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Naming Your Character

Discussion in 'Original Fiction Discussion' started by Peace, Sep 7, 2012.

  1. Peace

    Peace High Inquisitor

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    I'm starting to dabble in writing original fiction and I find that one of the hardest parts is naming the characters, particularly main characters. I was wondering, how do other people go about this?
     
  2. Thaumologist

    Thaumologist Minister of Magic

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    What setting are you using?

    Names that would be fine for a group of Viking berserks would be less good for the crew of the flagship of the Martian space-navy.
     
  3. Rin

    Rin Oberstgruppenführer DLP Supporter

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    If you want to make your character an "every-(wo)man," find a list of the most frequently occuring names of whatever particular language your characters speak and use that. If your story is set in Medieval or Renaissance times, then you can still get such frequency lists here (for English): <http://www.s-gabriel.org/names/english.shtml>.

    Alternatively, look up the etymology of names to pick a significant one.

    Harry in Harry Potter's name gets both of these, being both a very common name, but also significant, coming from Old Norse Haraldr, from Proto-Germanic *harja-waldaz "army commander". Whether this was conciously chosen by Rowling, or a happy coincidence, I know not, but given the significance of many of the other characters' names, I can't imagine that it is a coincidence.

    If your characters speak another language, use a dictionary from that language to find significant names. Only a German speaker would scream "Spoiler tags, ASSHOLE!" when first encountering Mr. Dieb in your thriller about a theft set in Germany (Hint: Dieb is German for "theif"). If your characters are Japanese, be sure to reference the Jinmeiyou kanji list (and take note of kanji that are excluded from that list. These characters, their variants, and any Jouyou kanji may be used for names, but none outside that list. No one's going to name their kid 治療者 (Chiryousha - "Healer"), but they might very easily name their boy 治方 (Harumasa - "Healing Person"). The great thing about the Jinmeiyou is that most of the Kanji have more than one reading (often more than five or six) so that if you want the meanings, but need different sounds, they're probably available to use (Harumasa can be broken up into 24 different meanings for Haru and another 60 different meanings for Masa, and that's JUST Harumasa! Also, the name Harumasa in totality has, in my name dictionary, 12 different recognized meanings).

    Finally, you can make what's called a Naming Language (namelang). A namelang is sort of like the fetus of a Constructed Language (conlang). You decide on a set of sounds and rules for how those sounds can go together. For example, English has depending on your dialect about twenty consonants and 11 vowel sounds (+3 or more diphthongs). One of its rules is that no word may begin with the "ng" sound, and you also can't have words like "mtipgsglackt". Another rule is that S doesn't precede B, D, or G at the beginning of a word (the pizza join, Sbarro's, is an Italian word, and Italian allows for that, but not English: we only allow for SP, ST, and SK (SC)). Anyway, the next step is to get a list of very very common name elements, and give them equivalents in your namelang. For example, you might say that "mountain" is "spelgo" and "forest" is "walzen" and name one character Mr. Spelgwalzen (where the o drops off between a G and a W as per some rule you might have made for euphony's sake). The word "tall" might be "dier" so another character could be Ms. Dierspelgo.

    I say that a naming langauge is only the fetus of a conlang because basically, to make a fully fledged conlang (an artificial language that someone could actually learn and speak and use to communicate with other speakers in daily life: c.f. Kingon), you must begin with the same steps, but also construct a full grammar. See Mark Rosenfelder's The Language Construction Kit for more on that.
     
  4. Peace

    Peace High Inquisitor

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    I tend to use the contemporary world or near future for a setting. I'm interested in the process that people use - do you pick names at random, do you look for names with certain meanings or do you use some other process?
     
  5. Shinysavage

    Shinysavage Madman With A Box Prestige

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    Don't underestimate the value of a good map book. More than once, when I've had a vague idea about a character (usually a secondary one, admittedly), I've stumbled across a tiny little village somewhere that just has the perfect name to fully realise the character.

    Other than that, and especially in more high fantasy fiction than I usually write, I tend to take real world names and twist them just slightly, so that they're recognisable but off somehow.

    Neither is a particularly scientific method, but it works for me.
     
  6. Alive and Free

    Alive and Free Groundskeeper

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    When I come across a name that I like - male, female and surname - I add it to a list that I keep and when I'm creating a character I go to the list and find a name from it that fits. The name has to feel right as well, if that makes sense.

    With main characters in particular I have to be able to recall the character's name instantly. Nothing tells me that the character's name doesn't fit more than having to search through my notes to find out what it is because I can't remember it.
     
  7. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast Prestige DLP Supporter

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    http://nameberry.com is handy.They group names into all sorts of lists arranged by theme. "Old Man Names" and "Old Woman Names" are pretty useful for HP fanfic.

    Surnames are more difficult. I use a combination of making shit up, place names and historical names.
     
  8. Shouldabeenadog

    Shouldabeenadog High Inquisitor

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    The first question is "what is the naming conventions of the place I am writing about, and why are they like that?" A place where Harmonious Jade and Silk Blossom are common means something important. Unless the Jade and Blossom families spread like plague, people don't have surnames. Why don't they have surnames? If they don't have much hereditary descent, like orcas that leave their home pod and form their own, then a use-name, someone who brings harmony to a group or who is a weaver is much more important that whichever family brought them into this world.
     
  9. CheddarTrek

    CheddarTrek Set Phasers to Melt Moderator DLP Supporter

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    I never pick quite at random.

    One thing I try to consider is that all the main characters not only have different sounding names but have sufficiently different ones. If you're going to have names like Jack and Jim and they aren't twins, you might want to consider that the names are really similar if you're going to have them taking space in the same paragraph a lot. (I could be wrong about this, not like I've published loads of things, hah!)

    Harry, Ron, and Hermione -- Not only do they vary in length and letter choices, they have varying number of syllables as well. Hermione, despite having four syllables, rolls surprisingly well off the tongue once you know how to pronounce it too.

    As for slightly odder names, if you want something that sounds familiar but isn't you can do what someone said earlier and take a common name and twist it a bit. Mery instead of Mary. Jem instead of Jim. Makel instead of Michael. Etc. Take it further and you can just start changing things crazily or picking syllables at random to mash together.

    There's also the "feel" of the name for the character. To me a character named "Mack" has a stronger feeling name than one introduced as "Manny." Mack was a badass seems more likely to me at introduction than Manny as a badass -- but that doesn't matter if you're going to be turning it on its head later. Mack could be a coward and Manny could be the most epic individual ever. But names sometimes have a "feel" to them, I guess. Or for some people they do, but I suspect that's highly regional.

    If your character is going to have an odd name for his area be sure that everyone else doesn't. If Tom is your main character name and he lives in Japan, and you have a *reason* for that, fine I guess. But the other characters should definitely have names that make sense for where they live. You don't want to populate Japan with characters who have English names.

    How do I personally pick names? Well, honestly, they sort of just come to me. For the one story I'm writing I knew that I wanted the two main characters to have names starting with J and C. Not for a plot point or anything, it just felt right. It felt right for the first character to have a nickname that paired with a longer name, so I thought about Jim/James and Jack/Jackson, etc. The second one I knew I wanted to have an "odd" name, but not too odd, and probably with an extra syllable than the first guys nickname had. I ended up settling tentatively on Cedar. Both names might change, but those are good for working names.

    Once you narrow it down slightly you can go through name lists and see what jumps out at you. That's where I saw the name Cedar.

    Another story I have... I knew what I wanted the name characters name to be, or at least what the name that people used for him was. It was short though, so I decided that he'd have some ridiculously long and irritating full name that could be a source of amusement for people who figured it out. Something like Commodus Tiberius *lastname* where the last name is what he shortened into the name he introduced himself as.

    Yet another more lighthearted story for kids about sled dogs. Featuring a girl protagonist but I didn't want to use a girly name, but I sort of did. Decided her name could be Margaret, Maggie for short, but that after something happens people start to call her Munch. Munch sounds a little like Mush (sledding) while also having the advantage of being something that kids can make fun of each other for (Munching while eating food, etc.). It also feels good to me in terms of sounds for the character.

    If you're trying to come up with names for fanfiction characters... stick to what the characters in the story tend to have. Taure mentioned a good resource for that when dealing with HP.
     
  10. Shinysavage

    Shinysavage Madman With A Box Prestige

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    On a somewhat related note, what do people do for place names? Obviously, for something set in the 'real' world that's not (necessarily) a problem, but I find coming up with place names for original fantasy a real bitch. Ones that don't sound stupid, anyway.
     
  11. enembee

    enembee The Nicromancer Prestige DLP Supporter

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  12. Nauro

    Nauro Headmaster

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    Naming characters is a problem 90% of GM's run into sooner or later. A while back I wrote a small blog post about that. I'll try to translate the essential bits here.
    Many of the tricks are interchangeable very easily.

    The first variant is simply thinking the name on the spot, randomly. (RPG's tend to have horrible things done with Dwarven smith Smerputh who has two children Smerpin and Smertin, thought under five seconds and, this time, somewhat pronouncable. Huh. Usually they arent.)

    A game master might carry a huge list of printed or written names - a sort of list that one fills any time he thinks of a fitting name or when he finds one. Kind of what Alive and Free mentioned.

    The next method is using the rulebook. There's usually a list of authors. Use that for a random name. Quick and fast. In leu of a rulebook one can use the cookbook, a nearest book, or the Game of Thrones character list.

    A while back, when preparing for a game I went digging trough latin and quenya dictionaries trying to find names or words that can sound name-ish enough for the game with a letter or two changed. Say, you wan't to call a forest Taure, because there are many little gnomes who like to prove that you are wrong (or something).
    It might be a clunky choice in a game for some words can be hard to remember or pronounce, but in a book you have a drop of more leniency and can pull off a Munio space station or two, no one would complain for the spelling and pronunciation if it looks simplish.

    The next thing is historical names. I have a homebrew system where different families have different areas their skills are good at. I ended up assigning a nationality to every one, and printing a small list of that region's rulers for a list of names. A slight variation of a simple list, for you choose the names consciously.


    The baby names or random names generators, of course, work too.


    The next option requires to have a pile of cards. In WoD games, the easiest way to find a character name is to take a pile of nearby VtES cards and pick a random one. A lot of info beside the name are also there - the looks and powers being the next important stuff. That's strictly for a game, though.


    Two more things - sometimes, you have a setting where a moniker is a likely choice instead of a name. Sam 'Coyote' Richermacher will always be called Coyote and you can even forgo his real name. (Black Company setting is awesome that way. I had a player who others started calling by some venereal disease even before the first session. (A house rule of half the players consent renaming a character with an unlucky mention 'I'd like to pick a name of a disease'.))


    Also, there, technically isn't anything bad with one or two side characters with unpronounceable or weird names, but you have to have a backup plan for how to call them. (Seisachtheius Peisistratos was an annoying gnome researcher playing in the background of the game. Players called him 'that annoying gnome')

    An example from the Witcher series Emiel Regis Rohellec Terzieff-Godefroy, was an awesome character, his name adding to the fun, but everyone called him only Regis. And it was good.


    That's probably it for today.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2012
  13. Peteks

    Peteks Unspeakable

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    http://www.behindthename.com/random/


    I'm just going to drop this here. Might not be exactly what you're looking for, but should be quite useful to at least someone struggling with names.
     
  14. Agayek

    Agayek Dark Lord

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    You could also go with the Shounen manga generic naming scheme, where you pick a prominent character trait of the person in question and assign them a synonym/translation as a name.
     
  15. Carmine

    Carmine Unspeakable

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    Yeah, I pretty much just try out random sounds and syllables until I come up with a name -for people and places. It's worked for me so far, but it's easier with medieval settings, for some reason.
     
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