This awesome gentleman joined my blog back in its earliest days, back when I was almost completely clueless about blogging. (That's not to say that I'm significantly less clueless today, mind you.) But much of what I have learned, I learned by watching this awesome dude in action and from reading his posts.
Break space-dock and plot a course at warp nine for David's Cosmic Laire of Science Fiction and Fantasy the moment that alien delegation disembarks. It's a destination that almost rivals Risa! And if you see David with a horga'hn, be sure to snap a photo!
Aspiring Advice: What’s In A Name? Much!
I pulled into a local graveyard the other day. Not to visit anyone in particular, but to look around and read some headstones (who does that?). Many of these people lived in the late 1800’s, early Utah settlers mostly, but as I read the surnames of these folks, I couldn’t help but notice how similar they all were. Come to find out, many of these people were of Scandinavian heritage.
That’s when I started to think (dangerous, I know). These people shared something in common: a culture. They shared a common worldview that other cultures would define differently, express differently, and speak differently. Language, after all, is a complex combination of sounds that carry meaning, and when those sounds combine, they define who and what is around us.
One of my favorite things about writing is coming up with character names, often of the high fantasy nature or the altered/modern names for science fiction. The most common feedback I receive from my writing is how much readers enjoyed my names, both characters and places. I wasn’t sure why. It was all fun for me, but it wasn’t until I took Anthropology of Language in college when I learned the way I create and use names has a psychological association to them.
Combining sounds to identify a person can define who and what they are.
|David's awesome new banner on his blog!|
Think of your name. Say it. Say it out loud (enough, Edward…)! Now enunciate each phoneme (letter) and syllable. What does it sound like? How does it make you feel? Calm? Empowered? Fun? Being called that name your whole life, does it have an affect on mood, decision making, and relationships? I’m under the persuasion that it plays a part, but it may not apply to everyone. In fiction, however, it certainly can, which may wholly define a personality by their name alone.
You know Shakespeare’s Othello? You know it’s a tragedy by the sound of his name.
Think of stories you know and pair the hero’s name with the villain’s. How common is it for heroes to have strong, easy-sounding names while the villains are rough and hard? Here’s my list: Wesley/Humperdinck. Luke/Vadar. Woody/Sid. Bilbo/Smaug. Marty/Biff.
Stark contrasts aren’t essential, but they are effective and often do the job.
Another thing to keep in mind is the impact a name has on the character’s culture. My biggest complaint with fantasy, sometimes, are the names. In an effort to be unique, they don’t blend with the environment (unheard-of names, narrative doesn’t match), made worse when they are outlandishly large and riddled with accent marks, making them near impossible to pronounce. That’s certainly worth thinking about. I think it best to watch for those and avoid if possible.
This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. Names connect readers to characters. It is their first impression. The next time you create your next protagonist, look up what their name means. Does it sound like a good match? Does it conflict or compliment the world building?
What impression will it leave? How will it read on a headstone a hundred years later?
I’m David, and what’s in your name?
About Davis Powers King:
Hello! It's good to meet you. I'm an aspiring author of MG and YA Science Fiction and Fantasy with a soft spot for zombies and the paranormal. For now, I live and write in Utah with my stellar wife and rambunctious kids! What do you write?
David blogs at:
The Cosmic Laire of Science Fiction and Fantasy
And moderates for inkPageant
You can also find him on Twitter
Names to me are really important to a story. Especially when I'm writing fantasy. My bugbear is definitely those names that are all 'q's, accent marks and consonants. How on earth am I ever supposed to pronounce them?
My own fantasy characters have mainly unusual sounding, but simple to pronounce names. Often I'll base them off a modern name, but give them a fantasy twist.
I like that approach, Imogen. I've changed the names of two characters in my story already, but still not satisfied with one. After David's message today, I believe a few more may warrant closer scrutiny.Delete
How awesome is Jeff? I think he's the real awesome one here for putting this all together. Glad to be on board your ship today. Thanks again for having me! :)ReplyDelete
Yes, David, I'm awesome...awesomely grateful to you for dropping by--and with an awesome article no less!Delete
Yeah I hate sci-fi or fantasy stories where someone's name is kakljfjfowiwojwe'fjwofjweoj I mean come on that's absurd. At least give us a nickname then. Like I had a character in a story name S'Amleng so all the humans called him Sam. That was a lot easier.ReplyDelete
I think that's the perfect "compromise" there. Even characters with simple names can benefit from nicknames as it adds another level of depth to them.Delete
Great post. Names were a big deal in my last MS so I spent a lot of time researching them. In one part of the story every one had a single, short, androgynous name. In the other part of the story, characters had two names, many of them long and Polynesian. It was a lot of fun to research what each meant, and it's so true that just the way it sounds affects the character too.ReplyDelete
I often don't choose a name until after the story is done (or at least partially complete) because I find that a name influences the actions of the character. So () is a lot safer until I know the person and can pick an appropriate name.ReplyDelete
Also, the language of the world I mostly play in was made up, deliberately, by their ancestors. It's object previous, tonal, gender specific and a few other interesting goodies. So the names actually have a meaning in the context of the language.
What's in my name? My mother's obsession with genealogy. With one exception, all my siblings have ancestral names.
Oh, and the question "I pulled into a local graveyard the other day. Not to visit anyone in particular, but to look around and read some headstones (who does that?)".ReplyDelete
I do! Found some really interesting stuff on grave markers.
You guys are starting to spook me a bit, ya know? :)Delete
Actually, I've strolled through many a church cemeteries tracking down names and dates and such during my days of researching genealogy for my children. Fascinating what you can discover there.
I never thought about name contrasts between protagonist and antagonist. Now I'm running through all my books and comparing. Great post.ReplyDelete
Welcome, Susan! Leave it to awesome folks like David to come up with awesome topics.Delete
I write current-day real-world stories, but names are equally important here. The right sounds, a mix of ethnicities, names that fit personalities. It takes a while to get it right. One of the characters in my WIP is now on his third name. Sigh.ReplyDelete
I'm on that surfboard beside you riding the same renaming wave, Carol. Finding the right name can be difficult at times.Delete
I'm glad you stopped by!
"Not to visit anyone in particular, but to look around and read some headstones (who does that?)." ahahahhaha I have TOTALLY done that! Old graveyards are the best -- if you can find a really old one from the 1800s or something those are my favorites. Great names.ReplyDelete
I used to dislike my name but I've become rather attached to it. The idea of names being important is an old one, and a popular one in fantasy. (The Name of the Wind, anybody? and what about all those fantasy books where nobody gives their true name because of the power you have over a person when you have their true name?)
I can't work with a character until I have a good name for them. Sometimes I invent names, but they're not really very weird-sounding. No Peetas here! (Peeta-pocket? Peeta-bread? sheesh.)
I don't care what impression my headstone leaves. It won't matter to me as I recognize that there is no afterlife for me (atheist). However, I did want to point out that if you go to some of the small towns in east Idaho...around Bear Lake for example...pick up a phone book. Half the people have the same last name. Seriously. When you get to lookin' at them, the first thing that pops into the mind is...okay...some cousins are gettin' married around here...ReplyDelete
Spot on once again David. It's like Seinfeld says, "If your name your child Jeeves, aren't you picking out their future occupation for them?" Great post!ReplyDelete
If a book is riddled with apostrophe names, often i just close it. They are too frustrating to try and pronounce.ReplyDelete
"What's in a name?" Now if dragons wore shirt, I would be tearing mine down while falling to my knees and raising my front legs to Heaven in a plead for mercy.ReplyDelete
A nightmare, I tell you. The clearest example of what you're talking about is an Indian name. I'm writing fiction (sort of, still a mystery what the genre really is). Anyway, it's located in India (I'm so brilliant sometimes...) And so naive I was that I thought I could pick any name I would like the sound of. (Ah uh) In India people know your religion, your caste, your family, your profession, where your family comes from and pretty much if you're trust worthy or not just by your name!! Picking a name for a character can possibly get more difficult than that? *drowning now in tears* In the end, I might relocate this story to another planet, just because of the name thing.
Al, you do realize how much work that will be in your manuscript, right? The location is so relevant in your plot. But of course, I'll be there. :)Delete
You mean I can't take a Vedhic god and Buddhist mumbo jumbo into another planet and still call the story Agnipath? Oh, geez! *Homer like kind of Ouch!*Delete
High five for a great post! I love hearing how people name their characters. :)ReplyDelete
Have a great weekend, guys!
Back at ya, Carrie! In fact, make it an *awesome* weekend!Delete
I keep a file of names culled from freeway/country signs that show the two upcoming towns (depending on which way you might turn.)ReplyDelete
Thus BENSON/HARWOOD becomes a character name... or two :)
Excellent idea, Mark! I think people do that in real life too along with cities and states. I can't tell you how many people I know named Dallas, or Dakota, or Virginia, or Mississippi... well, maybe not Mississippi. :)Delete
Great tips. I spend a lot of time on names and sometimes have to watch that trap of making them too hard to pronounce or complicated to have them mean something.ReplyDelete
I usually look up names I think of to find out what their definitions are, or to see if they're words in a different language. And I agree, difficult to pronounce names are deterring!ReplyDelete
Good idea! Even the most benign names in one language can mean something totally unwanted in another.Delete
Wise post, David. I agree that names connect readers to characters. I especially like contemporary characters with off-beat names. And on your statement, "Not to visit anyone in particular, but to look around and read some headstones (who does that?)." I do...and I take my kids. They love it. :)ReplyDelete
That's why I keep my character's names short and simple. And my name sounds like a royal conquerer when I say it out loud.ReplyDelete
It could be that or an archeologist who made the greatest discovery of all times, like El Dorado or the Lost City of Atlantis. Not a pharaoh's tomb. Too many of that already.Delete
Just saw @Alex Cavanaugh's comment - ermahgerd it's so true! Oh I am going to get side pain from laughing.ReplyDelete
My name sounds like a joke. 'cause "Leuck" is pronounced "like" my name said aloud sounds like "Callie-like" as though I am similar to Callie.
Thank you, Callie. I've been wondering for a while how that last name is properly pronounced.Delete
It's how my family pronounces it, Jeff, but I'm told if you pronounce it that way in Germany, you will get yelled at.Delete
I've been a name nerd from way back, and my taste in names tends towards the classical eccentric and classical unusual (e.g., Octavia, Felix, Morwenna, Livia, Oliver, Leopold, Roland, Justine, Zenobia). I tend to save the more common, popular, or trendy names for secondary and minor characters.ReplyDelete
One of my pet hates is when writers (of books, movies, or tv shows) try to predate naming trends. Fewer things make me tune out faster than seeing a grown woman named Madison, a kid named Caden or Kaitlyn in 1950, or a 19th century boy named Ayden.
I also chose my characters' names by their meaning. But David Powers King must mean something about the power of positive thinking because you got picked for a 30-minute phone call with Pamela van Hylckama Vlieg on WriteOnCon today. Way to get attention and maybe published, David!ReplyDelete
His awesomeness has been recognized. And deservedly so. Congrats, David! We'll be wanting all the details. No holding back on us!Delete
Thanks for letting us know, Sheryl!
This one's for Jeff. I finally noticed your book sounds like a combo of my favorites! Meanwhile, I'm back in chapter 4 of my book removing a character that tried to take over the story. Now he'll have to wait for his own book. Take that, MT (sounds like empty)! So I'll be happy to re-finish by the end of the year too.ReplyDelete
Wow, characters should know better than to take over a story that isn't theirs. Don't they know what we writers do to our beloved protagonists?Delete
That sounds like a lot of work pulling out a character. Are you going to "Bermuda Triangle" him or roll his plot elements into another character? You've got me curious.
I hope all goes well. We should have a little celebration once we meet our goals by year end! Finishing is great, but finishing alongside friends is even better!
Names are super important. Not only do they have to sound right, but they have to make sense by taking into consideration religion, culture, time period, etc. And I agree, names that are difficult to pronounce can be frustrating. I also don't like when several characters have similar sounding names, it can get confusing. Great post David! (:ReplyDelete