Update. Next Publication is: Under Strange Suns, available digitally August 2015, print version due December 2015, Twilight Times Books.

Naming Characters

“What’s in a name? That which we call a  rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Well, sure, Juliet, but books communicate only through words, not smells.  The names chosen often must be capable of more than simply differentiating one character from another, they must be able to convey certain information, whether about the character or about the world the author has created.

And creating worlds is what speculative fiction authors do.  The aliens, elves, planets, or kingdoms invented need names.  There are many approaches to naming conventions.  Glen Cook, in his “Black Company” series employs common English words: “Opal,” “Juniper.”  Or relatively uncommon but still familiar names: “Elmo”, “Otto.”  Some readers, perhaps conditioned to expect that fantasy will adhere to certain conventions, find this hinders suspension of disbelief.  It works for me, however; it helps ground the stories, provides a sense of gritty reality.

Another option is to become a philologist, invent several languages, and provide appropriate names from word roots or compounds of those invented languages.  This option works best if your name is Tolkien.

Other writers seem to peck randomly at the keyboard and then go back and insert an apostrophe.  These writers don’t, apparently, attempt to pronounce the names or quite grasp what an apostrophe within a word is supposed to accomplish.  Vide “the Apostropocalypse” in Neal Stephenson’s “Reamde.”  His takedown of this particular naming convention is quite clever, as one would expect.

In my first novel – that has been consigned to a box in the closet, never to see the light of day – I resorted to the atlas.  Characters from certain invented lands were assigned countries from the atlas and I selected place names from the respective countries (e.g., Estonia) to repurpose as character names, ensuring a consistency, a sense of commonality among characters within the discrete lands.  At least that was the intent.  No one will ever know if I succeeded.

My second novel, “Reunion” (to be released by Twilight Times Books this October) is essentially a contemporary piece, so names presented little difficulty.  However, a couple of characters did require some thought.  For reasons that – I hope – make perfect sense to those who read the book, I modified ancient Babylonian names to tag these two characters with.

I am faced with a different challenge in the novel I am currently writing.  I want the names of the alien race to exemplify their language.  Thus most of the names feature ch, k, or g to indicate that the alien speech consists largely of gutturals and harsh consonants.

Names can help establish a sense of place, of verisimilitude.  They can also, of course, be allegorical or symbolic, if the author wants to go down that path.  Something to consider before assigning a moniker.

What’s in a name?  Maybe quite a bit.