The character names you use in your story are sometimes those that people will long remember, even if your story’s plot becomes fuzzy in their head after years. Whether you are talking about fantasy world names for your characters or places in your story, names stick in people’s memory. Who will ever forget names like Harry Potter, Winterfell, Middle-earth, or Eragon? Or how about names used in classic literature, such as Oliver Twist or Huckleberry Finn?
What’s in a Name?
A great name sticks with you and gives a particular feel to a person or a place. Especially in a fantasy world, names are like glue between the story and the world. If I tell you about two towns, one called Evildome and one called Faeglade, you will immediately make some assumptions. Maybe they are incorrect, but that’s not the point. The point is that you should load names with more substance than a mere combination of letters that no one else had thought of before.
But naming doesn’t stop at characters. It goes way beyond that. So, what can we name in a story?
- Places (world, continents, cities, areas)
- Fauna and Flora
- Abstract concepts
When you think about the names in a new world, there is one thing you must consider from the start: names cannot be confusing in the context of one story. You must keep track of everything that you name and be sure that those names are not similar, not only in writing but also in speech.
Creating Fantasy Names for Characters
Although there are many aspects of your character’s personality that you must create during your character development process, giving your character a mighty name is one of the very first ones you should tackle. A good name carries a lot and, sometimes, everything. When naming characters, the same rules apply, but the first rule should be taken more seriously: make sure that your main characters’ names and even those less important don’t start with the same letter or are otherwise similar. That might confuse the reader, especially in a complex world. Here are some examples of bad combinations:
- Rick and Dick
- Sam and Sid
- Toby and Cody
When selecting a name for your characters, try to make those names age-appropriate. I know it sounds silly—after all, every person goes through all life stages, so the name should apply to all ages. But, still, we associate specific names with old and others with young. So, it’s all about finding an age-appropriate name for the character at the time of your story.
Which ones of these feel young, and which ones feel old?
- Dana / Esther
- Jenny / Abigail
- Raya / Ephronia
This idea is not something to go crazy about, but keep it as an ace in your sleeve as something you use to provide an additional flare to your character.
Meaningful Character Names
The next thing is trying to give names a meaning. Be careful though, don’t be too on the nose here because it will wind up sounding silly. A scientist named Atom or a knight named Arrow will seem forced unless that’s precisely what you are trying to accomplish. If you are not, try to be a bit more subtle.
The other side of the coin is also valid: avoid character names that are already too loaded with meaning and detract from your story by forcing people to make assumptions. For example, don’t name your characters Ophelia, Brutus, or Saddam.
Using generally accepted bad/evil words as root for great villain names and good/positive words as root for heroes is a good idea, but again, you must do it subtly. Think about Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. You almost don’t need to see the movies, and you can still almost “feel” the character from the name.
As you practice and get more experience developing compelling characters, associating great names with them will become a part of your character development process.
Finding Great Character Names
When it comes to character names, you’ve probably heard this one a hundred times before: use a baby names database. Keeping with that tradition, my favorite places to go are:
Besides the baby names database (or book), there are also a few websites out there that will help you generate names. Most of them have cool selection features, such as name length, name type, and so on. Here are my favorite fantasy name generators:
- Fantasy Name Generator – http://rinkworks.com/namegen/
- Seventh Sanctum Generator – http://www.seventhsanctum.com/index-char.php
- Fantasy Name Generators – http://fantasynamegenerators.com/
- Dragon’s Mark Name Generator – http://www.dragonsmark.com/names.php
- Behind the Name – http://www.behindthename.com/random/
- Name Generator Fun – http://www.namegeneratorfun.com/
In addition to this, if you are using the popular Scrivener software to write your fiction, the program has a very cool name generator embedded in it.
So, as you can see, there are a lot of places to inspire you. But that’s just it: inspiration. Don’t forget that these tools are available to everyone in the world. Chances are, if you discover a cool name, somebody else probably had already used it. The last thing you want is to publish the “Legends of Iskandar,” only to discover that somebody else published a book two weeks before, and the main character is also Iskandar.
Therefore, you should use the websites here for inspiration, but then add your personal twist to it. Change a letter, reverse two letters, add something. Make it yours!
Foreign Words as Root for Names
When it comes to anything other than character and place names, the stage is wide open. A way to look for compelling names is to get your hands on a multilingual technical dictionary. If you are lucky, you will find a comprehensive one, but you usually find specific ones, such as medicine, finance, etc. They provide the word in English followed by the translation in various other languages.
Scout the words in other languages and look for interesting sounding words. Please don’t use them as-is, of course, but use their root to create something you need. Perhaps you can use English to locate the proper concept, then look for how the word is spelled in other languages and go from there.
Of course, not all object and concept words must be wholly made up. You are also free to use familiar words but interestingly combine them. Think of these: Wheel of Time, Spear of Destiny, Dragonstone.
Fantasy Names for Places
When you are naming places that are in each other’s vicinity, follow these rules:
- Limit the number of names starting with the same letter
- Avoid almost entirely having names beginning with the same syllable or group of letters
- Limit the number of names of a similar length
- Avoid too many very long names
- Limit the names containing dashes and apostrophes
- Try to avoid having names that rhyme
There’s one exception to the last one, and that is when the rhyming is done on purpose to signify a group of related places. Think Westchester, Eastchester, Manchester, or Edinburgh, Loburgh, and Middleburgh. You get the point. When it looks like the similarity between the names is done on purpose and serves a purpose, it is okay. When it looks haphazard, it doesn’t sound right.
The next thing to keep in mind is the type of place you are describing. Two significant distinctions are sci/fi vs. fantasy, and within each, you have sub-divisions. Take this example: Xycoon vs. Kyrandia. You can argue either way, but the first name does sound more sci/fi, whereas the second one sounds more like fantasy.
To find names for sci/fi places, you should probably turn to technology. Terms from engineering will convert well into sci/fi names. You will probably look into religious and spiritual items and objects and try to convert those into character names for fantasy.
Also, for fantasy, looking into ancient history will provide good inspiration. For example, I like to play around with obscure Greek philosopher’s names.
Fantasy Names for Flora and Fauna
I cannot think of many good reasons you would name plants and animals differently, except when you invent brand new ones. There will be a chapter on Fauna and Flora, but when it comes to naming them: keep it simple unless it is an essential part of the story. If you start re-naming the entire animal reign, you will regret it later.
Every time you name something, you have to explain it. Even if you define it, readers won’t remember it right away. When there are too many situations like this, the story will be a difficult read as readers have to continually remember what means what.
For example, if people are riding in your story, let them ride a horse unless it’s crucial for the story that the animals are not horses or that your horses have eight legs. If you want to add spice to your story by having some magical steed called Gapherion, make sure it’s worth it, and it’s somehow related to your plot. Otherwise, the readers will sense that you are trying too hard to make your world different. Remember: just naming things differently doesn’t make them different. A simple talking horse or a walking tree will be stronger than a talking klimpazoo or a walking dimpledary. That’s because now the reader can focus on the supernatural power of something that they already understand. Changing both the name and the feature will have less of an impact.
Names of Objects and Abstract Items
This is an area where you can let your imagination go wild. In fantasy and science/fiction stories, writers usually fill their worlds with unusual items and abstract concepts. Sometimes the objects are integral to the story, for example, Holcrux (Harry Potter), Lightsaber (Star Wars), etc.
These names should be unique unless you rely on concepts that people already know, and they integrate into your story correctly. For example, nobody will mind terribly if you use “phasers” in your sci/fi story. But even if you use an existing name, make sure you give it a fresh, new feel. Maybe the shape is different? Perhaps the result of using it is different? Just find a way to make it yours. However, do steer away from concepts that are too much related to something too particular. Some readers won’t like it if you use the “lightsaber” because that is too much indicative of a Star Wars Universe. So: be fresh!
How Do You Track It?
As discussed in the language section about a dictionary, you will have a glossary in the fantasy names section. Create headings for each letter of the alphabet and put all the names under each letter. If you want, you could make this glossary manually, in Excel, or any similar table software. But there’s an easy way to do it automatically.
Create a new Word Document and add a table with two columns. On each row, type a name in the first column. In the second column, give some description of that name. Select each name one by one and mark them as an index entry (In Word 2010, this command is under References -> Index -> Mark Entry, or Alt-Shift-X). At the end of your document, after a Page Break, insert the Index (In Word 2010, this command is under References -> Index -> Insert Index). Now Word will automatically create your alphabetized glossary for you.
By doing this, you will be able to look at all the names under each letter and figure out if they are too close in look and sound.
This word document can become the name idea pad for your world. You can brainstorm new concepts, name them, and track them here. That’s why the description column is essential, too: it will let you memorialize what the concept or object means. Later on, when you want to use the item, you can look at this table.
The name glossary is also essential to help you make sure you do not repeat names when you don’t have to. For example, if you create a character with a less unique name, like Frank, and use that character in a unique setting, you don’t want to use another Frank in a different story in a different environment. That becomes particularly valid if the first Frank is a very memorable character. If someone reads both stories, it is not unexpected for them to assume that we are talking about the same Frank. Of course, the story itself might make that clear, but why add the additional reader confusion?
Keep Creating New Names
On a general note, make sure you always carry around a notepad or other note-taking mechanism. Then, every time you stumble upon an interesting name, or an interesting word that has the potential of being a name, write it down. Keep an ongoing name database and try to organize it a bit. Maybe keep separate sheets for long names, short names, male names, female names, fantasy names, sci/fi names, and so on. When you have some downtime (do you ever?), spend some time on name-generating sites and grab a few for your database. It will be handy later on when you don’t have time to spare. I make a point to generate three to five new names per week.
Remember that once you locate a cool name, you can always use that name as a root and extrapolate other names. Usually, you do that by altering the beginning or the ending, like Harlin, Marlin, Karlin, Sarlin, Harlick, Marlick, etc. Every time I work on a new novel outline, I make a point to create twice as many names as I need and save them in my arsenal for future stories.
The more names you have, the better you will juggle your creativity when looking to use them in your world.
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- How do you choose your character names?
- Do you feel like the character names drive the personality or the other way around?
- What are your favorite character names from literature?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!