I wrote this post for another website. It generated some interest, so I’m re-blogging it here.
Don’t you want to wince at the name in the title?
Character names are important in fiction. They help create an atmosphere. They reflect the historical era or the locale where your characters live. Of course, writers are free to choose any names for their characters, but I’d suggest a few guidelines. As I’m predominantly a fantasy writer, most of my guidelines apply to my genre.
Often sci-fi and fantasy writers make up their character names to sound otherworldly, so everybody would know the action takes place elsewhere. It’s a worthwhile practice with a long tradition in the genre, but the names should still be readable. They shouldn’t pile up consonants, like some old Celtic names. A few random examples(1) include Amerawdwr, Kyvwlch, or Arglwyddes.
Even if you’re Welsh, resist the temptation to use such mouthfuls, unless you’re writing a historical novel set at the time when such names were commonplace. If the reader can’t pronounce the hero’s name after two glances, he gets irritated. I know I do.
In general, non-English sounding names are tricky and should be used with caution. I made such a mistake when I called the heroine of my fantasy novel ALMOST ADEPT Eriale. I’m not sure how most of my readers would pronounce her name(2), but if a name needs a pronunciation guide, it might be better not to use it.
There are websites that generate odd-sounding names, and some writers use them or similar names for their speculative fiction novels. Below is a short list of names lifted from one such site(3):
- Nechynr Neic Spanryar Dusesp
- Irurh Uemh Laicchair Saicspir
- Atoc Uemh Laubir Balgzed
- Ceca Neic Hynrair Claubarc
I wouldn’t use such names for any of my novels, wherever they are set: in space, underground, or in an imaginary, quasi-medieval kingdom. The reader gets lost after the third twist of the tongue.
In one of my short fantasy stories, I called my heroine Aglaya. It’s not a usual English name, it has a vague exotic feel (after all, the story takes place in a world of my own creation), but you still can recognize and pronounce it from the first glance. This name doesn’t distract readers from the story.
On the other hand, for a monster or a villain, it might be a good idea to think up an appropriately outlandish name. Maybe here, that name generator site could come in handy. I can’t see Liarsob Ssynec Tleuscrocr as a hero, but he could be a great dragon or an evil sorcerer with the delusions of grandeur.
Another guideline concerns any genre, not just speculative fiction. If you have a few leading characters in one story, make their names look and sound different. If you have three girl friends in one novel, it’s not recommended to call them Sarah, Sally, and Sadie, unless it’s absolutely necessary for the plot. After a few first pages, the reader should be able to know who is talking from the shape of the name, without reading it each time. A good practice is using different first letters and varying the number of syllables in the names of your characters, e.g. Sarah, Dorothy, and Liz.
How do you choose your characters’ names? What are your guidelines?