Character Naming: Part 1

One of the first things the narratograph tends to produce, when developing a new story, is the characters. And one of the first things a character has to have is a name. Dr Ronnie Scott – author of Salad Days, founder of The Lifted Brow and grader of my Honours thesis – described the two leads of my novel Anomalies as ‘the excellently-named Phaedra Kepley and Rik Umborwin’. When I recovered from fainting of shock, I grinned my silly face off for the rest of the week.

I’m often told, to my surprise and delight, that I’m good with character names, so I reckon I might as well share my process. Here are some guiding principles I use when creating names for characters.

  1. Make it easy to pronounce.

This one comes by way of my mother. (Hi, Mum!) When I was a teenager, I showed her a draft of a fantasy novel. The mortifying particulars of that novel I shall not describe, save that one of the bad guys was an alien named General Hlarnak. Alien or not, as Mum said, the HL combination does not roll easily off the English-speaking tongue.

As a reader, I’ve encountered this phenomenon as well. If your character’s name is ‘Kiza’, kindly don’t spell it ‘Khaexha’. If you write ‘Caleat’, I don’t know whether to say ‘Cal-eet’, ‘Kale-at’, ‘Car-lay-ah’, ‘Cay-lee-a’ or any combination thereof. If you’re making up a name, please make the spelling kind to the eye and the tongue, especially if it’s a main character. ‘Grignr’ and ‘Mrifk’ are right out.

Feel free to overlook this principle if you’re giving your character a common real-world name that has odd spelling to begin with (e.g., ‘Siobhan’). But if you do, be warned that you do so at your peril. From your perspective as a writer, the reader may decide on a pronunciation that isn’t what you had in mind. I love Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, but nobody I speak to seems to agree on how to say ‘Pantalaimon’ (I say ‘pant-a-LIE-mun’, like a Jamaican distrusting his trousers). JK Rowling intended for the T in ‘Voldemort’ to be silent, to reflect the French roots of the name (‘vol de mort’ = ‘flight from death’), but most ten-year-olds don’t study French, and the T stuck around. And famously, so many kids and parents were mispronouncing ‘Hermione’ as ‘Her-me-own’ that Rowling actually had the character sound it out in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

  1. Don’t make it embarrassing to say.

That same crappy story I wrote when I was fourteen also violated this rule. A character named Icnacis was mainly referred to by his nickname, which was… ah, jeez… Icky.

I’m blushing even writing it. Shut up. I was fourteen.

Similarly, say your characters’ names aloud before you finalise them to avoid breaking this rule by accident. You may think ‘Niga’ is suitably exotic and ‘Vejonica’ is a neat futuristic derivation of ‘Veronica’ on paper until you hear them aloud.

The only place this can be excused, I think, is in comedic stories, and even then, handle with care. Your readers will be reluctant to discuss your book in classes, at book clubs and in conversation if they don’t want to say the characters’ names. Terry Pratchett has given me many hours of giggles and introspection, and will be dearly missed. That said, he was being a devilish bastard when he coined the names ‘Nobby’, ‘Colon’ and ‘Moist von Lipwig’. I hope I am never called upon to say those out loud.

  1. Find your sound.

Any setting will have a particular ‘sound’ about it, whether it takes place in contemporary Sydney or the planet Yoort. Novels are made up of words. Names are words. Just like the dialogue, they should suit your setting – and if they don’t, there should be a good reason (like a character coming from an unfamiliar world, time period, dimension etc).

I thought Suzanne Collins did this pretty well in The Hunger Games. She used two major principles to give dimension to her futuristic world. The first was using unusual nouns as names. Today’s ‘Rebel’ and ‘Apple’ became tomorrow’s ‘Glimmer’ and ‘Primrose’. The other thing she did was shift the consonants in a few names to indicate that language had evolved. ‘Hamish’ hardened into ‘Haymitch’ – perhaps through synthesisation with ‘Mitchell’. The rhotic American R in ‘Peter’ softened – perhaps through the influence of other dialects of English – into ‘Peeta’.

For fantasy and sci-fi, finding the right sound may require long, hard hours of research. In the novel I’m currently working on, The Celestial Kris, humans and giants in neighbouring territories speak different languages. In Mayuruma, where the humans live, I played with sounds that appear in Iban, an indigenous language of Borneo. None of my characters’ names are actually Iban, but they had the right flavour for my Borneo-inspired setting. I didn’t use any linguistic combinations that don’t occur in Iban, such as TH, V or a final L. I made place names longer, and character names shorter, reflecting what I saw when I travelled in Borneo.

  1. Make the names distinct.

Pretty straightforward. Your office might have three Jessicas, but your novel shouldn’t. Jane, Janette and Janine can’t live in the same novel. People will get confused. In fact, I try to give my central characters names of varying lengths as well, in terms of both the letters and syllables: in The Celestial Kris, the central four are named Ti, Malo, Kechan and Sasuri. Ti used to be named ‘Tilu’, but it sounded too much like ‘Malo’, so I cut the offending syllable. Now Ti’s name has a more distinct look on the page, as well as a rhythm that the other characters’ names don’t.

  1. Symbolic meanings are a minefield for error.

When done right, giving your character a name with a special meaning can delight the reader and make you look really clever. One of my favourite series, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, does this with its leads. ‘Alek’ derives from ‘Alexander’, ‘protector of mankind’, which ties in neatly to the climax of the third book and the hero’s motivations. ‘Deryn’ is an old Scottish name meaning ‘bird’, which links to the heroine’s dream of flying in the Air Force.

When done wrong, you run the risk of looking like you rate yourself – and your characters – a little too highly. ‘Bella Swann’ is so unsubtle, you might as well name your character ‘Beautiful Bestcharacter’ right off the bat.

Under the right circumstances, though, symbolism can be a useful tool. In a comedic work, you can get away with stealthy puns or names that quite obviously reflect the character’s nature. Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker is full of quirky observations on the characters’ roles and their foibles: ‘Dimm’ and ‘Pratt’ are obvious insults, while ‘Dunnage’ and ‘Harridan’ derive from old words for ‘clothes’ and ‘spiteful woman’, respectively.

Many writers favour this method when it comes to naming characters.

Not me, though. I’ll tell you about my favourite naming technique in the next post.

Seen any awful names in fiction? Learned something new? Tell me in the comments!


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