Part 1 in the series ‘ enhancing your creative writing talent ’. By Melissa A Joy, fantasy writer and Blackheath Dawn consultant writer.
Have you ever wondered about the meaning of names? Do any characters you’ve read about live up to the names they are given, and do their names suit them? And does the same go for the names of locations? The truth is that names do matter.
For some writers, naming characters or places comes naturally. It doesn’t always happen for me, but sometimes when I’ve invented new characters (and places as I write fantasy), a name has suddenly dropped from somewhere up in the ether – though sometimes I need to play with the spelling a little before I settle on one that looks and feels right to me. At other times, I consider numerous other options as alternative starting points:
- Go through the alphabet and pick out a selection of letters that feel like they might be good for a first initial (especially useful for alternate worlds like sci-fi and fantasy, and horror).
- Search pet and baby naming sites and pick out any that feel significant that you might be able to develop into characters later.
- If you’re writing in an invented world (eg. fantasy, sci-fi) and you’re looking for place names, try searching atlases and countries (even travel locations) to get an idea of the kind of area you’re writing about, and perhaps try tweaking and rearranging names or attempt coming up with something new that reflects that kind of location.
- Read from other authors as much as you can
- Research legends and mythology for sci-fi, fantasy, horror and perhaps even crime/mystery/supernatural.
One method you might want to consider if you’re looking for Earthly names for characters, progressing from your initial search, is to pick a few names that you like the sound of and see what images of potential characters crop up. Think about the era you’re writing in too. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing for, the style of an era can sometimes have an impact on the clarity of your characters.
If you write historical fiction, for example, you’re not likely to see names like Chelsea and Jordan in Medieval England, and if your hero is a knight in training and your heroine is the daughter of a powerful duke, you’re not going to want to have names that sound like they might be called out in the street in the suburbs of modern London. Likewise, in certain types of fantasy, such as high, epic or dark fantasy, you’re not likely to have an elf named John, though you might have a human Starfleet commander in a science fiction story with that name. Try imagining names of the ilk of Tolkien’s Middle Earth in modern London, for example. Doesn’t seem to fit does it?
Sometimes you might even want to consider giving certain characters names that mean quite the opposite of that character’s nature, or names they inherently live up to. In Robin Hobb’s land of the Six Duchies, for example, when a royal or noble child is named, it is a belief that they will live up to those names. Royals and nobles bear names such as: Shrewd, Verity, Chivalry, Regal, Desire and Patience. Some of them, of course, do not live up to such names, which is a part of what makes it more interesting. If every character lived up to his or her name, then it places restrictions on the story, so it’s probably worth creating two or three of that particular kind. In-fact, some modern day religions give spiritual names at naming ceremonies, which is something you might like to research if it interests you.
Of course, it does depend on the world or genre in which you’re setting your writing. Most of the names I use are invented by myself or are derived from another name I like the sound of, and in fantasy that’s much more common. However, I do endeavour to try to match a name I create with a character so it suits them at the very least and hopefully amplifies and illustrates their characteristics. You could even make up meanings to names you’ve invented if you’re writing in an alternative world to our own. I’ve done this a few times and it does seem to work for some characters. However, if you’re sticking to Earthly names, try looking up the meanings of the names you’re most interested in using. You may gain even more insight into how to develop your characters.
© Melissa A Joy, fantasy writer and Blackheath Dawn consultant writer, 2014