by Jill Williamson
Since I talked about pronouncing names last Friday, it got me thinking about how to choose good names. I'm pretty sure I've talked about this some before, so I thought I'd take it a bit deeper.
I've also combined two names to make something new. Emily and Grace become Emilace. Donald and Christopher make Donopher. Kind of fun.
Or I've made up one on my own, or tweaked one I sort of liked. For example, I came up with the name Dasia from somewhere, and I kind of like it. But what if I messed around with it a bit?
Dasia ... Dasiel ... Dasielle ... Rasielle ... Raselle
I think I like Raselle better.
And what about surnames or last names? I've used some of my tricks from above to find last names (internet, phone book, Facebook, rosters), but if we're talking fantasy novel, I suggest a little more creativity.
You need to think about this world you're creating. What Earth date does it parallel? And how were names chosen then? Look back in time a bit.
People named their children whatever words they felt at the child’s birth. Abraham named his son Isaac, which means “laughing one.” And when Rachel was in difficult labor, she named her boy Benoni, meaning “son of my sorrow.” Yet after her death, Jacob renamed him Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand.” Ben means “son of” in Hebrew. Bat means “daughter of” in Hebrew. You can use that in your fantasy novel. I did with the "mi" meaning "son of" in Jax mi Katt.
Find more examples from different countries in this brief history of surnames. It's really short.
Back then, names were also nouns, adjectives, or verbs, alone or combined, or even phrases. In Gaelic, Berach meant “sharp,” Ruadh meant “red,” Aisling meant “dream” or “vision,” and Fechín meant “little raven.”
Names were also dithematic, which means that they were formed of two parts, a prefix and suffix. For example: Alfred means “elf counsel” because “alf” means “elf” and “rad” or “red” means “counsel.” Check out this list on Wikipedia about German names. You can choose any two elements on the list and combine them to get a name. And then you’ll also get a meaning. Look at the examples column in the center to see examples. Here are a few more I made up: Remwulf (PeaceWolf), Ernswint (HonorStrength), and Deganstan (WarriorStone).
Theonym, which comes from the Greek theos (god) and –onym (name), was a popular name construction in Norse times. Ex: Thorburn (Thor’s bear) and Thorleif (Thor’s descendant). If you have a god or gods in your novel, you could name characters after them.
After Christ’s death
Historically, bynames were literal descriptions of a person. This could involve one’s father’s name, for example, William had a son and named him Edward. So Edward's full name could have been: Edward William, Edward William’s, or Edward William’s son. See how that works? You could do that in your fantasy novel.
Bynames could also involve the place a person was born or an occupation. For example, our Edward might be called Edward William’s until he’s a man, then he moves away from Harenton, the town he grew up in, and becomes an apprentice at a smithy. The people in his new town call him Edward of Harenton. And once he completes his training and becomes a master blacksmith, he might be called Edward the Smith. You could TOTALLY do that in your story.
Some other popular names that came from occupations: Abbott, Archer, Baker, Brewer, Carpenter, Farmer, Farrier, Potter, Weaver, Taylor, Thatcher, Smith, Swain (a swine herder), Weaver. There is a big, long, cool list here.
And perhaps Edward’s father William still lives in the same house he grew up in, a house in a glen in the middle of a forest, so he is called William Forestglen. Some modern surnames that developed in such a way are: Atwater (at the water), Beckham (home by the brook), and Hill (hill).
Bynames might also be names of status or nicknames. Here are some examples to inspire you:
Marcus the Giant
Charles the Baron
Edward the Wifeless (Poor Ed!)
Mary Burned the Barn (Forever forced to live with the memory of her greatest blunder.)
Richard has Twelve Sons (I think someone is bragging.)
Bart Full of Ale (Oh, dear.)
Sarah Sings All Day (I hope her voice is good.)
Daniel Cut Purse (Hmm ... Wonder why he cuts purses …)
Frank Waste Penny (That's a shame.)
And you can do other fun stuff in fantasy novels. You can create your own tricks or titles, like I did in allowing the guardians of orphaned children the give them an animal surname. Or like the Star Wars title of Darth or Jedi.
How to know if it’s the right name
Keep it simple- I know, it’s hard. But look at this list of famous characters from fantasy and science fiction literature, film, games, and television. I can pronounce them all.
Pretty sweet, huh?
Say it out loud- Is it at all awkward?
Ask others to read it out loud- Did they stumble over it? Did they pronounce it right?
Did you avoid adding unnecessary apostrophes (Sh’mal) and diacritics (Nüélmăr)?
Google the name to see if it is already in a famous novel. If it is but it’s a different genre, you might get away with it.
Google the name to see if there might be any hidden meanings in foreign language translations or famous people you don’t want associated with your character.
Is the meaning too obvious to the reader? When you see the name Darth Sideous, it doesn't even sound nice, right? And what about Draco? If my name was dragon, I’d likely have a rep without trying. And Bella Swan has the opposite problem. It sounds too lovely, too perfect. I object to these names, Your Honor! Leading the reader. *wink*
Does the name fit your character’s age, personality, and physical description? If not, are you doing that on purpose for irony? Because naming an ugly, cruel man Christophe Darcy and a little girl Gertrude might seem off to your reader.
Consider the meaning. It can be fun to give your character a name with a meaning that adds depth to the story. I did this with Hebrew, but any baby name book and many websites will give you the meaning of a name.
Check your full character list. Do you have too many names that start with the same letter? How about names that rhyme or that have the same amount of syllables?
And if you’re totally stuck, try using a name generator. Here’s one I found for creating names for mad scientists. But you can Google anything, for example: fantasy name generator, historical name generator, fairy name generator. You’ll likely find it all online.
Here are some of my favorite links for finding names:
Fantasy Name Generator
Native American Names
Unique Baby Names
Generic English Place Names
List of Titanic Passengers
Behind the first names, with meanings of names
Former names of islands
Behind the surnames
Most popular surnames
List of Occupational Surnames
Do you have any secrets for coming up with great names? How about clever tricks for surnames or titles for character's in your story?