Basics of writingCharactersStory Details

Advice on naming characters and things in fiction

From Scott:

For writers of science fiction and fantasy, a special challenge arises. Unless you have specifically set the milieu for your project on the Earth, in a set time and place, you will need to create a lot of new words. In fantasy realms, you need to have names for the different aspects of magic, the lands your characters inhabit, and the creatures they will encounter. For science fiction works, you’ll be creating entire star systems, and perhaps be making more than one. You have new technology to invent and the various aspects of it to name.

In both science fiction and fantasy, you are faced with the possibility of needing to create entire races. So are you, as the writer, free to muddle through the process, throwing words together as you see fit? Or are there some set guidelines you should try to follow? Obviously, since this is the blog topic, there are a number of guidelines you should try to adhere to as closely as possible.

For the matter of new races, let’s start with fantasy novels. These types of books come in different classes. In some fantasy novels, all of the characters are human. In others, there are multiple races. For the most part, I find that the fantasy works that contain multiple races tend to stick to the theme presented by J.R.R. Tolkien, and furthered by the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons: humans, elves, dwarves, and so on. As the writer, you are free to go on from there and to create your own races, although this would be highly unusual. For the most part, fantasy writers don’t venture into that realm.

Your next question is one of style: Is your character an elf, or an Elf (notice the capital letter)? There are many opinions on the matter of capitalizing the various races in works of fiction, and this goes for science fiction as well. After all, in our day-to-day writing, you won’t see the word “human” capitalized. But on the other hand, you will always see the Star Trek race “Klingon” capitalized. In my opinion, consistency is the key. If you choose to capitalize one of the races, stick with it. If you want “human” to be in lower case, then put all of your races that way. For my novels, I capitalize the races. I leave this one up to writer’s discretion.

Likewise, in science fiction novels, you will generally see multiple races. There are some out there where all characters are human. While unusual, it really isn’t so rare as to garner negative attention. In fact, it could be looked at as a niche market, so I’m definitely not discouraging it.

But as with fantasy, if you create new races, pick a capitalization scheme and stick with it. Science fiction is where you are much more likely to have a new race invented by the writer. Created races present another challenge besides capitalization: pronunciation. Often, I see writers create completely unpronounceable names, apparently in an effort to make it appear alien. And it works, at least from that standpoint. But as Rick and I have pointed out many times, anything you write that makes the reader stop and think about your words, will pull the reader out of the story. Doing that is to be avoided at all costs. Leave your reader immersed in the world you’ve created, not sounding out a name. When you name your space alien bad guy “Jkdlesvbnuf,” or some such absurdity, every time the reader comes to that name, there will be a pause as she tries to figure out exactly how to say it.

That’s not to say you can’t make up names of things. Far from it. Just make it something that makes phonetic sense. Look at my example in the previous paragraph. When would you ever see a “v” and a “b” together? Never, obviously. So stay away from names like that.

[ADDENDUM BY SCOTT PER EMAIL AFTER BLOG WAS POSTED: “So, I have the word ‘obviously’ in the sentence right after I say that a V and a B are never together. And there they are, together, in ‘obviously.’ I should have said you never have a B after a V. Or maybe I should have just chosen different letters. But it really is kinda funny…”]

On a side note, you should try to avoid an error I made when creating the characters for The Killing Frost. There are human characters in that novel, human characters whose race came from the Earth. Unfortunately, I made up alien-sounding names for all of the characters, including the humans. Yes, you could argue that names evolve, and maybe in 200 years no one will be named “John Smith.” But for a reader living in this century, it would make more sense to give human names to your human characters. Of course, you can vary the ethnic background and give them matching names. But if the names sound human, it will set that character in the reader’s mind that much better.

Here’s a tip for naming alien characters. Years ago, I bought a reference guide for naming characters. It contained actual names (along with their English translations) for dozens of cultures throughout human history. When I created a new race, I chose an ancient human culture for that race. Every character from that race got their name from the same culture. Of course, I altered the name a bit, to make it uniquely my own. This way, since the names all came from a common root, it added a bit of continuity to the naming convention. Hopefully, it helped the reader associate each character with that character’s race.

One thing to avoid in the naming of characters, places, races, and so on, is similar-sounding names. I hate to pick on the father of fantasy fiction, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are an example of how to confuse the reader with similar names. Granted, The Hobbit was originally intended for a very young audience. In children’s stories, you would expect a bit of rhyme in certain aspects, but to have your two evil wizards named Sauron and Saruman is to open your readers to confusion. The first time I read Tolkien’s books, I was highly confused by the names. The dwarf characters, in particular, were given nearly identical names among each set of brothers. Bifur and Bofur. Fili and Kili. You are better off staying away from that to avoid confusion and angry readers down the road.

In my current science fiction project, The Omega Sacrifice, I had to change a couple of names because, upon review during the editing process, I felt that the names were too similar. Rick spotted one of those errors for me. Always good to have an extra eye on these kinds of things!

If you aren’t sure about the names you have given your characters and places, read them aloud and see how they sound. Better yet, give the names to someone else and have them read the names aloud. If you have four or five different people read a name for you, and they all give it a different pronunciation, you might want to give it another look. You might consider using an accent mark, but that presents problems, as well. Most names we see these days don’t have an accent mark. The unusual feature could pull your reader out of the story the first few times it is encountered. There is also the problem of formatting. Is the accent in the middle of the word, at the end, or maybe over a letter? Be very careful here, because when you go to format that book for e-publishing (or even for print publishing) there may be an issue with where that accent mark falls.

So now you have your names: names of characters, of places, of races, and technology. Don’t make the mistake of dumping all of this on the reader at once. One of the best ways to confuse a reader is to introduce the names of eight or nine main characters at same time. Imagine if you join a readers’ group and the other dozen members all know each other already. They go around the room and say their name, but five minutes later, you have forgotten most of them. The same thing goes in fiction. If you throw too many characters into the mix right away, you’ll have a confused reader who, at best, keeps referring back to refresh her memory, or at worst, puts the book down and never reads your works again. This is especially damaging if the person is reading a free sample and hasn’t yet bought the book. You’ll probably lose the purchase.

An example of a better way to do this is my second novel, The Piaras Legacy. In that book, I have eight main characters on the “good” side, along with a few supporting characters and a couple of powerful villains. But you are a few chapters in before you’ve met the entire cast. The plot is there right away, for the hook, but it starts with just two characters, and they grab the others as they go along.

Another consideration is the time period you are working in. If you have a medieval fantasy novel and want your character riding a majestic horse, don’t use a Clydesdale. That breed, developed in Scotland, didn’t come about until the nineteenth century. Obviously, they weren’t around in the Middle Ages, or in any related fantasy time period. (Side note: this issue could also fall under my previous blog about doing a little research before just throwing something into your story). Likewise, look at the names you’re using. Some names that people have today were not around a millennium ago. If you’re getting time period specific, just make sure the name you want was in use back then.

[A NOTE FROM RICK: I found it amusing that Scott specifically mentioned Clydesdale horses because in a fantasy novel I recently edited, the author actually referred to Clydesdale horses in one scene. I pointed out the problem and he changed it.]

If you’re writing contemporary fiction, even if it falls into a more speculative field (for example, vampires living in 21st century America), you may be tempted to throw in very specific names for devices. If your character is carrying the latest version of the iPhone 6, make sure that the release date for that phone wasn’t after the time period for your story.

So what this all boils down to is that there is a lot more that needs to go into your naming creations than what you might think: ease of pronunciation, avoiding similarity to other names, volume of new names. Take some time and make sure you think it through. You’ll be pleased with the results, and so will your readers.


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