The naming of casts (or characters).

24 Apr

How do you choose names for your characters and your locations?

If you’re going to set your story in contemporary London (or any other city) half the problem (the geographical bit) is solved and then you can pick names from a telephone directory, mixing and matching so that Agnes Black and Colin Drake become Agnes Drake and Colin Black. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere you need to note the spelling of names because there are some that have various options (Stephen/Steven) and some that appear to have various options but are actually gender specific (Leslie/Lesley) and you are almost bound to get them wrong occasionally in your text; that’s the law of the great god Typo. Plus, it’s no good using a location like e.g. Chertsey if you don’t know it’s south of London and on the Thames. But generally, contemporary fiction doesn’t give rise to too many problems although you might want to check that your subconscious doesn’t come up with a name that in fact belongs to someone famous in fact or fiction (been there, done that and had to do a quick find/replace…).

If you have more exotic locations in mind you need to check the spellings and geography even more carefully but there are all sorts of helpful sites from Google Earth to Wikipedia to help you and there are lists of appropriate names (plus English transcriptions) for boys and girls in almost any language you might imagine and a few you didn’t know existed. Most of them give you the meanings as well.

Then there’s fantasy.

You need to take care that you haven’t stolen names from other fantasy writers who have no doubt burnt a lot of midnight oil coming up with new and interesting names. You need to make copious notes about the names you choose, giving them some sort of history, noting the preferred spelling, considering the pronunciation… But all that is after you’ve chosen the names in the first place. Although some fantasy writers use a few names that sound as if they’re from ‘our’ world, most of do a lot of inventing.

It’s important that invented names should sound likely and not stupid. Rumpelstiltskin might succeed in a fairy tale but not in the average heroic quest tale. It depends, of course, on the type of fantasy. Modern urban fantasies or tales of vampires or shape shifters can use ordinary contemporary names. Vampires can indeed be called Edward or Hal. But what about aliens or supernaturals? They are not going to have been saddled with John or Mary, however convenient you think it might be. Nor can you chicken out and say you’ll call them that because their ‘real’ names are so difficult to pronounce or because you’ve decided to use the terrestrial equivalent. Your readers have already decided to suspend disbelief and imagine they are listening comfortably to an alien language so why should pronunciation be difficult? Nor is it helpful (to you) to use long phrases like ‘Born Under The Winter Moon’ because they take too long to type and you are going to be typing them regularly.

You really do have to work at it. It’s possible to create really strange names like G’narrr or  m’Lln but you’ll have typo trouble, I can assure you, and you still have to take care that they don’t sound too unlikely given the rest of your characters and location names. (This is a warning, not a prohibition.) If you’re writing about terrestrial supernaturals e.g. fae, you can use the names of less common flora and fauna. If your plot takes you to other planets you can still do that but make sure the names are seriously uncommon or add a few lines linking the name to a plant or whatever on the alien world.

Another possibility is to take ordinary names and alter them slightly. Annie becomes Anee, Mark becomes Maark or Tarc, and Virginia turns into Lergynia. Keep notes! Be careful that your subtle alterations don’t catapult the name into a realm with other meanings. Annie cannot become Anneal or Aneal; Mark shouldn’t turn into Bark or Lark;  Virginia would sound dreadful as Laryngia.

If you choose to alter names that are regional here, make sure all your characters have names with similar origins so that you don’t end up with too much of a mixture, unless you intend to go into great detail as to how your world has come to have a melting pot of people from different cultures.  I read one fantasy series where people who sounded vaguely Scottish lived just across the border from (and spoke the same language as) those with names that conjured visions of the Middle East; there was no explanation and it all jarred.

The same thing applies to other-worldly places or just wildly fictional ones. If you’re setting things on Earth you need to take care with local languages and usage. I have cringed at stories set in places like e.g.‘Altonhambury’ or ‘Byburghthorpe’, combinations that sound (and are) unreal. I’m pretty sure non-native writers make similar errors in stories set in e.g. India or China. If in doubt, use the slight alteration method for places, too. Make certain you haven’t inadvertently included geographical markers in your place names. For example, a tor is a hill in Brit English so a town on a plain with a name containing ‘tor’ might be fine for your invented world but will throw your terrestrial readers. You can, of course, steal a name you like and place it in entirely foreign geographical surroundings but be careful – check its history and meaning first.

Check that you’ve used a variety of initials. If all your characters have names beginning with G the reader will get confused and annoyed. It’s such an easy error to fall into and yet if you keep notes it’s easy to avoid.

It goes without saying that your minor characters need names that are as well thought out as the major ones; that slaves should have quite different names from a master-race; that your characters should have surnames or clan names from the start, even if you end up never using them.

The more research you do the more real your characters will appear in the final text.

I use a variety of methods. My fae characters have a mixture of names, mostly drawn from natural objects like plants or animals, but sometimes borrowed from humans in a somewhat random fashion. My fantasy people have names that are reminiscent of Earth ones but are altered slightly. Even then, I came up with Brianna (or Briana) only to find the name exists here. It’s pretty, and it’s uncommon, so I left it, but someone is bound to complain. For stories set in solidly terrestrial cultures (even fairy tale ones) I’ve done research.

It’s no good sticking pins in an alphabet or letting the computer invent things. Naming needs thought. I’m reminded of Eliot’s poem (and the musical lyric): The naming of cats is a difficult matter; it isn’t just one of your holiday games. As for cats, so for characters…

How do you do it?


Posted by on April 24, 2012 in writing



12 responses to “The naming of casts (or characters).

  1. Margaret

    April 25, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Choosing names for your characters is really difficult at times. Usually I have a first name for the primary characters then battle to come up with last names. Trying to find something that actually suits the character and your vision of them is difficult too. Certainly there is a lot to consider in the naming game though and you’ve come up with a few things I hadn’t really thought of before. I have learnt the value of google searches though, accidently using a real life, well known name can end up being very embarrassing!

    • jaymountney

      April 25, 2012 at 4:33 pm

      You can’t, of course, guarantee to avoid real names of real people, which is why most fiction has that disclaimer in the front about all the characters being fictional and any similarities being coincidence etc. But you can avoid obvious errors. I think one problem is that names we like tend to stick in our minds and then come forward begging to be used for characters when in fact our subconscious remembers them from the news or films. I think one way to avoid that is to choose well-known names and mix them up. Edward Churchill and Winston Kennedy might have counterparts in real life but if they were famous we’d have heard of them already… Well known surnames aren’t a problem – there are lots of people with most surnames (you just need to look at a phone book). But if it’s a seriously famous one, it can be good to have a ‘conversation’ with your character: pretend you meet them in a bar/at a party/in an office and ask them if they’re any relation to… and have their response firmly in your head when you’re writing, even if you never use it.

  2. Aletheia

    April 25, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Well, as a certain writer said, learn languages, Dear Young Writers, or you’ll end with Centurion Coitus Interruptus in your story.

    Lists of names are great, but my personal experience says firmly: Rule No.1, Compare more sources than one. Preferably as many as you can find.
    If I can, I prefer true lists (painters in the country X, councillors in the town Y) over exemplary ones (typical names in the country Z). Sometimes I contrive on my own, but it’s always risky ground, and it shouldn’t be used without checking. One never knows where will the story wander to after release and who’ll read it, so inspiration taken from ‘exotic’ languages is a dangerous and difficult thing. The same applies to invented names. In fact, especially to them. Nevertheless, if a beginner writer risks and gets an epic fail, he/she can take comfort in being between giants. 😉 (Tolkien’s Boromir, Bavmorda of “Willow”)

    As for typo problems, I noticed I rarely do them in names, more often in more popular words. Probably I put more attention to names. If I use repeatedly a name (any word, in fact) with a letter I can’t get easily from the keyboard (and things like Alt+Ctrl+45/8×6 don’t count as “easily”) I copy-past them from the text written already. If I had plenty of such words, I would make a handy file with the list and keep it open when writing. I use such files every day, for different needs.

    All this aside, personally I’m horribly picky with names. I can have name which is checked, safe, probable, as realistic as possible, and whatnot, but who cares since it doesn’t fit the character! Or the other way: it fits perfect, but who cares since it fails for linguistic/cultural reasons… Drama, dilemma, despair, weeping and grinding of teeth. Well, maybe not so much, but I’m annoyed when I can’t use what I thought first and liked very much.

    All(?) cultures consider names very important, and there’s hardly a field where one can see why is it so more than in literature.

    • jaymountney

      April 25, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      I do the cut/paste thing with ‘difficult’ names – e.g. ones with foreign ‘accents’, too, but I don’t regard it as an easy solution and I try not to give major characters such names.

      There are always going to be cases where a perfectly good name has an entirely different effect in another language. Not just for fantasy choices, of course. I have had students, particularly for some reason Chinese ones, whose names and surnames produce mirth or shock when spoken in English and I’m sure the same applies in reverse but I don’t think it’s something you can guard against. Your examples, Boromir and Bavmorda, have no strange connotations for me, and I assume Tolkien, as a linguist, was working from Icelandic etc.

      Of course it’s possible to become too obsessed by the problem, but when authors have been careless the results grate!!

      • Aletheia

        April 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

        There are always going to be cases where a perfectly good name has an entirely different effect in another language. … I don’t think it’s something you can guard against.
        I agree, some solve (assuming that we prefer/can’t avoid inventing) can be to give some meaning to name deliberately. Perhaps different writers have own ways, if they care at all. Would be interesting to collect many different answers.

        Your examples, Boromir and Bavmorda, have no strange connotations for me
        Exactly what I meant, telling before about the dilemma “fine & fitting name vs safe & correct name”. They’re not so much my examples, as the examples you would surely get in discussion held on this subject everywhere between Alps and Ural, at least. Actually, I’ve quoted/recalled them from similar discussion, instead giving them on my own. Both have Slavic roots (or Slavic similarity, for Bavmorda…), both I met in the context “Western authors try to get originality by use of sounds exotic for them, unaware of the unintended funny effect.” Indeed, I think that Tolkien, being Tolkien, used medieval Slavic roots knowingly, and the somewhat not-so-ideal outcome is more the matter of modern reception than a real fail. Alas, Bavmorda is fail, at least if it was intended as “let’s make it sounding foreign.” Of course, if it wasn’t, then it’s only funny coincidence, not a fail.

      • jaymountney

        April 25, 2012 at 11:17 pm

        I am really surprised you think Tolkien would have used Slavic roots. Most of his names for both people and places have either old English roots or Scandinavian/Icelandic ones so I would have expected that of Boromir too. It’s clearly intended to go with Faramir – does that appear to have Slavic roots too? There are old Icelandic names ending in ‘mir’, ‘ir’ and ‘r’ so given Tolkien’s love of that language (plus his borrowing from their stories) I would expect those names to be some kind of invention based on it. I know nothing about Bavmorda but the origin sounds vaguely Latin to an English speaker so it could well be a case of coincidence unless you have other ‘evidence’. However, they both clearly show how many pitfalls there are!

  3. Aletheia

    April 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    I am really surprised you think Tolkien would have used Slavic roots.
    Me too. If it was only one morpheme, then it could be a coincidence, especially that Faramir doesn’t give this association, at least not at first glance. The Icelandic explanation would be rather undoubted, in spite of that -mir is a very characteristic morpheme in the Slavic group (archaic in some languages, or still used in others), especially popular in names. But there’s also bor-, bór-, common for many Slavic languages too, and reportedly there is more of ‘suspicious’ though far less known names in Tolkien’s works, like Radagast or Medved.
    By no means I’m an expert on Tolkien, nor even a real fan, so what I’ve written is just sort of a report of many and many opinions and discussions I’ve come across. The general picture between said Alps and Ural seems to look like this: for an average fan, the Slavic etymology in this case is obvious and natural, and controversies are between these of tolkienists who are professional linguists, whose opinions are divided. What doesn’t surprise me, cause I’ve never seen two linguists unanimous in whatever case, when it comes to etymology…

    it could well be a case of coincidence unless you have other ‘evidence’
    Till I’ll talk with “Willow”‘s authors, the theory of coincidence is as probable as the theory of ‘Let’s exoticise it!’ One way or another, they had bad luck that day. *g*

    • jaymountney

      April 26, 2012 at 7:41 pm

      I’m fascinated! It really would never have occurred to me because here we assume that everything was based on the origins of old English and old Norse. Of courseTolkien, as a linguist, must have known what he was doing. I can see that the ‘mir’ ending can also have Slavic roots – I just would not have considered that explanation. What are the connotations of Boromir and Bavmorda? I’m now intrigued!

  4. jaymountney

    April 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Alethiea tried to post this but WordPress thought she already had and wouldn’t allow the repeat, so after some messaging and experiments we agreed I would add the comment myself to add to the record, which is fascinating.

    bor/bór = forest (not any forest, but a huge and old and dark and primeval one)

    mir = peace and/or authority/reign/respect

    Now, the meaning is one thing, but there’s yet the impression to consider. In reading, LotR and everything Tolkien’s has ENGLISH virtually printed on all over, CELTIC drips from pages, and NORDIC jumps out from between lines. As far as I know, it’s exactly what Tolkien intended and hoped for, the mission’s accomplished then. Now, to put yourself on the place of a native Slavic-language reader, imagine you read Chinese, Russian or Arabic fantasy or legends, and amid all Li Hongs, Ali-Beys, Sergeys, Sung Mins and Avdotias you run across Mr. Dunholm living in Lowmoor… You’d go somewhat “Huh…?”, wouldn’t you? Furthermore (and that’s a more personal view), it doesn’t fit a knight-like highborn warrior, though it could fit around X-XIII centuries. Now it gives rather an image of a Tom Bombadil-like figure, or HP’s Hagrid, a big, grumpy or good-natured wild-bee keeper or such…

    Here’s a handful of examples for linguistic polemics I’ve mentioned. (You can try to put it into Google Translate, I’ve noticed recently it improved a lot.)

    Bavmorda. Heh, contrary to the foregoing, nothing of the dignified medievality here. ‘Morda’ = a vulgarism for a very ugly face, a dog’s snout (Polish, Russian), mouth, muzzle (Czech). An exception is Slovenian, where ‘morda’ = maybe, perhaps.

    • Aletheia

      April 28, 2012 at 8:33 pm

      one, two, three, commenting test, commenting test…

      Ha! Now it lets me, at last. Thanks for posting the above!

  5. chris allen

    May 1, 2012 at 3:21 am

    Just a couple of comments.
    Sometimes readers find more in a charcter’s name than the author intended.
    I use for ideas from different cultural backgrounds

    • jaymountney

      May 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm

      I’m sure they do – and I’m equally sure it’s impossible to guard against all problems, but a certain amount of care is needed. Writers need to be aware that their readers will bring their own preconceptions to the reading and should not choose names lightly. I’ve come across some appalling examples, especially with regard to place names. Aletheia’s comments about Tolkien’s characters are another matter because it’s unlikely that any English readers would notice but Tolkien himself probably knew what he was doing and should perhaps have considered a multinational readership. What do you think? Thank you for the URL – if I’m writing a story set on earth I usually decide on an origin and then go Googling but this site might well save time. But I must say that in my fantasy stories I prefer to avoid names from this world altogether unless, as with my fae, I use natural terms. In that respect a good research tool is Culpeper’s Herbal!


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