Naming Rights: Commandments for Choosing Character Names

Crystal ball Français : Boule de cristal

I’ve actually known two girls named Crystal Ball. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naming characters is like naming kids: you should do it with care and preferably without making yourself giggle. Everyone knew that one kid in school whose parents were clearly tripping the good shit when they picked up that baby-name book. Daffodil or You-nique or Blade or whatever, I never knew one of them who didn’t want to secretly knife their parents in the eye. And, let’s face it, they had a point. You should restrain your desire to hinder your children through life when you pick a name for them. I know it’s difficult.

In fiction-world, similar rules apply. A poorly-chosen name jars the reader out of the story, making them work to get back in. How many times will that happen before they give up? Besides, your characters will probably have more than enough reasons to want to kill you without adding a shitty, overly-clever name to the list.

So here I present my Commandments For Naming. Follow well and break at your peril:

1. Thou Shalt Not Give Thy Characters Adorable, Twee Names. Examples of this sin include shit like Rosh Bush, Crystal Ball, or Sunny Day. These are names for either children’s toys or porn stars.* No one will take that character seriously. Unless it is an integral part of the plot that everyone thinks the character is as useful as a teacup pig, leave it out.

2. Thou Shalt Not Alliterate To Hell And Back. A little is fine, occasionally.** Peter Parker, Lois Lane, whatever. I can deal. J. Jonah Jameson? Eh, now you’re pushing it. Hiram Henry Harrison-Higgenbottom the Hundred-and-Ninth? We got a problem. And one of your keyboard keys might commit suicide before the story’s over.

3. Thou Shalt Think Really, Really Hard Before Using That ’Cool’ Name. Nicholas Cage can’t get away with naming his kid Kal-El. Neither can you. And you shouldn’t. Do you really want to be known as the entitled douche-canoe who thinks it’s more important to express personal pop-culture likes than to give their child a slim chance of not being the target of mockery?
Applies to characters, too. Once again, unless being picked on for having a weird name is a part of their character, think twice. Or thrice. In fact, if you have to think that hard, maybe pick something else.

4. If Thou Art Making Up Names, Thou Shalt Try To Vary The Sounds, Lest Thy Characters Become Anonymous Blobs. Okay, I get that alien/fantasy names should sound…well, different. And there should be a theme, of sorts. The names should clearly come from some kind of common background.*** But that doesn’t mean every alien’s name has to start with a K and have two syllables. Otherwise, you’re going to find it hard to keep Kalin, Korin, Kavit, Keris, and Kolat straight. And how do you think the reader will fare?
Give other species the benefit of the doubt: allow them to discover the entire range of sounds available to the human and non-human mouth. You can keep a name-family together without relying them being similar to the point of homogeneity.

4. B) If Thou Art Making Up Names, Try To Make Them At Least Marginally Pronounceable By Humans. All right, I get that your aliens have two tongues and a detachable jaw, so it’s no trouble for them to pronounce Kpw’’rzec!tl. I, on the other hand, will get annoyed by the sixth time I see it written down. And I can only imagine how any humanoid characters feel.
A possible solution, if you’re set on having unpronounceable names, is to have the human (or human-like, whatever) characters give the others nicknames. Kpw’’rzec!tl up there could become Zec to a frustrated co-worker. Not saying Zec would like it, but then that tension could be another dimension to their relationship. And maybe the reason Zec eventually stabs someone with a piece of rebar.

Naming: do it carefully. Or else.****

*Amazing how often those two cross over.
**And the fact that my name is alliterative has nothing to do with this.
***Interesting that we usually have this requirement of non-humans, but not of ourselves. But wouldn’t there be different cultures and tribes of a single species on an alien planet/fantasy world as well? And wouldn’t they think each other’s names are weird? Just a thought.
****And, for those of you who need a further demonstration, I invite you to check out this comic on the dangers of angering appellomancers, or name wizards. Comic not safe for work or those of a delicate disposition. Be warned.

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4 thoughts on “Naming Rights: Commandments for Choosing Character Names

  1. My newest character is named Delbert. He is 45, from a little town in West Texas. I wanted a name which would indicate his approximate age and domicile. Delbert just seemed to pop out of the air. What do you think?

    • Never been to Texas, so can’t comment on the demographic, but Delbert seems about right for his age. I can hear someone calling him ‘Del’ in that relaxed drawl.
      And sometimes they do just seem to name themselves. Selfish bastards.

  2. If I open a sci-fi or fantasy book and see a bunch of apostropes in the names on the jacket blurb, I put it back. That shit makes me want throw books through windows.

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