The Naming of Names
by Tim Waggoner
In Ursula LeGuins Earthsea books, magic is accomplished
when wizards learn the true names of things. Discover the
true name of fire, and it is yours to command. In fairy tales,
if you learn Rumplestilskins name, the evil sprite is
banished. Speak of the Devil, though, and he shall appear.
Names have power, especially in fiction. Use the right names,
and the characters and places you write about assume added
depth and resonance. Use the wrong ones, and your story at
best will be forgettable, at worst, laughable.
While choosing the right names is never easy for writers
of any stripe, authors of science fiction, fantasy (and to
a lesser degree, horror) have an especially tough time of
it. Mainstream writers can use the names of friends, relatives
and co-workers. They can set their stories in their hometown
and use the names of its diner, high school, laundromat, altered
only slightly, if at all. But where can writers of speculative
fiction go to find names for the characters and places which
make up their more exotic dreamscapes?
You can start the same place many expectant parents do --
baby name books. Sure, theyre full of ordinary names,
but they also contain not-so-ordinary ones. A glance through
one of my favorites, Beyond Jennifer and Jason by Linda
Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, turned up the following:
Adria, Amyas, Diantha, Doria, Garson, Kai, Merce, Sekka, Tamar
and Zaraawar. All suitable for a science fiction or fantasy
There are other naming resources geared specifically for
writers. The Writers Digest Character Naming Sourcebook
by Sherrilyn Kenyon contains, as the cover copy says, "20,000
first and last names and their meanings from around the world."
The name lists are separated into categories such as Anglo-Saxon,
Dutch, German, etc. I often choose character names by scanning
the corresponding meanings. Want your fantasy warriors
name to mean brave? Try Cathasach. Want your villains
name to mean dark? How does Duvessa sound? Horror author
Yvonne Navarro has complied a volume called The Reverse
Name Dictionary which makes this process even easier.
Another resource that I sometimes use to come up with names
is the phone book. Uncommon surnames, when used as first names,
often have an archaic or fantastical feel to them. Choosing
at random for this article, I found Hython, Krabill, Maddala,
Norrod, Uffner . . . I could go on and on.
Of course, these names dont work only for individual
characters. They could just as easily be the names of alien
races, or countries in a fantasy land.
Foreign language dictionaries can be of great help. If Im
writing a medieval fantasy and I dont feel like using
the tired term wizard for my magic workers, I might
turn to my Latin dictionary and find magus and veneficus.
Neither floats my boat, so I start free-associating. What
do magicians do? They perform tricks. I look up trick
and one of the words I find next to it is artificium.
With a little tweak, that becomes Artificer. And now
I have a term that not only sounds good, its more original.
A thesaurus works well for this too. For example, in my (as
yet unpublished) novel, The Harmony Society, I wrote
a sequence which took place in a nightmarish hospital. I went
to my Rogets, looked up hospital, and eventually
came across the old-fashioned term fever house. Fever
House -- what better name could there be for a place of madness
And then there are those happy accidents when names just
come to you. While I was in the process of plotting The
Harmony Society, I was listening to the car radio and
heard the singer refer to "Brother Nothing." Hot
damn, what a great name! I thought enviously. But the
next time the refrain came around, I realized I had misheard.
Brother Nothing wasnt a name; the singer was actually
saying, "Brother, nothing you can do will stop me,"
or somesuch. Thanks to the perversity of my own subconscious,
I had a name for my novels main antagonist.
Lest you become too self-conscious about choosing names,
Ill let you in on a secret. Even such inevitable-seeming
names such as Sherlock Holmes and Luke Skywalker seem that
way only after the fact. Its a bit of folklore that
children will grow to fit their names. It might not be true
for real people, but it certainly is for fictional ones. As
long as your characters names arent strings of
unpronounceable consonants or inspired by Saturday morning
cartoons -- "Look out, Commander Galaxy! Hear come the
Sinistars!" -- you should be all right.
Besides, I thought Luke Skywalker sounded pretty stupid
the first time I heard it. And I hear the kids gone
on to do all right for himself.