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Spec Tech: King Biff and Queen McKenzie

June 10, 2010

What’s in a name?  Well, a lot, actually.

I write a lot of urban fantasy, so my people need real-world names. Take my vampires, for example. I decided that if you have a society of people, half of whom are of the “I’m your CEO, please call me Steve” and the other half are the “Now that we’re married, Mr. D’Arcy, can I call you by your Christian name?” camp, the compromise would be that they’d all call each other by the last name.

So where do I find last names? This beautiful site right here.  You can always just name your bad guys after that jerk who stood you up, and your good guys after your friends, but if you’re stuck, that site has thousands and thousands of names. Of course it always helps to google the name afterward, so you haven’t accidentally named your Protag “Santorum” or something.  It’s better than naming everyone “Smith”, “Johnson” and “Anderson,” which sometimes make me feel like the author is new to this planet.

What about first names?  Babynamer sites. No, please don’t look up a name that means “raven” for your character who turns out to be from the raven clan.  You know how many people are familiar with the etymology of names? Pregnant women, and nerds like us. No one else. Your readers don’t know that your main character’s friend’s name means “defender of the faith.” They will, however, recognize the right age of a name.

Let’s say your character is thirty years old in 2010.  Google “Top Baby Names 1980” and see what comes up.  Boy names don’t vary as much as girl names, but all of them vary. If you search a little more, you can do it by region. Why do this? I’ll give you a hint.

How old is Heather?

How old is Caitlin?

How old is Agnes?

Did you say 35, 15, and 80?  If your teenage daughter came home and said she was dating a boy named Ernest, wouldn’t you want to have a serious chat with this geriatric perv? Names come in and out of fashion.  Eventually it gets so far out of fashion that it comes back in again. Consider “Hannah.” Hannah was a grandma name until all the grandmas died, and now it’s a name for tweens.

Also consider that some names will start out being very trendy, because a celebrity is using them (Like Nevaeh), but they work their way down the social spectrum.  A rich Brittany is going to be older than a poor Brittany.

What people are named has everything to do with their parents are, and little to do with who they are.  “Morgoth” isn’t an goth boy, he has goth parents. “Sunshine” has hippy parents.  William Clayton Jefferson III has conservative parents (and he’s likely to go by Buster or Scoot or BJ, because there are likely a lot of other Williams and Billys running around).  Sometimes, of course, people do name themselves.  It happens a lot in certain subcultures. (Sca/rennie) But when I meet someone who calls herself Ravenwind or Moonwolf, I know that she’s got something else on her driver’s license.

But you say youdon’t write urban fantasy, you write high fantasy or science fiction?  What names should you use? Well, any one you want. I kind of like random name generators, myself. You can alter the vowel structure to make it suit your own particular culture, and eliminate consonants that your dwarven language doesn’t have, or whatever.

Except, pretty please, as a personal favor, please don’t name your high fantasy hero a name like these:

  1. Richard, James, William, Catherine, Elizabeth, or anything else more typical of a country that does not have dragons and unicorns. Feist? Goodkind? I love you guys, really, but this really pulls me out of the story.
  2. Anything that looks like you bought apostrophes in bulk at Costco.  Some of us read a name out loud when we read it, and K’th’paz’rikyl’ does not flow off my tongue.
  3. Names that start with the same letter as other characters’ names. Some of us do not read a name out loud when we read it, and just look at the shape. Rob and Ron will always get confused. Kyrthorian and Kumhijasa will get thrown into the “K” bin.
  4. Names that sound like they came from madlibs ____(adjective)+ ___(noun). Eg. Brightwind, Moonsong, Rainshadow. I loved it when I was a tween reader, but now they make me roll my eyes.  If you have to do the madlib thing, take a look at Steven Erikson and pick something not beautiful: TatteredSail, WhiskeyJack, BleedingElm
  5. And if you do name someone “Kater” make sure she’s awesome, and doesn’t die by horrible means.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mishell Baker permalink*
    June 10, 2010 7:36 am

    I actually love the “madlib” names, but then I’m a high fantasy nut. My preference though are the ones that look outside the usual “moon,” “shadow,” “leaf,” etc. to create a really striking or even violent image. I love “Bleedingelm.” And although the words separately are cliched, I actually sorta like “Rainshadow” put together that way. Makes me think of a gorgeous photo I have of an approaching storm in the African savanna. But my all time favorite is one I saw in the credits of a movie. Someone’s actual real-life last name: Rivenbark. How is this person not an elf? An elf who can turn into a bear and wreck up the place!!!

    I’ve got a couple of “madlibs” in my upcoming BCS story — Snowfeather and Silverfall — but they’re temples, not people.

  2. Keyan permalink
    June 10, 2010 7:44 am

    I love this post! I write urban fantasy too, and I may need to rename some of my more boringly-named characters…

  3. Holly permalink
    June 10, 2010 3:54 pm

    I had a horribly coder-geek moment when I was reading #3 above. I’m not sure if it translates well, but the internal comment was, “Holy crap! Written name recognition is a hash function!”

    Thank you for the post. It has given me some things to think about when I start writing.

  4. June 14, 2010 9:00 am

    Names are one problem I have when reading manga or watching anime. In some of them, every other character’s name starts with an S! I’m sure it’s more distinctive in the original Japanese, where it’s Su, Sa, Shi, etc. (And a different kanji as well.) But to my English-trained eyes, it’s just a whole lot of S’s!

  5. June 18, 2010 2:44 am

    Somehow a name like Richard the Lionhearted or Henry Longshanks just doesn’t bother me all that much. John Smith, on the other hand feels like a CPA.

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