Gimli son of Gloin - Lord of the Rings
As promised in an earlier post, here are a few items to consider when naming your fantasy characters.
Before you start:
It is important to start from a position of knowledge (rather than ignorance) about the fantasy world your character inhabits. This means you’re going to have to engage in some world building (something I’ll discuss more in later posts). The point is, that your character is a product of the world in which she lives. In order to be consistent with her environment (world) her name should reflect this fact.
The character’s race (human, elf, dwarf, dragon, orc, fey, etc.) and any racially identifiable culture should play a big part in naming them. If however, they were named (and probably raised) by someone outside their race or culture, they should bare a name that reflects the namer’s racial culture (unless of course they possess knowledge about the character’s race).
The values held by each race are different. The traits each places value on will vary depending upon their importance to that race. For instance: underground dwelling dwarves who depend on mining to survive may value strength, engineering smarts, precious metals and jewels, and superior tool manufacturing. The names these people give their children could reflect these attributes. They might name their children something like Anvil, Hammer, Ruby or Steel. These values-names might be in the form of a nickname or epithet [Gimel the Hammer], the character’s actual given name [Steel or Steele] or a part of the given name [Anvilrune, Hammerstein, Steeleye]. Of course this also could apply to family or “last” names (see below) of characters [Nugget Silverpick, Emerald Copperbottom].
Does the character’s race speak a racial language (Elvish, Dwarfish, Entish, etc…) as opposed to a “common tongue”. If you decide to give your various races their own native tongue, you don’t need to create the entire language. In fact I don’t recommend you use these fantasy languages much at all. For the sake of naming your characters, you only need to decide if they are named in their native tongue, and if so, what those names (words) would be, and lastly which version they go by. Most names have a meaning in the language from which they were spawned. In a fantasy setting, as the author, you decide how to construct the language and names. You decided what their name means (go ahead, I give you permission ). Two notes of caution: be consistent and keep a list of whatever foreign and/or fantasy words and names you use in your story, and don’t make your fantasy words or names difficult to pronounce.
Does the character come from a society that commonly uses traditional and/or religious names from their family, history or holy scriptures. It’s common in some cultures to give a child the name of their father or grandfather, mother or grandmother, etc. The names of heroes and holy men are also commonly used in one form or another in almost every culture.
Remember, no matter how badly you’d like to give your character a bad-ass name, it’s really up to the person that named them. The personality and cultural sensitivities of the person who named your character will decide the kind of name(s) he/she will give your character. If that person isn’t important to your story (or your character’s arc) then name them whatever you choose, but realize that the name you give your character reflects the name-giver’s character too and if you should decide to introduce the namer at some later date, their character should be consistent with a person who would give such a name. In other words, a straight-edge square who wears horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector is unlikely to name their child, Rainbow Harmonica Woodstock.
Another facet of living in a society that needs a way to differentiate it’s individuals is the “last” and “middle” name. Not all people have a middle name, but aside from celebrities, people also have a family name (sometimes referred to as a “last name”). The family name bestowed upon a child is generally that of the father, but could just as easily be the mother’s family name, especially in a matriarchal society. Again, this is entirely up to what you the writer decide is the tradition of your fantasy society. If the society is small enough given (“first”) names might be enough. Just remember the larger the group population the more they will need additional means to identify individuals.
A name might also signify the character’s importance in their community/society. This could be a name they were given at birth because they were expected to fill a high office upon maturity (like a tribal chief…), or it could be a name taken once the character has matured and taken an important position (like the pope and some kings…).
Though I’ve listed personality as the last consideration, it should not be the least of your concerns. Your character’s name should most of all reflect their personality and their part in your story. Their name should be such a natural extension of the way your character acts/reacts that your readers could not imagine them with any other name. As I stated before in my earlier post, the character’s name will become a shorthand symbol for everything the character comes to mean to the reader. Be sure it’s up to the task. They should see the name on the page and immediately have a mental picture of the character (and his actions).
Remember, no amount of language/race/culture/world building can replace a name that is “just right”. If you come up with a name that fits your character “perfectly” — and no one can know that better than you the writer – then by all means go with that name. The lead character in my fantasy novel With a Jester of Kindness has a name unlike anyone else in the book, but that is one of the reasons I chose that name.
Please leave a comment below naming your methods for naming fantasy characters.
Chuck's School of Etymology
Ever since I saw the movie Night Shift , staring Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton, I have had a fascination with breaking down complex words into their components and root words to gain a better understanding of the word and its origins and/or originators. (Actually it was well before this, but it makes for a good story! ) If you haven’t seen the scene where Keaton breaks down the word “prostitution” you’re missing a good laugh. Here is the YouTube link: Night Shift – Prostitution Scene (Michael Keaton)
So, lets take a look at a word that’s very near and dear to all our hearts: etymology! Taking a cue from the master of etymology, Chuck (Michael Keaton’s character), we will first divide the word into it’s root parts: ET/YM/OL/OGY. (Smile, this should be fun!)
ET - Comes from the Latin et hoc genus omne meaning “And all that sort of thing”, which was promptly shortened to et due to the popularity of the term on copious Senatorial monuments and fast food menus, and a serendipitous shortage of stone chisels in Rome - the fallout of a heated labor dispute between blacksmiths and their employer, the Acme Chisel Corporation LLC (which at the time did not mean limited liability company, but 50/50/100, a reference to either a payment or Senatorial bribery schedule).
The issue at hand: Acme had gained the government chisel contract with a ridiculously low bid and was trying to make blacksmiths work overtime for no additional compensation. The Roman blacksmiths eventually won the dispute with help from the Stone Masons local, who had mistaken the lack of chisels for support of their own strike for better medical and more time off for chisel elbow a common repetitive motion injury prevalent among blacksmiths forced to carve out et hoc genus omne over and over again. On a side note: We owe the irate owner of Acme Chisel, Ferris Maximus, for yet another (derogatory) term which has stuck with us to this day: ”chiselers”, although some scholars contend it was first used by the blacksmith local guild master Fistus Maximus, to describe the owner of Acme Chisel.
Now, you may ask, what kind of word starts with “and”, and what “sort of thing” could they possibly be talking about, when we haven’t seen any other part of the word? I’m glad you asked, though you might not be. When the term etymology was first coined the “et” part of the word came at the end, thus ymologyet. (Originally it was spelled ymologyette, where ette denotes that it was ”all that sort of little thing” because there weren’t yet that many words in anybody’s vocabulary and most of the words were short. Some academics contend that the best translation of ette is: “a little like that sort of thing”, which had more to do with the lack of certainty than the size of the common vocabulary. - A note of caution: Don’t judge the people of that time for their lack of “long” words in their vocabulary before you try to write a few sentences in marble.)
YM - Like et, ym comes down to us from the Latins (or Romans). The “Y” beginning is itself a clue to its meaning. The letter is not quite an ”I” and not quite a ”V”, which of course were often used for a numbers one and five, and later the letter we know as “U” (where do you think the English got it?). So there you have it, the uncertain “Y-I-V-U” letter followed by the letter “M”, which was of course also used to dubious effect as a letter. Thus: ”UM” as in, “I’m not sure what to say and I’m stalling.” But in those early heady days in Rome, the notion of being uncertain was officially frowned upon and so the true meaning of ”UM” in this context was actually a way of saying, “Hey you! You know all those funny things that have been bothering you, like our inconsistent use of letters as numbers, and who the heck is making up all these little strange sounding words, and how in Hades am I going to learn all the ridiculous rules to conjugating verbs – whatever that is?…This (word) is about that!” Of course, “YM” or “UM” became so popular that it came to refer to anything that was a puzzlement, and led to it’s use in the word “FORUM” (meaning “for–um–”, which of course was the name of the place where their Senate met).
OL - Originally, the Romans did not have a letter “O” for fear of confusing it with their letter “Q”, which I’m sure you’ll admit was the right choice, as “Q” is a way cooler looking letter, though hard to form in cursive (especially in stone). So this first letter is in fact the result of a lazy French translation of the symbol for a circle. The Romans frequently used the circle symbol to draw around their military units in formation on maps to represent a wooden barbican/fort, no matter what the actual shape. Later on, when generals drew the location of their desired fort they would draw the circle and say, “Everything goes in here.” The circle eventually became a short hand symbol for “encompassing everything”. The letter “L”, not to be confused with the number “L”, when written by itself meant simply ”Latin”. So the circle-”L” meant of course “all Latin”. Fortunately, the concept of zero (0) would not be introduced to Italy for a few years, so the combination of something looking like a “zero” and a “fifty” was never in question. Romans being Romans, and quite full of themselves, saw the world as theirs - all theirs - ”all Latin” so the ”OL” also came to mean “all” and that is why we pronounce it that way to this day. To them (the Romans) it also meant “all languages”.
OGY – Again, we are met with another “all-encompassing” circle symbol. Some scholars argue that this symbol is meant only to emphasize the preceding “L” for Latin, but a quick study of the Roman numbering system reveals that the Romans generally had more sense than to modify a previous letter, knowing how confusing that could all be. The following “G” is a mark that the Government officially endorsed the word and was a sort of guaranty by the state that the word was important and followed certain linguistic rules (to date, despite extensive excavations, the complete rules have never been unearthed). So what we end up with is something akin to ”the whole Government approves of this word”, followed by the non-committal “Y”, which was added at the insistence of half the Senate to provide for some legal wiggle room.
So now that we have successfully broken this marvelous word into its root components and explored their rich meanings I know you will feel much more at ease slipping “etymology” into your every-day general conversation without the fear that someone might giggle or spew milk out their nose.
Please feel free to leave your stories of language conquest in the name of etymology. If you’d like to leave a suggestion - a word that’s stumped you - for your humble scholar to address in a future post, please do so! :)
Doug Jones in Candy Shop
As I mentioned in a previous post. Naming characters is an art.
What follows is a list of methods and things to consider when creating/choosing names for your fictional characters.
Something old, something new
Some writers use listings for naming children or popular names in different cultures/languages. These sources may be found in book form at your local library or online. To look online, simply run a search on your favorite search engine for the language/culture and the type of names you’re looking for, i.e. “Celtic names” or “popular Irish names” or “French female names”. You can even search for popular names by year or decade (“popular boy baby names 1940′s”). (I’ve done these searches and found a number of great names.)
Something borrowed, something blue
Some writers look in the dictionary or a language-translation dictionary (or similar text) and pick out words that fit their character’s image by meaning and/or sound. (Guilty.) These can be the primary words being defined or words from its etymology. (This is one of my favorites.) Others have told me that they put together words or partial words (phonemes) and letters on a page and scramble them around until they see something they like. This method can render some very unusual names. (I’ve tried this.) Authors who have the training and/or guts to create a new language (Elvish, Martian, Na’vi,…) will use words from the new alien vocabulary to give their character’s names “authenticity”. (I’ve dabbled in this one too.)
Let’s hear it
I need to pause here momentarily to insist that you say the name you’re creating out loud (especially if it’s unusual). Make sure it is easily pronounced and sounds in your ears as you imaged it. This is important as your readers will have an easier time reading and talking about your characters if their names are easy to read and say. And imagine if you are giving an interview and the interviewer asks you about a character whose name they can’t pronounce or they mispronounce it because you haven’t trained them in the proper inflections of Northern Malgornian Wood-Spritish. (Not an easy language to pick up. )
Quacks like a duck
Key to the name game, in a three way tie with readability and pronounce-ability: the name should sound like it belongs to the character. This, of course, does not apply to false names given by the character to deceive. However, his true, given name should be something appropriate to his upbringing culture. Often the best names reflect some aspect of the character’s persona. It’s no accident that J.K. Rowling, in her hit Harry Potter series, gave Snape a name that sounds like “snake”. I gave my character Snegaddrick (from With a Jester of Kindness) his name for the same reason; he’s a sinister serpent of a man. His brother Ergyfel got his name because he is the villain and a worker of evil, and my protagonist got the name Billy (William), because it is different in sound and weight from all the other characters in the book. Each of these names helps my readers keep the characters straight and gives them a good “handle” on their personalities.
Looks like a duck
Another facet of name-sounding is imagery. When you hear the name aloud, do you see an image in your mind? Is this image compatible with your character’s image? You may wish to embed this in your name creation process.
Names should be (relatively) short. Do not use character names that take a line on the page to spell out. Besides the wrapping problems, waste of space and carpel tunnel you’ll get from typing them, long names are generally hard to pronounce, break the reader’s suspense of reality, and can be accomplished with less letters. If you must have a character with a ridiculously long name (for effect), give also that character a nickname or a shortened version of her name that is easy to say and read. Of course if humor is your intent, an impossibly long name can sometimes accomplish a lot. But remember how much Douglas Adams accomplished with names like Zaphod Beeblebrox and Slartibartfast (The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy). OK, so these are a tiny bit long, but I can’t imagine these characters with better names, can you?
Cut the Cookie-cutter names
One last thing. When choosing names for your characters, try to use names that don’t all sound the same. For instance, if you’ve got a character with the name Suzi, don’t name another character Suzy or Susan or Sushi or Zusi. Names that look or sound alike can cause confusion. Keep your name choices unique and distinct. Avoid names that start with the same letter when possible. One luxury of writing fantasy and science fiction is that character’s names can be quite exotic. Why is this a boon? The ability to give your characters unique names (and still fit the setting) helps to make them more memorable (i.e. Strider, Obi Wan, Elric, Ripley, Pug, Bones, Gandolf, Spok, Hogfather, Morpheus, Mordred). Don’t go overboard, but by all means use your imagination!
I will be discussing specifics for naming fantasy and Science Fiction characters in later posts. Please stay tuned!
Please leave me a comment about the names of your favorite characters or anything else related to naming them.
Keith Richards (Sorry Keith. However, you're a great pirate and still rock!)
Can voice exist without the exercise of style?
Can style exist without expressing voice?
As I searched around the Internet, trying to get a better fix on voice and style, I found that I wasn’t the only one that had trouble defining one term without using the other. Voice and style seemed to exist only in some kind of sick and twisted symbiotic relationship (similar to, but stronger than the relationship of ”sick and twisted” or say Donna Summer and the Supremes).
“But aren’t they two different things?” I wondered.
Quite frequently expert literary types talk about “voice and style”, so obviously the two are separate (somehow). Otherwise we wouldn’t need two words with a big “and” in the middle. However, because this coupling of “voice and style” was so prevalent, I was convinced that the two must also work together for some dark and sinister and inseparable purpose. As Mr. Spok said, ”Parted from me and never parted. Never and always touching and touched.” So there I was…alone…two words touching each other yet not touching each other (awkward). I had do know what it all meant!
So I used my considerable search engine skills (givin’ her all she’s got), and I read and read and read until ghost-like lines of code began running down the screen (blonde, brunette, red head). And now that my mind has melded with the net I will attempt to relay what the collective universe has taught me.
First, let’s look at the terms (voice and style) separately.
What Voice is and isn’t:
- The voice is individual. It’s unique to you, the author, and is what separates you from others, even the greats you attempt to emulate. If you were to write the same story as someone else (all the same research), your voice is what brands it as yours. Voice has been compared to musical instruments. The different instrument sounds (i.e. trumpet vs. violin) are like different authors’ voices, no two are the same.
- Voice conveys something of the writer’s personality, point of view, outlook, beliefs, and attitudes. Voice is associated with the basic vision of a writer, his general attitude toward the world. Voice conveys the author’s character. It contains the feelings and emotions (passions) of the author in a way that the reader can detect and empathise with (whether they know it or not). Voice should come from the heart.
- Voice establishes a relationship between you and your audience. It can show intent – like sincerity and honesty. It is the author’s sensibility. Voice is adjusted or “tuned” for appropriateness to your topic (possibly your niche), the purpose of the piece, and your audience! Voice is present when you are communicating about yourself, your purpose, and your audience.
- Voice is affected by and, when fully developed and exercised, affects an author’s word choice, tempered by appropriateness to topic, purpose, and audience.
- Voice is not the narrator’s personality- that voice is the voice of a character. While POV does affect voice, the writer’s voice can still be distinguished from story to story.
- Voice is not “tone” or mood.
- Voice is present when the writer is not just reporting.
- Voice can be “found” or “released” by finding, accepting, and expressing your own independent and unique thoughts. With your censors turned off, your voice can escape onto the page.
- Voice is what brings readers back!
- Voice emerges gradually as the writer develops. This may be the most interesting point of all. It implies that each writer has his own voice already within them. It just needs to be released.
What Style is and isn’t:
- Style is about the precision and execution of writing. It concerns correctness, syntax, grammar, diction, punctuation, being clear, being long winded or efficient, writing mechanics, sentence structure, and sentence lengths.
- Style has a great deal to do with organization. It engineers story structure, organizing the framework of the tale, organizing thoughts, character development, dialog, organizing the story elements, flow and pace, rhythm, cadence, appearance on the page, and general vocabulary.
- Style can be (for example) conversational, but voice is the slant.
- Style is not voice!
- Style can be learned, taught, and emulated. This is perhaps the best news about style (and voice). Like voice, style takes time and practice, but there are rules and patterns which are well documented and widely publicized. There is still hope for me!
Voice and Style are:
Together, voice and style do work together in (perfect) harmony. I found the following exceptional explanation in the introduction of Voice & Style by Johnny Pane (from the Elements of Fiction Writing series, published by Writer’s Digest Books – 1995):
“Voice is the key element in fiction, the one which, in effect, contains and shapes all the other elements of the story. Style is the voice’s means of expression. Plot, characterization, setting, theme, dialogue–all of these pieces exist in isolation unless voice makes them into active principles and brings them together.”
Happily, in my search, I also ran into Nathan Bransford, author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, who helped me sort out a few things. According to Nathan’s blog about voice (and I happen to agree with him), among the essential elements (of voice) are: style, personality, consistency, moderation, transportation, authority, originality, and authenticity. I encourage you to read Nathan’s post. Its’s a thoughtful, instructive read. As you can see, Nathan names style as an element of voice.
So, style is an element of voice. Though they are separable concepts, they are inseparable in practice. Having a voice doesn’t equal good writing, but good writing will expose or reveal your voice. The lion’s share of that good writing is style, which, done well, will elevate your voice (bringing it into focus).
Please leave me a comment, expressed in your own voice using your own style below. And no cheating!
Recently I stumbled upon a quaint little site I Write Like that analyses a sample of your writing and compares it to that of famous writers, then tells you which writer you most write like. Well, I’ve got to tell you, this was too intriguing to pass up, so I gave it a whirl.
The first result I got was from testing a sample chapter from the book I am currently writing (rewriting). I copied and pasted my precious text into the little box provided and held my breath as I pushed the analyze button. A moment later I was smiling. Rudyard Kipling. Wow! Like: Jungle Book and Captains Courageous!
Well, like any compulsive gambler, I couldn’t resist another pull on the arm of that one-armed bandit “just one more time”…to be sure…I mean with a payout like that…on the very first pull…
The next pull was with another chapter of the same writing-in-progress manuscript. Bingo! Or not… Who the heck is L. Frank Baum, and why was I writing like him? (google search…) Oh yeah! The Wonderful Wizard of Oz! That’s not so bad. And…Mother Goose? O-K. So maybe I watched The Wizard of Oz too many times. As a kid it gave me nightmares. Maybe I’ve been deeply scared. Do I need a shrink? (Don’t answer that.) No, that can’t be right.
Another pull…L. Frank Baum…Another…L. Frank Baum. Seeing a pattern here.
I am not writing about Oz or Dorothy! Am I?
Obviously somebody’s got too much time on his hands; hands that should be writing instead of playing with a new internet toy.
OK, so what about my blogs? Surely I can come away from this with some scrap of manhood remaining.
Pull (blog sample)…Bang! H. P. Lovecraft! Now that’s a name my writerly manhood could stand to be associated with!
I should have left it at that, but I think you know what I did next.
Pull (another blog)…Boom! James Joyce…Hmmm…Not sure what to make of that. Dubliners…Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man…Ulysses. OK!
“Just one more pull and that’s it!” I told myself. “Just to confirm my results.”
Pull (with one of my humorous blogs)…boop…Dan Brown…(flush) That was the sound of my last shred of dignity. But wait, maybe it’s not so bad, I mean I WAS writing for comic effect! Perhaps this assessment actually DID work!
I’d like to tell you that I won’t be back to the “I Write Like” site, but I don’t want to be a compulsive gambler who also lies! What would the neighbors think? What would you think? I mean the
house site is literally giving it away!
1st Chapter of Spellbinder
Other Chapters of Spellbinder
Testing My Blogs
More blog posts
My humor blogs
My advice to you is this: Try it or don’t try it. It could be fun. It could be devastating. Pull the handle at your own risk! Do you feel lucky, punk? Well do ya?
If you do try it, please share you results.
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Naming characters is an art.
The Bard (William Shakespeare) wrote in Romeo and Juliet, ”A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Thus implying that the importance of a thing is not dependent upon its name, only on what it does. This may ring true, but even Shakespeare knew the importance of naming characters well. Romeo echoes in our heads with images of Rome and romance, and rushes boldly from the lips, while Juliet is a gentle (lover’s) whisper, precious like a jewel, and forces your lips into a kiss when you speak it. You see where I’m going with this?
But wait. What’s all this talk by Juliet of names and roses? Are we missing something here? Let’s listen on lest we pass a chance to hear The Bard’s fine words.
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Romeo and Juliet - by Frank Dicksee
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo
Wow! Sorry for the Shakespeare geek-out, but I really do love the way his words flow and gush onto the page with such deep understanding and passion for the human condition. Even these well-known and over-published verses still have heat.
For those of you who don’t know the story, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are teenage children of two Italian families in the midst of a long standing blood feud (much like the Hatfields and McCoys of West Virginia and Kentucky, but without the corncob pipes and shotguns). They accidentally meet, fall madly in love (before realizing they should be at war), and spend the remainder of their tragically short lives trying to figure out a way they can be together despite their families’ murderous hatred of each other, only to take their own lives. So what has this to do with naming characters? I’m glad you asked.
What’s in a name?
Shakespeare has given Juliet quite a dilemma. In childlike denial (befitting her character), she contemplates changing their names as a way out, yet in her heart she knows that no amount of name changing or “denying” will change the fact that they must both leave their families in order to be together. Her family will always see Romeo as a Montague, just as his family will only see her as a Capulet. The families are not blinded by love as are the two young lovers (the families are blinded by hatred). The lover’s (family) names in fact encompass everything they are to their lover’s family, and probably most everyone else in town.
The point I’m making is this: a person’s name becomes a shorthand symbol of their identity to everyone that knows them or knows of them (through friends and family). This goes for fictional characters and the readers that love/hate them. Therefore, it is important for each character to have a name that suits their personality and role in your story. Your readers will form a relationship with that name. It’s the character’s handshake, their calling card, their CV, their reputation. The character’s name is a meaningful glance or wink across the room to the reader. It signals the reader like a Cliff’s Notes micro-story, “Look out. He’s back.” or “What’s she up to this time?” or “Thank goodness the cavalry’s here!” The name’s “message” is the character’s persona exposed in a revealing portrait. A name can reveal and should buoy everything the reader knows about the character. It can tell them about and even come to symbolize the character’s world and culture.
So, what’s in a name? … Everything.
Please stayed tuned! In later posts, I will be exploring how to name characters.
What’s your favorite character’s name? What’s your favorite name for a character? Are they the same? What’s your process for creating names for your characters? Please leave a comment below.