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Naming strategies—people, places, and things

From Scott:

Naming your characters (and the places and things) in your story can be more challenging than it appears at first glance. After all, they’re your characters, so you can name them whatever you want, right? True, but to keep your reader engaged in the story, rather than wondering why you named someone (or something) what you did, here are some guidelines to follow.

When writing a novel based on Earth, the selection of names for your characters, their locations, and the tools they use is fairly simple. Care must be taken to utilize culturally specific names for the characters. If one of your characters is an Aborigine who was born in the Australian Outback, you shouldn’t give that character a name like “Tom” or “Nancy.”

The time period is also important. Many names that people go by today were not used in the Medieval Period, and using such names in a medieval story would definitely throw off the reader. When I created the Arab and Israeli names in Martyr’s Inferno, I did my research on the Internet. I chose real names, using the naming conventions common to those cultures.

Along that same line, when writing in historical times prior to our own, there are other pitfalls to avoid. For example, certain breeds of animals, especially dogs, were created by humans through selective breeding, for specific purposes. In this example, if you choose to have a dog of that certain breed in your story, be certain that the breed existed during the time period you are writing. Horses are another example. Want to have a Clydesdale in your story? Better make sure your novel begins after the breed was officially named in 1826. Conversely, species that have gone extinct may end up in your story, which is fine—as long as they existed in the time period of your project.

Technology follows this same line of thinking. This is an obvious example, but it makes my point. The first repeating rifle, the Henry model, was patented in 1860. Having a repeating rifle in an 18th century novel will definitely garner you some negative attention from your readers.

Animals and technology aren’t your only concerns. There are many other things about our planet that are constantly changing. Look at the nations of Europe and how the borders (and even the names) have changed over the last 100–150 years. Do your research! If you set your time period in the 1920s and send a character to the nation of Iran, you just made a mistake. A quick search will tell you that it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that the country became officially known as Iran. So what I’m saying is, for anything that goes into your story that is a real person, place, or thing, you need to be certain of your knowledge. Do your research!

When writing a fantasy or science-fiction novel, or even a novel based on another world or involving alien life, you’ve eliminated most of the need for research since you will be creating the names of much, if not all, of the things in the book. But while you have gotten away from that hurdle, you have presented yourself with many more challenges.

I’ll start with character names. Do you think an alien from the Alpha Centauri system would be named Bob? The chances of that are so remote that they’re not worth mentioning. If there are human characters in the story, you have options. Give them Earth-related names? Sure. Give them something that sounds alien? That can be done, but it can also lead to confusion when your reader sees the alien name attached to a human character. Caution is advised, and personally, I would avoid it.

When I’m naming characters from alien races, I learned from the mistakes I made in the creation of my first novel, The Killing Frost (science fiction). I basically made up the names out of whole cloth, with no rhyme or reason to any of it. Sure, the names sounded alien, because they were nothing in use today. But they also had no common ground to draw from. I also gave alien-sounding names to my human characters, I believe to detrimental effect.

Instead, what I do now is to draw from different historical and cultural races on Earth. For example, I may choose Ancient Greece for one race. I’ll pick out an ancient Greek name that I like, alter it a bit to make it my own, and assign it to a character. That way, the names are still my original creations, but they have common etymological roots and have a better chance of sounding like they come from the same culture.

There is another concern, once you have created this new name, a concern that Rick and I have covered many times in this blog. When your reader is immersed in the story, that’s where you want the reader to stay. The reader’s mind should be picturing a television screen, watching your novel play out. Everything is rolling along nicely. And then you introduce a new alien creature named something unpronounceable, like “Rtzlum.” Alien sounding? Yes. Confusing to the reader? Very much so.

If I’m reading your novel, the first time I see that name I will come to a dead halt as I try to figure out how to pronounce it. You have succeeded in pulling me out of the story. And not just once. Every time I see that name, my mind will pop back to reality as I wonder if I’m pronouncing it right. Stay away from these unpronounceable names!

As a rider on this rule, I would throw in names containing punctuation marks, such as the often-used apostrophe. The reader will experience that same type of confusion in trying pronounce the name. “KEy’Oan” might not be as egregious as “Rtzlum,” but it’s still a problem. Yes, the apostrophe can be used in a manner that doesn’t interrupt the reader, such as “O’Leary.” But in that case, you are using something the reader is already familiar with. I’d advise steering clear.

Another problem is commonality of pronunciation of names. I realize that in our culture, it’s very common for twins to have similar-sounding names. But in a novel, it is inadvisable. The confusion you will cause among your readers is incalculable. We all know of a very famous writer who didn’t follow this rule when creating his characters. Out of respect, I won’t mention the writer or the novels by name. But I will point out that this writer caused me a lot of trouble trying to keep characters straight, with so many characters in the novels having rhyming names. I had to constantly stop reading and try to remember which character was which.

[RICK feels compelled to comment: As with any advice or rules, there can be exceptions. Chris Keaton and I used “Zoe” and “Chloe” as the names of the twins in our novels (with no readers commenting that there was confusion), and this worked because, despite the rhyme, we gave the twins very different personalities. Having two characters named Jack and Jake, or Bill and Will, or John and Jonathan is an open invitation to problems. And I’ve mentioned before that giving all your characters very common names makes it hard for readers to keep them apart unless you make the characters strongly individual and memorable. Imagine a novel with several minor characters having names like Jane, Mark, Mary, Michael, John, Ellen, James, William, Robert, Steve, Nancy, Beth, Sam, Margaret, Thomas, Barbara, Dave, Dan, Julie, Joe. These are all good names, but if you put several of together, will the reader be able to remember who is who, especially if they do have minor roles? So, it pays to take time to name even your minor characters carefully. Back to Scott…]

A similar problem will occur when you introduce too many characters at one time. Again, I draw on the mistakes of The Killing Frost to demonstrate. I introduced the main character, Arano Lakeland, when he was alone on his home planet. I gave the reader some time to get to know him, and I did so deliberately. That was fine, but I soon dropped the ball, so to speak. I introduced the other five members of his team, along with a couple of supporting characters, in just a couple of pages. In my original draft, all six members of Arano’s team had nicknames, and I threw those in as well. Fortunately, a discriminating test-reader spotted my mistake with the nicknames and pointed it out to me. But looking back, I really should have brought the characters in one or two at a time. They are much more memorable in the reader’s mind that way.

One last pitfall I’d like to point out is the use of exclamatory words that are religion-specific. If you are writing about humans, then this won’t matter as much—unless you’ve pointed out that your character is a polytheist following an ancient religion, and you have him yell “Jesus!” Not likely. For that matter, if your story predates Christianity, then there should be no Christianity-related exclamations of any kind, since the religion doesn’t exist yet.

On a parallel to that thought, alien races would be highly unlikely to use these particular exclamations. To get away with having an alien use such terms would require you to establish that this character has lived among Christians (or whatever religion your terms originate from) and has picked up their vernacular. It’s still risky to do so. A great example is Star Trek. I cringe when I hear a character from a polytheistic race, such as the Bajorans, say something like, “Oh my god.” Bajorans have many gods, so this term would not have developed in their culture.

So, whether you are basing your novel here on our little spinning ball of rock, or in a place far away from here; whether the story is set in the past, the present, or the future; whether it exists in this universe or another, put some time into the creation of the names you use. It doesn’t matter if you are naming a character, or a country, or a planet, or even some new technology you just created in your head, drag it through these rules and see if it fits. It also helps to consult with a friend who can act as a second set of eyes to make sure there is nothing confusing about what you’ve chosen. Your work will be better for it!


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