Monday, May 9, 2011

What's in a name?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"

Even if it was called the cat piss plant?

Unless you get into fantasy writing as a means to flesh out the stories behind the several languages you have invented, you likely will struggle to come up with effective character and location names from time to time.

Fun Fact: I have run several of the names in this video through various generators/translators
to come up with character names for my game.

I struggle with this constantly because, as I have mentioned before, a poorly chosen name can destroy the entire tone of a story. I have adopted a number of tricks and techniques to help me avoid the pitfalls of poor naming conventions, which I shall now share with you, my dear readers...

1. Break out the virtual baby book: The name generator over at Behind the Name is one of my ultimate go-to resources for coming up with character names. I have assigned a couple real-world cultures to each fictional culture in my game. When I am pressed for coming up with a good character name, I simply pop up the generator and click away until something fitting comes up. Tying each of my fictional cultures to specific real ones has the added benefit of providing a sense of consistency among the characters encountered in my game.

2. Google Translator is your friend: Google Translator is to places as Behind the Name is to characters. When I feel at a loss for naming a city or geographical region, I'll pop a description of it into Google Translate and tweak it until something sounds good. For example, "river port" translates as "flod havnen" in Danish, which then gets shortened to "Flodhavn" -the name of a trade city in my game, which is located at the mouth of a river.

3. More exotic names call for more exotic translators: There are numerous online translators for the various languages devised by Tolkien. I will occasionally turn to one of these when devising a name for more arcane locations, elven cities or characters, or dragons. Again, I typically plug in a basic description and let the translator make it sound cool.

4. Leave it to the Brits: One of my favorite naming conventions that I have come up with is the technique I use for naming the Gnomes in my game. Whenever I need to introduce a new gnomish character, I break open a map of the British Isles and peruse the place names. I don't know why, but it just seems to fit. example names include: Ipswitch Cogsworth, Gatwick Rugeley, Arlsey Biggleswade, Sandy Bracknell, Spilsby Holt

5. Brush up on the classics: Finally, The Encyclopedia Mythica is an online resource dedicated to the various mythologies of ancient cultures. The myths described on the website provide a treasure trove of names and ideas just waiting to be bent to my... or your nefarious purposes.

Okay writer and gamer friends, do you have a particular method to your naming madness?


  1. Yep, I do most of this stuff when I'm brainstorming characters for novels, and place names too. For me, it's better to keep it as simple as I can.

  2. I've gotten fond of using lists of things -- lesser-known characters in A Christmas Carol (so far, nobody's noticed), apple names (a Regency romance set in Hell that's currently on submission with my editor), and the names of periodic comments (for a slightly fantastical Regency involving astronomy). The enormous steampunk space opera I'm working on with a heroine who builds sexbots has tools named after nuclear whistleblowers.

  3. *periodic comets.

    Damn Autocorrect.

  4. Ooh, will your space opera include a ship...or a tool called the Daigo Fukuryu (in English: Lucky Dragon 5)? That is the ironic name of a Japanese fishing vessel caught in fallout from American H-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll during the 1950s. It's not really a whistleblower, but it was a major talking point for Japan's anti-nuclear movement.

    I gotta say, both the Japanese and its English translation sound potentially sordid.


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