“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”
I’ll give you a moment to recover from that fact that I just quoted Shakespeare.
Better, now? Okay, let’s continue with the topic at hand – Names. As a writer I struggle with names all the time. Character names, city names, world names, alien race names, ship names…. even what to name my story. But, why is it so important?
Well despite what Shakespeare says, we identify with names. Names give a real definition of just about everything. If I handed you a rose, and said “Smell this Grazulla.” You would stare at me like I was a mad man. The reason is simple. You see a rose, you identify it as a rose, and when I say “rose” you see the flower (or you see Betty White on the set of Golden Girls). Grazulla means nothing to you, it is just the rambling of a Speculative Fiction blogger.
Why do you think so many readers struggle with nameless characters? Don’t get me wrong, it can work, but it certainly is a hard sell. We associate people with names in our society. Everyone has a name (well almost everyone). Even people we see that don’t know their names, we ofter think up a name for them. People often say, “She looks like a Jan.” Heck, a lot of people have called me Robert over the years. To some, I must look like a Robert.
I had a heck of a time naming my three boys, well my oldest was easy being that he named after me, but the younger two were a struggle. My wife hated the fact that I rejected almost every name she gave me. They were either too generic, or I knew someone named that, or they were just hard for me to say. For the rest of my life I’ll be calling these kids by whatever name I chose. What a scary idea. What if I chose wrong?
Well, lets face it. When we dream up a character we are giving them life. And with any luck your character will long outlive anyone you know. As an early writer I worried that I might choose wrong.
So now you need to think of a name. If they are human characters you might pick names that fit the ethnicity of a character. Because, lets face it, people often associate names with ethnicity. I still get a lot of Spanish language advertising in my mail box. It is an assumption that since my name is Flores, I must surely be Hispanic. But that also brings up a very good point, no matter how you describe a character in text, people will get a vision of them solely on their name.
When it comes to first and middle names, I use Behind the Name. It is a website I found when I was trying to name my children. It is great for naming characters. Say you want to find a name that means brave, you can search it. Or, say you just need a random name. They have a random name generator. You can filter out by country, ethnicity, and more. When it comes to last name, I really haven’t found something as in depth and versatile as Behind the Name. But I did find a random last name generator that I use sometimes.
But names extend past characters. We name a lot of things. In my upcoming novel there are two alien races. I had to completely make up their names. Not just the characters, but the names of their worlds and the name of the species themselves. When it comes to alien names, lets remember to not go over the top. People will be trying to read you story, in English. So the name “asdhfaeuiohfsdjkfnh” will not do much to help readers enjoy your story. Especially if asdhfaeuiohfsdjkfnh is a critical character in your story.
What else do we name is stories? In my novel, I had a lot of Naval ships to name. That took time. But, for that I found a theme to use. For example, the naval fleet had seven warships so I named them after the continents. The carriers I picked a different landmark theme, and so on. It worked, and gave me a large selection of names to choose from.
Names are important, that is for sure. You might start off with nameless items in your story, just to get the writing done. I can’t. When I start a story my characters need a name, it helps me to bring them to life. Choose a name you can live with, after all the whole world may be calling your character that for a long time.