would say. The conversation came up first when my sister wanted to name our Beagle “Cookie”.
I think she won that argument anyway.
Even so, as a 30 some year old guy, I see where my dad was coming from. There’s a commercial where a man closes the door and calls out, “Mr Barky Von Schnauzer!” It’s comedy, but imagine my dad, your dad, some dad, a hunter, calling a dog named Mr Barky Von Schnauzer. It just doesn’t fit. He’ll likely feel self-conscious about the whole ordeal.
A Tale of Two Naming Conventions
When I’m naming things in my fantasy and sci-fi stories, I have to consider that same rule as well. It’s easy to come up with something that works phonetically. But we all know that reading is different than speaking. I don’t have illusions of grandeur where I’m speaking about my works of literature to masses of fans. But the scene is rather comical if I’m not careful in choosing a name.
“The Smarlgsblarr of the Southern Svekenglarbarg province are different from their mortal enemies, the fairies of Ostenkingeshbadland. I liked writing Hungelder the most, because his wit challenged me. His romantic interest Yyekslesksa was a tough one. She never felt like she had enough contrast with him until the last page. You know, that scene in castle Horkelstein?”
I mean, can you imagine George R. R. Martin trying to read that? It’s laughable, to say the least.
I’m going to completely rip-off Tolkien here for a minute and steal his characters and places. Tolkien is the gold-standard for naming fantasy things after all.
“The Men of the Kingdom of Rohan are different from their mortal enemies, the orcs of Mordor. I liked writing Théoden the most, because his lunacy challenged me. His counselor, Grima, was a tough one, he never felt like he had enough contrast with him until the last page. You know, that scene in Rohan?”
Which feels better? To me, it’s Tolkien’s names all day long. Though I admit to exaggerating this point, I have seen names that rival those I made up for this post. Okay, a castle named Horkelstein may be a stretch farther still.
If we’re not careful, we’ll write these kinds of names because we can’t think of anything better. I think most of the time names like this were probably at one point placeholder. The real thing was never decided before weariness set in. That goes for both characters, locations, and creatures in fantasy and sci-fi writing.
Names in Sci-Fi. (Okay, Just Star Wars)
Which sounds better, the planet Hoth, or Draknar 6? Draknar 6 is a tightrope of a name, if you ask me. A lot of people would just accept it if you pair it with some aliens that hold grudges and growl a lot. But Hoth is neutral and works from whatever angle. You’ll feel a lot less silly in a writer’s workshop talking about Hoth than you will Draknar 6.
What about Kashyyyk? Visually, it’s insanity. Though I do appreciate how unapologetically they repeated the y. But if you break it down, the name is just “Cash-ik”. It’s hard to argue complexity there. The use of duplicate letters dies in pronunciation. It’s easy to imagine George Lucas on a stage speaking about Kashyyyk without breaking a sweat. Being George Lucas, he can most likely talk about Draknar 6 without breaking a sweat, too. But as someone listening, it will likely rub me the wrong way. It feels close, but still a bit lazy and expected.
Your Brain As a Rock Tumbler For Names
There were a few names in my own work that I wrote when I was a kid. I must have been in sixth grade when I got stuck on the “ium” endings for cities. Some of them stuck, others went away a long time ago. That’s a perk about letting names bounce around in your brain for years, it acts a bit like a rock tumbler. You put in a metaphorical rock and you get out a polished metaphorical rock. Sometimes those rocks can be set in fancy rings. The key there is giving yourself space to think about them. Rock tumblers work over time.
If you sit down and name something right now, you’ll hate it tomorrow. Unless you’re especially good at naming things or luck shows up. But if you write it with hesitation, and you morph it over a few weeks, the chances are it’ll stick longer. For me, I have to pencil something in and then just ignore it for awhile. When I come back, that name will usually grate on my nerves a bit. If it doesn’t, I’m on to something. But if I stare at a name for a week, I’ll become blind to it, and it feels right when it’s anything but.
The real test is then to talk about the place as if it’s a real, physical location. If your story is good, the places, characters, and creatures will become real to your readers.
When your names are more natural, your readers will feel less friction. Less friction means they’re more likely to talk about your story. As fantasy and Science Fiction writers, we already face a social hurdle. That goes for both ourselves and our readers. Our work is usually disregarded as fairy, nerdy stuff, fit for social outcasts. And while I comfortable with being fantasy writer, I care more about that for the kid reading my book on the bus. Game of Thrones and Star Wars made our lives easier. But there’s still a distinction between “the cool nerdy stuff” and “the rest of that nerdy stuff.”
Your names will never be perfect, but the ability to speak them with confidence is important.