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The Naming Guidebook
Brought to you by Eve, Dev and insomnia

Need a name for that new character you thought up? Stuck on what to call your main character's hometown? Can't decide on what to call your story, other than 'Untitled-3.doc'? Then the Naming Guidebook is here to help! The Guidebook is full of useful tips, advice and links to help you develop titles, character, and place names.


Contents

Naming characters
Naming places
Titles
Thread rules and thanks
Other useful links
Character Names


Character names are an important part of writing. The names of your most prominent characters will show up many times over the pages of your work, so picking appropriate names is critical.


The Perfect Name?

It is tempting to spend hours finding the perfect name for a character. You can look up the meaning of names to find one that fits precisely with the personality of your character or their purpose in the story. But think about this for a moment. People are named when they are born, before their parents know anything about them or what sort of person they will grow up to be.

Thus, in real life, you'll discover people are often given names with meanings that that are very contrary to their personality. Is every woman named Athena blessed with a goddess-like wisdom and intelligence? No. It is more important to find a name that the character is likely to have, rather than finding a name that's a perfect 'personality' fit.

If you are thinking of giving your character an unusual name, it's also important to consider why. It may be as trivial as their parents liking the sound of it, but you should still give a bit of thought to the culture, context and impact of that name.


Name Context

A large part of whether a character name sticks out like a sore thumb, or meshes perfectly with your story will have to do with whether or not the name is in the right cultural context. Frodo Baggins is an excellent name for a hobbit, but a poor name for a lawyer from New York City.

As fun as it might be to have a U.S. high school character with a Japanese name, it's probably best to avoid this unless the character actually is from Japan. Also, someone who's half Japanese won't necessarily have an all Japanese name.

There are many nuances to naming conventions in other cultures; it's important to respect them, and a bit of research never hurt. You might think Akira is a really cool name for your Japanese female character, but you might not know that it's more commonly a boy's name. Similarly, do you know that 'n' is the only stand alone consonant in Japanese? Or that a Russian man might have the last name of Safin, but his sister is Safina?

If your character is from a culture other than your own, you will probably want to check with someone who is from that culture to make sure that you're not giving that character a ridiculous name. Jouten means "giant" in Norse, but while your character may be very large, it might be a bad idea to name your Scandanavian character this. The Jouten are a race of divininties that cause mischief for humans.


Enough is Enough

There are lots of Americans with five names, but you should probably stick to two or three. Your character may secretly have five, six, fifteen, or a million names, but your readers will have difficulty taking your character seriously if you don't pare it down to the minimum. Overloading a reader with multiple names for one character will only cause unnecessary confusion.


Raven Darkheart, Marie-Suezette

Don't be tempted by the dark side, Luke. A name comprised in part or whole by stereotypical "goth" or dark romantic words, pastries, candies, "power" words, etc. is likely to elicit laughter. If you're writing seriously, avoid using words in names.

Made-up names still have rules

There's a temptation in fiction -especially fantasy and sci-fi- to go wild with made-up names that normal everyday people would never have. But remember, no name exists in a vacuum. Names are shaped by culture and language, and your made-up world is no different. If your world is comprised of many different cultures, it makes sense you might have many different naming conventions. Class can also be a distinction. Is some lowly slave going to have as many names as an elite noble? Probably not.

Similarly, try to avoid going over the top with outlandish names. Mashing keys or giving your character a name like Magdln'iavra might look cool, but can you even pronounce it? Making up names can be fun, but a little restraint and respect for your cultures will benefit your story in the long run. If in doubt, take a look at the cultures of today and see what makes their names distinctive from each other.

Also keep in mind the relationship between the language of people's names, and the language of place names. Characters with Anglo Saxon names aren't going to fit so well in a world that has Asiatic sounding towns.


Exceptions

There are exceptions to every rule. If you're parodying something, then giving a bizarre or unlikely name is often a good idea. No one in their right mind would name a child Dirk Gently ('knife me gently'), but the name works perfectly for Douglas Adam's absurd holistic investigator.

Yossarian is a very peculiar name, but it works well in the satirical context of Catch-22.

Even this exception has an exception, though. Just because you have a good reason to have an absurd name, doesn't mean you need to go out of your way to find the most absurd name possible. If the name is completely outrageous, your readers are going to have a problem with it. Your character may be a parody of a promiscuous, vain, young lumbermill heiress, but it's probably a little much to name her Francesca "Snookums" Eleonore Lumberbunny.

Try to strike a balance.


Don't stress

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other word would smell as sweet
"

It is important that we feel comfortable with our character's names. But you shouldn't agonise over character names. Consider them, ponder them, question whether they fit the context of your character and story; but keep in mind that a name is ultimately a small part of your work. Unless your plot revolves around Character A having name B, you shouldn't get hung up over names. Names can be altered later. A story isn't going to write itself while you stress over Mr. Smith's first name.


Name Searches


Behind the Name - Found my obscure Greek test name, but linked to another name to give the meaning instead of saying what it meant and saying it was a relative of the other name. Also says that the name is English instead of Greek. The name it links to is correctly identified as Greek. 50% success rate on my Arabic TNs.

www.BabyNames.com - Curiously states that my Greek TN is Portuguese, but correctly states the meaning. Doesn't find either of my Arabic TNs.

BabyNamesWorld.com - People can rate the names here. Huzzah. Apparently, 51% of all the people who saw my Greek TN hated it. biggrin Correctly states the origin of my Greek TN, but doesn't list its meaning. Doesn't find either of my Arabic TNs.

Think Baby Names - Correctly states the origin of my Greek TN, but gives it a bizarre meaning not substantiated by any other source I've come across yet. Doesn't find either of my Arabic TNs.


Name Lists and Generators


Social Security Administration - Popular Baby Names - Popularity rankings for the top 1000 of SS-registered names.

Kate Monk’s Onomastikon - Smallish selection of names organized by things like culture, region, and times. One of the cool things about this is that you can look up the names of gods from different areas and eras.

Baby Names by Indastro.com - Selection of names organized by language. Found both of my Arabic TNs!

The Baby Name Inventor - Invents names! It's kind of scary, but if you take it with a grain of salt or three, it should be cool. Correctly identifies my Greek TN. 50% success rate on my Arabic TNs.

Serendipity - Name generators. Lots and lots of them.
What's this town called again?


Naming places can be both very straightforward and a little tricky.

Like with naming people, culture and context play a big part. For example, if you're stuck on what to call your nondescript Australian town (Without resorting to an existing name) you need to take in to account the culture and history of that country. If you're going to give it an Aboriginal name, you need to research that culture and their words. If you're giving it an ordinary name, take a look in an atlas to see what naming conventions exist. What is the established norm, and how can you conform to or bend that rule?

The usefulness of an atlas should not be understated when it comes to naming places. This can also be useful for fantasy place names, as it gives you an idea of the types of naming patterns that exist in real life. If you're going to name your place using another language, it is also important to do some research.


Creating names for speculative fiction

Now, what if you're trying to come up with a name for a made-up place in a made-up world? The context and culture is still a very important part. You can wing it to a certain extent; certainly you don't need to give hour-long considerations for every random location. But remember to stay consistent. If your towns all have psuedo-asiatic sounding names, don't throw in an Anglo Saxon name unless there's a reason for it. When naming places for a reason, useful questions to consider are:
  • When was this place founded and who named it first? (EG: The Australian suburb of La Perouse is named after the navigator of a French ship which landed there in 1788 )
  • Has the name changed over time? Places that come under the control of another culture may have their names altered (EG: London is derived from the Roman Londinium. Notting Hill is derived from the Saxon name Cnotta)
  • Does your culture have a naming convention for places? Remember, many places are named for their geographic properties, significant landmarks, or influential people. (EG: "Manchester" came the Latin Mamucium to describe a type of hill, plus the Anglo-Saxon ceaster for "town" ).

If you are going to introduce a made-up language aspect, you should also consider the consistency with which you use that language. Languages change over time; cities and towns that were named thousands of years ago might be named differently to places discovered a few centuries ago. If there is meaning behind your words, try not to randomly assign cool-sounding names for the hell of it. Don't belittle the culture of your world.


Mount Doom! Er, I mean... Dhoem!

I know, I know. Sometimes it is a little tempting to give places really dramatic names. But similarly, an ordinary name can also be given an ominous connotation. Not just through the name itself, but the history and events associated with that place. The way people use that name, whether they whisper it, shout it, refuse to speak it, feel comfortable saying it, or don't give a damn either way. Auschwitz, Port Arthur, Hiroshima and Beslan are all ordinary sounding names for their countries. But we don't think of them as 'normal' because they all have different, horrific connotations.

There's nothing inherently wrong with calling a lava-spitting volcano the Mountain of Doom, or calling the dwelling of an evil dictator the Black Castle. Nicknames and colloquialisms develop in every culture. But there are also other ways of creating an atmosphere around a name.
I shall call it... Untitled XII


Deciding on a title for your work can be frustrating. Titles and book covers create our first impression of a piece of writing. If the title doesn't sound interesting to a reader, they might not bother looking past the cover to actually read the story, poem, or essay. We all want something unique that will grab people's attention and say something about our work; something that will generate interest and make people want to read it.

Avoid the temptation to obsess about your title. Don't let it distract you from actually writing your story; while titles make for a great first impression, it's your actual story which is the important part. Remember, you can always change the title later on, and the perfect title might not come to you until after you've finished the whole thing. In the early stages of writing, the only reason to have a title is so that you don't have Untitled.doc 1-22 on your hard drive.

Here's a few tips and ideas for creating titles.
  • Think about what you want the title to say about your work. Try brainstorming different words and phrases, mixing them around until you find the right one.
  • Try to avoid overused words and cliches. Especially with some genre works, it's easy to get caught up in stereotypical names. Things like fantasy books with Legend/Saga/Quest/ItemName in the title, or Vampire stories with Blood/Crimson/Dark/Night. This doesn't mean you can't use them, but keep in mind they have been used many times before, and certain words may stereotype your story.
  • It's important to pick a title that feels right. A longer name isn't necessarily a bad name. Sure, it may not fit on the front cover as easily, but long titles aren't automatically disqualified from being good; they can be just as effective as a short title when done well.
  • The right title may not become clear until you finish your work. Looking back over your story can help identify a particular theme or specific line which encapsulates your story. Similarly, you may find that your story changes over time; a title that felt good at the beginning might not fit so well later on.
  • Don't have a panic attack if you find out another book, movie, etc has the same title as your work. That shouldn't stop you from using that title, but you do need to keep in mind that the name will have other connotations attached to it.
Thread Rules and Thanks


First off, thanks to Radioactive Alchemist for giving us a bunch of great Name websites. The linklist wouldn't be half as long without her. Thanks to the WF Mod-Squad, especially Eve Ill Zeeb Ra, for helping to get this baby up.

Please direct all naming-related queries to this thread. If you have a specific problem or question which isn't answered on the first page, or just want to share some advice, feel free to post here. I'm sure there's lots of Writers Forumites who will be happy to help you with your naming questions.

A few rules when it comes to posting, however.

  • You're more than welcome to post links to helpful naming websites, but don't dump lists of names on us unless it's in direct response to someone's question. We are not the Name Bank.

  • Please do not post questions such as "I need a name for my character!" or "Do you like this name?"; ie, asking people to develop things from scratch for you or seeking superficial validation. This thread is here to help you make your own decisions about naming. The opinion of some random person on the internet who has a personal bias against names starting with 'G' should not prevent you naming a character Gisella or Gary. The important thing is that you and your story feel comfortable with that name.

    Feel free to post if you are looking for specific feedback or advice to a naming problem, ie; you're having trouble deciding on a name or you wish to seek a second opinion on whether a name fits/works.

  • Spam and off-topic posts will not be tolerated. If you want to post junk or just chat, please take it somewhere else. All spam posts will be deleted.
Other Useful WF Links


Workshops and Other Non-Sticky Help Threads

Writer’s Forum Link List
The Question Box-- Reseach Requests and Help
Writer’s Block and Inspiration Thread
The Gaian Name Bank
Title Grabbing -- Take and Leave Story Titles


Just for Fun

Prompt me! Words, phrases and images to help you write.
The Anti-Guide. Humorous (but not to be taken lightly) list of writing's what-not-to-do's.


Feedback

Writer swap!. Mutual critique thread.


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