Names can be tricky in writing any genre. They have to sound right and feel right. They may also reflect a person’s age, background, or status, depending on what you’re writing.
Specifically, I’m talking names in fantasy, because it gets murkier here.
Think of the sound.
This is the most important aspect of naming (in any genre) for me. The name has to feel right in that it sounds right. A name could be lovely, but just not fit a character. What does this character’s name sound like to you?
Think of the character’s age.
A younger character might be more likely to go by a cute nickname, whereas an adult might prefer to be more “serious” by going by their birth name.
As such, think of how naming trends might change over time, even in your fantasy world. In the western world as it is now, we’re less likely to name kids with “old timey” names unless it’s a family name. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, obviously, but if you meet someone named “Bertha” or “Prudence” they’re likely to be older. You don’t have to dwell on this too much, but if you want your character’s name to reflect their age, then do consider it.
In my teenage years, “Emily” was one of the most popular girls’ names. A teacher of mine commented how he hated that name (he didn’t disliked people named Emily, just the name) because to him, that was an “old person” name. To him it was an outdated, old timey, name. The name made a comeback it seems.
Consider the character’s status, especially in fantasy.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, the peasants/common people of Westeros don’t have surnames. Family names are saved for the nobility.
If your character is noble, than what does that mean? Do they take on the name of the father, mother, or both? Is it considered a “high status” name? This carries onto the modern day as well where very wealthy or high status people often carry double (or more) surnames.
In your world do names reflect status? Or are names not as big of a deal?
If you’re writing a fantasy in your own unique world, you’re going to have more than one culture. You may not cover all of them, but they should be differentiated if it’s relevant. Cultures that developed independently and are thousands of miles away from each other aren’t going to have the same languages, cultures, or names, just like in our world.
Therefore, two characters from two different cultures should have names that reflect that. Make them spelled different, make them sound different. Have their names reflect the culture they came from.
Naming also varies by culture. Often in English, it’s common to name kids after grandparents, parents, or ancestors. It’s considered an honor to name your kid after that person. In China, as I’ve been told by Chinese teacher (who is from China), it’s not as acceptable, because if you name your kid after a relative, you’re “stealing” their name. Chinese operates on a completely different language system than English so therefore the names (and the culture around names) has a lot of differences.
In some real world cultures, the daughters take the mother’s last names while the sons take the father’s. Again, nothing bad about that, but it can really breathe life into your world to consider how naming varies by culture.
How difficult would it be from a person of one culture to say the names of another? I cannot roll my Rs for the life of me, for example. I try, but I just can’t seem to get it right. Since English is my native language, and I didn’t grow up using that sound, I never learned how to do it exactly right.
I have a friend from Germany who asked me to show how to properly make the English “W” sound. She got it right after a few tries, but she said it felt really weird. Accent matters here becomes some sounds are harder to make depending on what language you speak.
Nicknames and aliases.
These are fine, but if they’re used for a good reason. Does your character go by a nickname he/she chose or was it thrust upon them? Is a character a mysterious or notorious character and had a nickname thrust on them? Is the nickname an insult to that person (Tyrion Lannister being called “The Imp” or his brother Jaime called “Kingslayer”)?
Most people don’t go by nicknames in their every day or professional life, so unless that’s different in your world, don’t do it unless there’s a good reason.
If your character has to go by an alias, for some reason, make it completely unrelated to their real name. Not shortened or a variation of their real name. Are they known far and wide by this alias? Do the people close to them know their real name? Do their friends call them by their real name or their alias?
How does your character feel about their name?
My grandfather hated his first name with a passion and for most of his life, he only used it for legal documents or when he absolutely had to. His wife, my grandmother, never called him by his real first name, but rather a nickname he picked out that related to his surname. My mother found some of his old school books from the 1930s and in the margins (where he and his friends would write silly things), he’s called by that nickname.
So does your character hate their name? If so, tell me why. Are they really proud of it? Again, I want to know why. Do they not really care one way or another?
Consider it not so deeply.
Chances are, in the modern world. Most people’s names (at least their first ones) don’t have a huge impact on their life. It’s just their name. Unless it’s very unique, making it recognizable or otherwise stick out, your name is probably “normal” where you’re from or at least to the family and culture you’re from.
A character’s name should have little to do with them as a person. They could be named something else entirely and be the same person/have the same things happen to them. Unless your character’s name has a huge bearing on the plot, you don’t really have to hurt yourself over choosing a name.
Things to avoid:
- Apostrophes. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but if you’re going to do it, use it sparingly. Tie it to a specific culture if you can and try not to use more than one apostrophe. Readers (most often) don’t want to see a bunch of names with a bunch of apostrophes that don’t make sense.
- Unpronounceable names. Remember the reader cannot hear how you want the name to be pronounced. For example, when I was a kid reading Harry Potter, I pronounced “Hermione” wrong until the movies came out. This will depend on what language you write in and who you’re writing for, but consider it as relevant to you in that situation.
- “Special” names. As I said before, names usually don’t have a huge bearing on the plot. Don’t emphasize how a character’s name is especially unique or beautiful or whatever, unless it’s actually important.
But how do I make it sound like a fantasy if the names are “normal”?
There’s an infinite amount of routes you can go. In A Song of Ice and Fire there is a mixture of unique names, “normal” names, and mixtures. “Edward” goes to “Eddard”. “Benjamin” goes to “Benjen”, but you still have names like “Brandon”, “Robert”, “Catelyn”, etc.
So you can take a “normal” name (whatever that means to you) and change the spelling slightly to reflect your world.
If it’s necessary for a character or characters to have much more unique names that are really unfamiliar to the reader, than allow the ability to shorten it. “Rudrwikor” (a name I made up by putting random letters together just now) may sound cool, but as a reader, I might not pronounce it right. Perhaps this character can go by “Rudy” or something for the sake of simplicity.
Here are some places to look for tips and ideas on names:
Baby Names (This website allows you to filter names by ethnicity and culture as well.)