Choosing names in fiction
Today, we’ll be looking at how choosing names in fiction is vital for creating an engaging story. Whether it’s characters, places, objects, or processes, choosing the right word can be trickier than you think. Here are some top tips using examples from other creatives on choosing the right name…
Choosing names in fiction: Era and setting
The time your novel is set in will affect your word choice. If your book is set in a particular historical period, carry out some research to get an idea of some of the names and terms that occurred. What were the most popular Christian names then? What terms did they give things? Is there any kind of theme running through them? It’s good to do a bit of research so you don’t make the wild decision to call a Victorian character Kylie.
Little fact: the name Wendy was made up for Peter Pan by J M Barrie. There was no recorded Wendy before.
Setting and geographical location can also play a part in the types of names you choose. Names and sounds of words are different in every country. For example, George R R Martin is a master at creating different recognisable identities in a completely fictitious world. The contrast between the simplicity of ‘Jon Snow’ to the complexity of ‘Daenerys Targaryen’ reflects not only their locational differences, but also something about their characters. Jon is immediately relatable and also a sturdy, humble, name. Whereas Daenerys is foreign, interesting, and dynamic.
Martin carries this on by giving each geographical location certain themes with how places and people’s names sound. This gives the story a rich texture and also, from a practical point of view, helps to differentiate the vast list of characters.
Choosing names in fiction: Functionality
Is it easy to pronounce? It might seem obvious, but it’s really important to choose words that are easy to read, pronounce, and remember. If you do decide to choose a name as intricate as some of the ones the likes of which Martin or Tolkien use, make sure the character or place is authentic enough to carry it through so that the reader remembers it. Also think about why you’re choosing this name. Is it adding anything to that character, or is it just interrupting the reading experience?
It can also be useful to think about naming things according to their functionality. Philip Pullman gives the magic compass that Lyra uses the name Alethiometer. Doesn’t it sound like something that already exists, or could exist? By using the word ‘meter’, it feels legitimate due to its measuring/tool-like nature. This can also be done in a playful way. J K Rowling is the master of this. As an example, take her use of Diagon Alley (diagonally) for a street name. Or, when she names a device which extracts light from surrounding objects simply a Put-Outer/Deluminator.
Choosing names in fiction: Enhancing your story
Often people talk about a writer’s voice. But what does this mean? How can you define yours? It can be a difficult thing to pin down because it’s something that you can’t force, it just comes naturally. If you told a room full of writers to come up with a short story based on the chair in front of them, you would get individual descriptions from each of them. Only you can choose the words to write down and in the order you want them. This is why choosing names for fiction writing is inherent to your own independent storytelling voice.
The names you choose will be intrinsically your own and will add to the authenticity of your author voice. This is why it’s important to think about your choice of names carefully. It will set you apart from other writers.
Choosing names in fiction: Place
Whether it’s countries, houses, or landmarks, each place needs to be named something appropriate for your story. Take Darcy’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. The word instantly implies both a stateliness and also, through the rolling letters, a softness. This reflects the nature of his character and also the turning point in Lizzie’s opinion of him from hatred to warmth.
The sound of the actual words have an instant impact on the reader. Think about how other writers have named some evil or mysterious places: Mordor, Thornfield Hall, Azkaban, Oz, The Wild Wood. Each either uses words we associate with sinister things, or have grouped certain letters together for a new experience.
Creating interesting place names helps to build the world of your novel.
Choosing names in fiction: Characterisation
Choosing the best name for your character is crucial. You have to like it and it has to fit. Sometimes the right name falls into your head out of the blue with ease, or you might have known what it would be from the start, and other times it can be a huge struggle.
If you are finding it hard to pick the right name, don’t let it become an obstacle. Just write any name for now. Then, when you decide what the right one is, do a search and find on your manuscript and swap the names over.
Furthermore, a name doesn’t have to be solid. It can be changed or shortened into something else. For example, what does a character who rejects their Christian name suggest? You can also create a familiarity between characters when every now and then one will call the other by a nick-name. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ranyinudo often calls Ifemelu ‘Ifem’ for short. This heightens their closeness, having been friends since school days.
Choosing names in fiction can be really fun. And it’s super exciting when you find the right one. It might be through research, happenstance, suggestion, or theft, but you’ll know when you’ve found the perfect name.
How do you come up with new names in your writing?