Choosing names for characters in a book is a process that every writer must deal with constantly. For those who write contemporary novels, ordinary names are usually sufficient, but a good writer considers the impressions given by any specific name and often the meaning behind the name gets looked up.
Writers tend to keep baby name books around for this reason, although this information can also be looked up on-line these days and finding names from other cultures to add some diversity to a story can be easier to do on-line rather than keeping multiple hard copy books around to leaf through.
For Fantasy writers, deviating from the ordinary is fairly essential. You can get away with some common names, but mixing them with older or made-up names helps add that ‘other world’ taste to a fantasy setting. George R.R. Martin, for example, has been very clever in creating slightly altered names for his Songs of Ice and Fire Series. Eddard sounds similar to Edward, Danaerys to Denise, and so on so that when a Jon, Sam or Robb gets thrown in, they are offset by Petyr, Tywin, Bran, Jorah and so on. Tyrion is of course the favourite of many.
Some fantasy stories use more exotic names, which poses a challenge for the writer to keep them pronounceable while still maintaining an exotic feel. I’ve been reading one recently with some very interesting names, called The Raie’Chaelia by Melissa Douthitt. I came across the author in a group on Facebook and became curious about the book because of the exotic sounding name, then after reading a sample decided this was something I would probably enjoy.
It is indeed a good story that would appeal to the same audience as the Terry Brooks Shannara series books, but one thing I particularly admire is the artistry of naming characters, peoples and places in a way that sounds exotic, yet is easy to see how to pronounce. The most difficult term in the book is the title itself, but a pronunciation is supplied within the context of the story early on.
In my own character naming practices, I often use the baby naming books and lean towards names that have fallen out of use, like Latham, Ranalf, or Horatio, but also make up a few, like Talla. For my non-human characters, I sometimes find myself making use of my own goblin name generator on my website at http://www.jaqdhawkins.co.uk/name.php
This can be fun to play with, entering names with an appropriate meaning and watching to see what comes up.
Names have subtle inferences that the subconscious interprets in a way that influences a reader’s impression of a character. A hard sounding name with associations of power, like Khan for example, will make a completely different impression than something like Colin, which has a more intellectual feel to it. Can you imagine if the second of the Star Trek films had been called The Wrath of Colin? Somehow it just doesn’t have the same effect as The Wrath of Khan.
Regardless of genre, character names are important. Certain names trip different inherent expectations. If you were to read a ChickLit story with characters named Jessica and Beth, which one would you expect to be more outgoing? Most people would say Jessica, assuming that Beth is a gentle creature who likes to read. After all, if she were a party girl, she would probably be called Lizzy. It’s prejudice and stereotype, but we are all subject to these subtle impressions, and it is the writer’s job to make best use of this simple fact of human nature and use it to best effect.
I’m working on introducing more culturally diverse characters into my next fiction story. It’s a scifi so there is plenty of scope for mixing cultures and a diversity of backgrounds. This makes for an interesting challenge when choosing names, to avoid cliché and common choices while choosing names from unfamiliar cultures that still hold the feel of the personality of the character as I see him or her. Name meanings play a large part in this, as well as the sound of the names that are considered.
Naming characters is almost as important as naming your own child. My primary characters for the upcoming novel are in place now, but the process of choosing them filled up a day’s work. It’s worth the time and effort, because when the story is finished, these important characters will exude the personality I’ve chosen for them. Who knows, perhaps someday someone will name a child for a favourite character from one of my books, which will help spread that little bit of cultural diversity that resides in the cultural identity of a name.