Why Did You Call Them THAT!?!
Recently I began to follow a new tweep because of their name. Now I’m not likely to get a follow back because I told them I was following because I love their name & that’s just a little creepy, but it got me thinking about character names and place names in fiction and how we, as authors, decide on those names.
Characters in novels have a few things they need: contextual consistency (their name needs to make sense in relation to their backstory), cultural consistency (as above, but to do with the backstory of their parent culture), timbre & rhythm (whether it’s deliberately cool or deliberately jarring, they should be at least readable if not easily pronounceable).
Names for my characters usually come to me as a flash of a good name while I’m trying to think of one or randomly, whilst driving (I hate that). Names which I struggle for are the peripheral characters or secondary characters (who do, occasionally get promoted to main characters because they are cool). For the names I struggle to make up, I have a spreadsheet of first names and last names which I’m always adding to and from which I draw many of my peripheral character’s names. I have, however, been known to Google up a baby names site for the right sounding name (I’m a big believer in that timbre thing).
One particularly wonderful group of names I stored away for later was from when I was a part-time swimming coach. In one school group I ended up with 6 girls each of whom had a wonderful name (and in typical fashion I told them all this at the time). In this group of six girls there was: Hannah, Madeline, Victoria, Leana, Fallon & Jancis. Every one of those names made it into the names spreadsheet and, though I have only used one as a major character (thank you, Fallon), I think every one deserves to be used at some time in my career. They were also nice girls and swam really well.
Place names I operate somewhat differently. With place names I try my best to follow a logical geographical consistency, though often I’ll look out the window or just around where I’m currently sitting and make up an anagram based on a word I see, then give it a regionally consistent monika like “steppe” or “plains”. Either that or I think of a groovy show I watched one time and throw in a little reference to that (intertextuality! HUZZAH!).
The City names of Bifrost are peculiar in that I invented them a very long time ago when I was very fond of a particular teen-powers TV show and chose to draw inspiration from the names of the cast. Having used the same names for so long and for so many hundreds of thousands of words, they have become like family. I’m not really concerned with regional consistency for those – they ARE the regional consistency.
One thing I do find myself avoiding is using names of people I know. I try (as much as is possible) to avoid using names of people in our lives just in case, should anyone ever read my books, they find themselves feeling like they have been written about. I tend to use certain features of people rather than their entire personality when I write a character and the rest of their horrible personality comes directly from the demons in my skull rather than any violent nutjobs I know personally.
Names are funny things in that you can use them, as Dickens did, to convey personality (though please don’t be as obvious about it as he was – this is the 21st Century) and you can use them to hint at cultural & familial connections, help describe the scene to the reader and also to help round out the world of the character or the setting, but whichever way you do it, remember that the best way to get your names to own their space is to have your characters own those names. Nothing is less engaging than when a terrifying, dark place is referenced by the characters in a book and none of them seem to get that sick feeling they should when talking about something horrible.
Righto, better get on & invent some new names. I only have 50-odd named characters in Bifrost so far…