How do you come up with names for your story? The question is most significant in regards to the characters, but also for places and objects that you’ve made up. The more extravagant your world-building, the more new names you’ll need to invent. It can be quite fun, and it’s probably a better medium to exercise your creativity than with your real children, since most kids would rather not get saddled with alien-sounding names that no on can ever spell or pronounce correctly. But within a fictional world, anything goes.
Or does it? The truth is, goofy or inconsistent naming systems can make it very difficult for readers to immerse themselves in a story. Every name you select should match the tone and phonetic logic of its context, both the broader context of the fictional world and the individual context of whatever is being named. If you’re writing something that’s meant to be absurd or humorous, Mmmorglespazz might be completely appropriate. Otherwise, you might want to take it down a notch or two. In addition, even the most basic grounding in linguistic systems can prevent a collection of names that sound like they were spit out of a random generator.
Let’s look at a few examples. Even within the realms of realistic fiction, you have room to be rather creative. Perhaps the most famous case of that is Charles Dickens, who created names of such a quirky quality that they’re sometimes the most memorable part of his books. Scrooge is so evocative it’s become a descriptor for all miserly Christmas-haters (that, or Grinch, which comes from the consummate word/name inventor Dr. Seuss). But there are so many more. Micawber, Magwitch, Quilp, Pickwick, Squeers, Heep…you have only to hear the name, and you can start envisioning what sort of character it might describe. In some ways you might consider JK Rowling’s naming conventions the literary descendants of Dickens, with just a little extra other-worldliness for that magical quality: Dumbledore, Flitwick, Lockhart, Skeeter. Some of the names in Harry Potter – Remus Lupin, for heaven’s sake! – are straight-up puns for anyone who speaks Latin.
On the far extreme of linguistic meticulousness, we have Tolkien, who loved languages so much he started with them and subsequently built his stories on that foundation. He took extreme care that the names of Elves and Dwarves and Orcs and such each have their own separate consistency that matches the flavor of their race. Elvish languages are musical and flowing, full of liquid consonants, like Luthien, Elrond, and Arwen. Dwarvish names have a bit more toughness, with dental and velar stops; Gimli and Kili and Durin. Orcs are fully harsh and gutteral, the sounds you make when you’re clearing your throat. Perhaps one of Tolkien’s most brilliant namings is the alias Smeagol acquires as the ring begins to corrupt him. Gollum evokes, with just two well-chosen syllables, the pathetic and repulsive and gulping creature he becomes.
Of course, not every writer is going to be an esteemed professor of philology. Even if you create wholly new worlds, you aren’t obligated to provide a fully-realized language to go along with it, complete with a thousand-word lexicon and an original grammar system. You should, however, create at least a simple system of rules. Don’t stick random apostrophes into names just because they look cool. What do they mean? Does it represent a glottal stop? An accent? A shortening of a longer word? And try not to make the name prohibitively difficult to pronounce unless that’s part of the story, such as humanoids encountering a race with such drastically different facial features that they produce an entirely unfamiliar set of sounds. Otherwise, you’ll make your readers groan every time they see yet another ridiculously unpronounceable word.
If you’re working within existing languages or naming systems, do your research. Don’t set a story in the Far East and give everyone names that sound vaguely Asian. Find out what words actually mean. At best you’re being sloppy; at worst you’re treating entire languages and cultures like nothing but a collection of meaningless syllables. And read every new invention out loud. Something might look cool but actually sounds quite silly.
As far as place and object names, sometimes it’s worth inventing something, and sometimes you’re better off using real words. Maybe your villagers call the distant mountain some mystic arcane name. But maybe they just call it “the mountain.” Slang can also be off-putting if it sounds forced and unnatural. And especially with science fiction, you need to be careful not to inundate the reader with a flood of unfamiliar terminology.
“Grapple me the flositronic hammet, Polt! I’m evering the oist andle and it won’t rudge!”
If there’s only one or two familiar words in the whole sentence, you might want to make some changes.
So how does this play out in my own books? I feel like my naming is a mixed bag, sometimes successful, sometimes in need of more tweaking. For my fairy tale stories I tried to find variations of the original character’s names – Alain for Beauty, as it’s a male name that might mean handsome; Bianca, meaning white or fair, for Snow White; and Zellie for Rapunzel. For my sci-fic novel Vitro/Vivo, I created contrasting naming systems for the two societies. It would be fitting for the hyper-controlled City to give its citizens numbers for names, but I decided to shake up that trope by using numbers from lots of different languages; hence, my female protagonist is Drei, the German word for three. The Vivos, meanwhile, have far more fluidity in their names, letting the kids choose whatever they want to be called whenever they feel like it. This results in a wide variety of names, some more unwieldy than others: Freckles, Vulture, Fire-mark, Eyes of a Jaguar.
With Silver I chose names that were much like familiar modern names, with some slight variation. Alinda, Mellory, Landrea. Like our world, but just a little off. I was relatively satisfied with the results, but it turns out one of the critiques I received during my last round of querying was that the names all sounded a little too similar and it was hard to keep track of which character was which. So, looks like I might need to do a little tweaking there.
Mortal Failings, my one novel set in the real world – at least a supernatural version of it – required more typical names, but I still put a lot of thought into each one. Erik in particular I chose because of its association with the Phantom of the Opera, as his character turns out to be just as monstrous, however alluring he might seem at the start. Also, I felt like the “k” spelling was evocative of that tendency in the paranormal romance genre to give the supernatural characters old-fashioned, foreign-ish names and/or spellings.
So how obvious should a name’s evocation be? Most of the time, it’s better if it’s a subtle background feature rather than an incredibly obvious bit of exposition or foreshadowing. There’s a place for flagrant puns and extravagant naming systems, and a place for names that provide quiet world-building and characterization without drawing attention to themselves. I like both.
…..That’s probably why I named my son after Luke Skywalker.