Naming Characters and Locations

What’s in a name?

“What’s your name,” Coraline asked the cat. “Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
“Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Neil Gaiman, Coraline

You’re writing something, a novel, flash fiction, script or a roleplay, and then it happens. The naming. You’ve reached the critical mass of pronouns or alluding to the protagonist by characteristics, and it’s starting to look a bit silly; you just know you’ll have to go back and edit that out later.

For now, you sit there. Stuck at naming a major character or location, feeling the pressure to pen the perfect name.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re in luck, because this week’s focus is on naming characters and locations.

First thing’s first. Names are important, but what’s matters most is actually writing the story. My advice is to keep writing while you’re stuck thinking of names and to use placeholder titles in the meantime.

Literally calling someone Sparky, Blondie or Shooty until you have a proper name stops you from doing the writing acrobatics of referring to a character by anything but their name and so saves you time editing later.

Then Ctrl + F then Replace (or your Mac equivalent) will make changing Blue to Commander Xu’tal Gherquip’xala much easier. Yes, that example is real.  

Tip #1 – Use placeholder names to keep writing in the meantime.

Book Porn by Book Porn (tumblr user)

Next up, consider your setting’s conventions for naming. You can get away with almost anything, provided you are consistent with your style.

For example, if the people from the north of your fantasy world all have double-barrelled names, keep that consistent and the reward is a greater depth of your setting and your readers will know more about a character without you explicitly needing to tell them (i.e. – you introduce a character with a double-barrelled name and the reader automatically knows they’re from the north).

This is a part of more broad advice that I’ll repeat often here, is to take any opportunity to show rather than tell.

Tip #2 – Be consistent with your setting’s conventions.

Too Many Books by Omoo

With any genre, from sci-fi to realism, there are tropes.

You don’t need to avoid every single one, sometimes they can be helpful to your narrative, whether you engage with or subvert them, or us them to let the audience to know what’s going on at a glance, like knowing the Death Star is evil or that Mount Doom is probably the baddies’ base and not very much like Rivendell.

So it’s vital to be aware of what these tropes are for your genre, so then you can manipulate or avoid them as works best for your story. The best way to learn what they are is to read widely in that area and I would recommend watching shows in the genre too, as they sometimes have a different take on the stereotypes by the merit of being in a different medium.

If you name something in line with a trope, then your audience will notice it (especially if they are familiar with the setting), but how they perceive that naming will be down to the story around it and the frequency you rely on those typical names to convey characteristics of a person/location.

Do it too much and your readers might feel like the story, no matter how well written, is unoriginal or comic when every character is called Scarlet Bladeheart, Wrex Sunlord or Blackleaf the Half-Elven.

My advice is to avoid naming protagonists with anything tropey as their names will partially set the mood of your setting since their names appear the most in the text. There’s more freedom in naming locations with formulaic titles, as that’s normally how locations in the real world are named and the self-contained description in the name can do a lot of work for you.

Tip #3 – Know the tropes and engage with, satirise or avoid them as appropriate. Trust that your audience will know what they are.

Lamplight Books by Joseph Winters

As mentioned, names can hold meaning that influences your readers. Sometimes it’s in the literal meaning of the name (Skywalker vs General Grievous), other times it’s in the sound of the syllables (Eragon vs Galbatorix), and either way names, particularly in sci-fi or fantasy, imply who is the hero and who is the villain.

On the other hand, who doesn’t like to play with their audience?

Misleading your audience to believe an evil sounding name (even though we all know there are no subjectively evil names) belongs to the villain and in fact it’s an unlikely ally is a fun trick to play. The same goes for a supposed ally who turns out to be evil. Use this trick rarely for maximum effect.

When it comes to generating idea for names with a particular meaning, it’s a good starting point to look on baby name websites where you can find names from almost all histories/cultures, ergo giving you more diversity in your choices.  

It’s important to note that every name doesn’t need a “true meaning”, or even that you should give any name a hidden secret. This is down to personal choice, and is something to be aware of if you’re struggling to name characters: deciding on a character trait then finding the Latin for it can at least give you a good placeholder name!

Tip #4 – Names will influence readers. Name accordingly to describe or mislead your audience or even characters.

Brodsky in Shakespeare & Co. by Frantisek Staud

Happy with the names you’ve come up with? Awesome! Now be prepared to throw them all out the window. Or at least saved into your note pages.

Go back to the drawing board once you’re happy with names and consider your audience.

Arguably you want to do this first, but I prefer to consider the audience last as unless you are being commissioned to write for a specific recipient, it’s more important for you to be happy with the writing you produce.

Try to think of the audience’s general expectations for their age, or if you’re writing for a mixed audience, remember that Tolkien both invested his own languages and had a highly complex lore for many of his names… then he also had Mount Doom.

If in doubt, ask a few friends (preferably in the age of audience you’d be writing for) you trust to be honest with you to proof-read your writing, or if you’re uncomfortable, even just asking what associations they have for names can be telling. Try not to lead their answers or give any clues, the best answers will be the most gut-feeling ones.

Don’t be afraid to stick by your guns for your choices, but also take on board other’s opinions and try to be open to suggestions and change if something doesn’t work as well as expected.

Tip #5 – Consider your audience. Be open to changing names if they don’t work as you wanted.

Fiction by Laura Evans

Let’s summarise the five tips here:

Tip #1 – Use placeholder names to keep writing in the meantime.

Tip #2 – Be consistent with your setting’s conventions.

Tip #3 – Know the tropes and engage with, satirise or avoid them as appropriate. Trust that your audience will know what they are.

Tip #4 – Names will influence readers. Name accordingly to describe or mislead your audience or even characters.

Tip #5 – Consider your audience. Be open to changing names if they don’t work as you wanted.

I hope these tips give you some constructive starting points if you’re struggling to think of names, and gives others some points to consider for names you feel aren’t working as fittingly as you’d like.

The format for this week’s tips has altered slightly to increase the readability; let me know if you prefer this format of listing as you go and what you think of the tips in the comments!

Is there anything else you think of when naming, or things that inspire you? What would you like to see in next week’s writing advice?

Stay safe, stay indoors and carry on writing!

The next Saturday post is part 3 of Life in your Fortress of Solitude.

The next post is the Monday’s writing advice.

This week’s featured image is Assorted Book Titles by Wall Flare.

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