Scribbler School: I Won't Name Names...

...but I will have to eventually, and so will you if you're working on a manuscript.

So continues my new post series, "Scribbler School", and my long reflection on how to make names—long or short or just goshdarn eccentric—stick to the things they're meant for.
"Scribbler School" is my occasional post series where I share my ruminations and ramblings on any and all aspects of writing, partially inspired by my good friend Alyssa's Noveling 101. There's no rhyme, reason, or semblance of sequence other than some honest thoughts. While I don't pretend to be teaching surefire writing methods—heck, I'm still that awkward kid in the back corner of the classroom and probably will be for a very long time—I'll use what little creative fairy dust I've picked up on my journey so far and great literary examples to try and help others out. (And, as you can see, some pretty amazing alliteration.)
Names are a ubiquitous issue in novels, whether you're working on a sweeping high fantasy, a sweet contemporary, or a jumbled mess of no-genre-in-particular. And while sometimes they simply fall into your lap or knock you over the head in a burst of transcendent inspiration, they're usually matters of much head-scratching and brain-pain. In some cases, they can even make or break the readability of your work—distracting names are a huge letdown for many readers. Place names, character names, and names for the random little bits and pieces of your storyworld are all important, and despite their seemingly unobtrusive nature, they are essential to making your story tick.

What makes some names better than others, and how can we find the best names possible?

(NOTE: These examples are based on my opinion only, and you're welcome to agree or disagree in the comments!)

sometimes, it works

EXAMPLE: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas.

I think that what makes these names work is that Maas does a really good job of mixing familiar and unfamiliar name elements—they all still feel foreign enough that they're believably from another world, but they're not completely impossible to wrap your tongue (and head) around. That might be a good strategy to employ when considering one's own fantasy names, and it definitely helps worldbuilding, in my opinion.

(The one glaring exception I can think of is the name Chaol, because try as I might, I still can't figure out how precisely to pronounce it. Is it 'kale' like the vegetable? Is it 'chale'? NO ONE KNOWS.)

Some examples of character names that were done well and illustrate the phenomenon I pointed out above:
  • Aedion Ashryver. Now, I admit, the first time I saw this name, I wanted to back away and kind of avoid it. But once I actually got a handle on it, I realized that it was actually quite manageable. 
  • Manon Blackbeak. Not only is this name evocative—I mean, you get the hint that Manon is kind of sharp and cruel and sinister just from her name—it's also easy to adjust to. 
And a place name that has similar properties:
  • Rifthold. The pronunciation on this is pretty intuitive, and it also captures the feeling of this high fantasy metropolis, the capital of the great empire—which is precisely what Rifthold is. 

other times, it flops

EXAMPLE: The Selection by Kiera Cass.

For those not aware, the Selection trilogy is set in a future North America called Illéa that is ruled by a monarchy and divided into caste systems. The names in the series... well, they leave something to be desired. The main problem with the names in this case, I believe, is that it doesn't seem like worldbuilding was taken into consideration. Names, no matter how idiosyncratic, should make at least some modicum of sense in the context of the culture and world they're being used in.

Character name examples (these are pretty darn ludicrous, at least in my eyes):
  • America Singer. In a country that was once North America, this feels unrealistic and contrived—it doesn't seem like any parents would give their child the same name their country used to have. It wouldn't happen. And the fact that the surname is Singer... well, guess what their family does for a living? Yeah.
  • King Clarkson and Queen Amberly. These names honestly sound like the kind of thing celebrity parents would name their children. Essentially NOT what a) a king born into his throne and b) a common girl found through the Selection would be named. 
A place name example:
  • Swendway. Honestly, I am incapable of saying this out loud with a straight face. It is, quite frankly, pretty hilarious. This country is presented in the book as a combination of Sweden and Norway, combined under a monarchy. But think about it—in the real world, two countries being unified wouldn't simply mash their names together and call it good. (I also don't really find the idea of Sweden and Norway merging into one country super realistic, either, but that's a worldbuilding issue.) So it shouldn't happen in a book, either.

some other opinions on names in fiction (mainly YA)

how I do it (or, anecdote time!)

To be quite honest, most of my names come to me completely by accident. (Seriously, the entirety of my WIP stemmed from the fact that I saw the word 'chantilly' somewhere on a blog and immediately had to use it as a heroine's name. The rest came afterwards.) But here are some ways I use in order to nudge that accident a little closer.

Look it Up: This is usually my first strategy whenever I'm stumped for a character name. My personal favorite website for names is, as well as its companion, (the surname site is especially nice because in some situations, surnames can work as place names, too). There are lots of extremely useful explanations on name etymology, usage, variants, and more—and you have to admit, it's kind of fun when a character's name meaning matches their personality (although sacrificing a truly well-fitting name just to get a good meaning can be dangerous). This is also an easy way to make sure the names you're choosing are relevant to your characters' cultures, which is incredibly important in order to make sure that you're fleshing out cultures tastefully and respectfully. I've stumbled upon some gems in the lists here and in other places, so don't be afraid to use name websites as a starting point if you're out of ideas! 

Keep Your Eyes Peeled: I've already told you the brief origin story of my current manuscript, wherein I totally just found a word in the middle of nowhere and made it into a name. *rubs hands together* But now it's time for me to share a true story about one of my character names—Finnegan Lyle. His first name just dropped serendipitously into my head, which was super nice, but I searched for a last name for a long, long time. Anything from Merton to Langley was on the list of possibilities, and I was in a rather dire situation at that point, having no last name to call this EXTREMELY IMPORTANT character by. I was out on a drive near my neighborhood and caught sight of a sign with the word 'Carlyle' on it, and it immediately piqued my interest. A few minutes and copious amounts of fiddling later, I'd taken the 'car' off the front and was left with just 'Lyle'.

Fiddle With Familiar Names: This works really well if you're writing fantasy, for example—tweaking humdrum names can make them a whole lot more exciting. One of my novel's supporting characters is named Yvette Scarleigh, and her last name came to be because I spent WAY too long poking and prodding the name Scarlet. In the same way, you can experiment with various syllables and such in other names in order to make them your own. However, I'll caution you on this method; there is definitely a limit to how much you can do this before it becomes absurd. You don't want to be that one writer with all these 'unique'/actually unpronounceable and unreadable names filled with apostrophes and weird vowel sound variations.

Think About It A Lot: When your mind is fixed on something for a while, it'll eventually start to give you ideas. Use this strategy with some of the others to get your brain on the right track.

What Sounds Right?: Sometimes, when you visualize your character, a name just sort of rises up out of the blue and demands to be attached to that face. My advice? Go with your gut. Your intuition is usually the best judge of what name is right for your character. Plus, sometimes you inadvertently name a character in your head before actually officially naming them and then you can't stop calling the character by that name, like, ever.

so that's all from me—writers, speak up! did you find this post helpful? what methods do you use for naming?

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  1. Nice tips! I pronounce Chaol as in Cowl but that's just me. :')

  2. I have the hugest problems with naming characters. I swear, the only reason I even got through WTA is because I could use Chinese names and play with them a little. I also like the use sites that explain etymology and things, except sometimes my mother gets freaked out and I have to tell her, "No, I'm not pregnant. Seriously, no, I'm not." (At least she hasn't caught me researching murder yet.)

    Loved hearing about where the OtMS character names came from -- it appears we all just fiddle with real-life inspiration a bit.

  3. Ah! I'm glad they made sense at least somewhat. And ohh, I've never heard that pronunciation of Chaol before? Maybe it works better. *walks off to try pronunciation*

  4. Oh gosh. I feel you. Most of my other OtMS character names basically came from my overabundance of period drama experience. And I feel like that is exactly what my mother would do (she's never seen me researching books, but I think she might have a thing or two to say if she saw me looking up Victorian-era underwear).

    And yup, definitely. Real-life inspiration is a huge help and a most fortuitous accident.

  5. Just replying to let you know that it's officially kay-all (as in 'chaos'. I found out from her website and thought I might as well help out a fellow fan. :)

  6. Oh, that works a bit better ;) thanks for the tip!


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