The Importance of Names (Video)

Watch my talk on the importance of names for characters, settings, and things at the Annapolis Chapter of the MWA if you haven’t yet:

This was my first talk geared specifically towards writers. I had a wonderful turnout that evening, and I’ve been informed that some of those who attended used what they learned in their own writing.

Here’s the handout from the event:

Importance of Names Handout

Do elements of my talk sound familiar? Read these old blog posts from which it draws upon:

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Building Worlds

Writers create more than stories and characters. They create places, sometimes within the world of today or the past. There are also places, and whole worlds that never existed, except within the imagination.

I find the key to worldbuilding is how believable it feels. A good setting, however fantastical, must feel real to the writer and reader (with satire and comedy you can get away with this). A few times on the British sitcom Are You Being Served? when the characters would put on theatrical pageants, senior saleswoman Mrs. Slocombe was going to (or wanted to) play a character far younger than herself. Someone would remark that it was “make-believe” to which there were responses of “We’re going to have to stretch our imaginations” and (to Mrs. Slocombe’s chagrin) “Not to the point of incredibility.”

Many considerations are necessary. Every detail must harmonize with the story, style, and themes. Otherwise that sense of reality will shatter. The reader will be left questioning why a certain little thing is the way it is rather than enjoying the story. The Writer’s Circle once posted this list to their Facebook page:

World Building (Writer's Circle)

A contemporary setting, whether fictional or not, is usually pretty easy. With a historical backdrop, I recommend doing research into what life was like back then. Or perhaps the world is science-fiction, set several years in the future like Star Trek, or like Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away. There I suggest looking at the present; not just science and technology but the whole world. Imagine where it could all go in the future. Or it could be an alternate reality: what it would the world like had the past been different?

In fantasy, where the greatest amount of world-building undoubtedly occurs, I find it best to begin by looking at history, or even mythology. Suppose your world could have existed. Where and when would it be? Perhaps there’s more than one possibility. If so, perhaps you can merge them. J. R. R. Tolkien drew on myth, religion, and his own life experiences, from childhood and World War I, to create his stories.

Early on I envisioned my story as an epic adventure that would’ve taken place long, long ago. As a child I’d always been fascinated with knights. So I researched medieval life and society. However when it came to symbolism, names, and other details, initially I didn’t pay as much attention. It was a mix from various sources.

With new drafts of course came changes and the need to make everything fit together. As I mentioned before, I renamed characters, places, and things to strengthen my story’s feeling of “Gaelicness” which came out of a lifelong love for nature. I added details and symbols inspired by Ancient Celtic life and Irish myth. But I was careful not to take them too far so they didn’t feel out of place with what I already had. I looked again to history and symbolism to help refine the “map” of my world. It is at present no longer a purely medieval setting but a mixture of different periods, which thereby makes it more its own unique world.

When it came to magic, rituals, and beliefs, I looked at myth and folklore, as well as numerous books and articles on Wicca, Neopaganism, Neo-Druidism, natural magic and spirituality. This research helped me reinforce the atmosphere I wanted. I’ve found that bridging ideas and sentiments from the modern world with ones from the old helps readers connect with themselves more.

When it came to the environment, I ultimately looked to the flora and fauna of Ireland and Britain. Brian Jacques, the late author of the Redwall saga, once said that he chose creatures native to his homeland for his anthropomorphic characters, rather than trying to use every animal in the zoo. I considered the latter once, until I realized many would never survive outside of a habitat not their own, and it would be too crowded. One or two exceptions won’t hurt. Still, they shouldn’t be too out of place. Herbs were researched for medicinal purposes. Some were later discarded as they were either not native to those lands if not found in a temperate climate. Many trees were chosen for being sacred to the Celts.

In addition to real creatures, I tried cramming in mythical ones too. Earlier drafts of my book included gryphons, unicorns, dragons, elves, dwarves and centaurs. The latter three were dropped as it again was a problem of overcrowding. With too many details, places and characters, a story becomes lost in itself. As a writer, you have to know when to stop.

If you write a series of books with an imaginary setting, I strongly advise you do NOT map out the entire world at the very beginning. Otherwise you’ll be trapping your story (and yourself) in a box from which if you try to expand out of could lead to contradiction or dead ends. Without a complete box/map, you can add newer details with much more freedom. I found it very relieving, as I was able to concentrate more on my plot. Thus the world and characters could grow in conjunction with it.

I will continue to build this fantasy world I’ve created as the trilogy progresses. Other, completely different worlds will no doubt follow with future projects. As in all aspects of writing, worldbuilding is undertaken with trial, error, patience, passion, and dedication. It is all part of a writer’s evolution.

What’s in a Name?

So asks the heroine of Romeo and Juliet. Her new boyfriend’s name is hated by her family, whose own name is hated by his in turn. Names are an integral part of our identity, which Juliet acknowledges. Their families’ names define the feud, while their individual names have become symbolic of tragic forbidden love. As a writer, I have come to believe choosing the right name for a fictional character, or even a place, thing or title, makes a big difference.

Initially I paid little attention to those I chose and/or created for my novel. One beta reader who read early drafts said there was a “Gaelicness” to my story, which was what I wanted. Soon after I looked at the names more closely, and decided they didn’t reflect that feeling. With my characters, several felt too modern; a greater number didn’t feel like the kind I’d expect to find in a story set within an imaginary “Gaelic” world.

A few old ones have survived (and were moved around) as I felt they could still reflect that feeling. Nevertheless, most were changed. For my characters, the new names chosen were predominantly of Irish and Welsh origin, with a few Scottish and Celtic ones intermixed as well. At the same time I wanted to make sure most would be easy to pronounce. Several of the ones I looked at I knew might be hard to say. So for some I went with the Anglicized spelling. And every once in a while there is a “modern” name which originates from ancient history or myth. Places and things were given names created using actual Gaelic words with specific meanings. Like the book title, I won’t reveal any just yet. I have learned when you change them on beta readers, it causes confusion. Once they grow accustomed to a name, it sticks. And they could still change.

Genre I feel is a key factor to consider. Some I feel are stricter than others. Fantasy can be, often depending on the setting. Science-fiction in contrast, especially if futuristic, is very liberating. Historical fiction is perhaps the most strict. I recommend making sure most names are at least semi-common, if not known, in the chosen time period. For instance, I would be cautious giving a character in an 18th century setting a first name that didn’t come into use until the 19th century. Some stories, like mine, have names meant to reflect a theme or another aspect about them. Comedy and satire are others, where you will sometimes find “silly” names. William Goldman used that word to describe some he chose for characters in The Princess Bride.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against using uncommon names, nor creating either new names or new variants of existing ones. I created such a variant for one of my novel’s characters. A few more may certainly follow in the sequels. Sir Walter Scott and Oscar Wilde respectively gave us Cedric (derived from the Anglo-Saxon name Cerdic) and Dorian (possibly taken from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians) in Ivanhoe and The Picture of Dorian Gray. All I will say is, depending on the story you’re writing, be careful not to overuse them.

Even my novel’s main mythical species has variant spellings: griffin, griffon, and gryphon. The first, undoubtedly the most common, is also a surname (perhaps the most famous literary example being the title character of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man) and occasional given name. The second is also used for certain dog breeds. I was introduced to the third in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I chose that spelling because it not only seemed the most fantasy-like to me, but some feel it is the one to use when portraying this creature as noble and intelligent, much like the one in Lewis Carroll’s novel.

Often names come down to the characters themselves. Any combination of a number of factors can have an influence (or be influenced), such as ethnic background, religion, social status, family traditions, nicknames, or a change of name (if so, why?). Perhaps there’s something about their personality or appearance you want to reflect, or the opposite. Many comic book superheroes’ alter egos have names that sound common, meant to not draw attention. But some are unique too. Some could be inside references. The classic film Halloween contains several, to both people and places.

In his book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great, William M. Akers offers some helpful tips which I find very helpful and can be applied to all forms of fiction writing. He recommends varying up the beginning letter, ending rhyme, and letter length to lessen the likelihood of confusion.

It all seems a lot, and certainly can run the risk of being overthought. All those factors previously mentioned do not have to have influence, nor need to. Not every fictional character, place, or thing even needs to be named. In the end, we all have different tastes. We writers must choose names because we want them. But remember, these fictional creations are our children; the children of our mind. Those of mine whom I name, I want names which suit them.

Here are links to some websites I refer to when searching for character names (some of them are interlinked):

First names
  1. Behind the Name
  2. Think Baby Names
Last names
  1. Behind the Name: Surnames
  2. House of Names
  3. Scottish Penpals
  4. Surname Genealogy Search
  5. Surname Origin & Last Name Meanings at Ancestor Search
  6. Last Name Meanings & Origins at Ancestry.com