The headache of naming your characters

Introduction

Characters can’t breathe until they have a name that you believe in and they can’t walk, talk or impact the world you are imagining them in unless they exist. It’s (almost) impossible to write a full story about the ‘man with no name’ and still have feelings for the character.

Now here is where fantasy writers can have a real problem.  Characters from another plane of existence are not usually called Tom or Sue. So, in general names have to be created. Here is an example of a name for one of my demon characters: ‘Quaordan’.  That is a weird name, right?

But let’s stop to consider this. Do we always have to stretch ourselves into new linguistic loops with strange syllable combinations? In the Forgotten Wings series, Sapphira is an earth-bound angel. I chose her name because it has classical biblical roots. Likewise, her circle of friends includes Michael, Margaret, John, Paul, Matthew … pretty much from a solid Christian base (quick point though, Sapphira is not exactly a solid ‘Christian’ angel!)

Experience has taught me that when you string together letters into what you think is a word pronounced one way, others will say it totally different (and possibly think ‘what a stupid name’)

So, it’s your choice – conventional names or strange ones!

Sources of names

For me, most unfamiliar or uncommon names are found on the internet although some come out of my brain. I usually look for names in a particular country – I at least know that about the character – and then beginning with a particular letter (e.g. Italian names starting with ‘P’). 

For a new character I’ve been playing with, Derby Maysden, I searched for surnames that were registered in London a few hundred years ago. The first one that I liked was Malbourne – I thought Derby Malbourne was perfect. But, alas, it was just too obvious, so I looked for something vaguely similar (2 syllables starting with M) which would not impose fate’s wicked gaze just because of her name.

Be careful though! Names in other languages (Welsh maybe for all you brilliant writers of Elven stories) can be tricky and it’s hard to believe in your own character if you can’t pronounce his/her name!

Here is an interesting character naming dilemma – the man with two names!

They called him Erik the Swordsmith. He even had his own internet page where his full name was displayed as Erik Ingemar.  He was no Norseman this Erik though. He was a German named Henri Gottschalk and we had an awkward few moments when I kept accidently calling him by his actual given name …

[The Last Titan]

In this scene, I had already envisaged him as Erik and went looking on the internet for his surname.  I was quite surprised and perhaps a little put out when he developed a German side and I had to name him a second time. The joys of creative writing!

Names and character traits

Sapphira is gay. Despite the obvious connection between Sapphira and ‘sapphic’, her name was never intended to be an indicator of this. As described above, I chose her name because it had a religious flavour to it.  Whilst I was writing the story it turned out that she was a lesbian.

Did the name influence me? I have no idea and I am not going to worry about it. But it is possible, I guess. Naming a character is the author’s act of creation, of giving a soul to a concept born from the ‘DNA’ made of a chain of her words. So maybe I already knew something in the back of my mind when I named her Sapphira or maybe her name drove her character a little and chose the words I typed on her behalf.

Playing with names and naming in your stories

Here is a scene where Sapphira, the heroine of the Forgotten Wings series actual names one of the characters herself. [For explanation, the siren is at this point a disembodied spirit who follows Sapphira around, often cursing at people who cannot see or hear her. That happened in The Queen of Demons, setting up the following scene later in the series]

“It’s high time I gave you a proper name,” I said to the siren and watched her expression carefully. The first time I had suggested it she had shrank back in terror and cursed loudly about how dirty and disgusting names were.  I’d worked a little on the idea with her over the last months and now I think she was just a little accepting of it. She looked a little anxious, but she didn’t shy away.

[…]

 “What kind of name would you like?” I asked the siren.

She didn’t say anything, she just shook her head with her eyes wide.

I said, “I’d like a name with some classical roots”

“Yes Mistress,” she mumbled back.

Catherine had once tried to give her a name. She called her Candy which the siren hated – and so did I. Of course, it didn’t stick. She had been subject to a lifetime of spells which stopped her having a name. The name Candy was forgotten by everyone within a day. Everyone except me of course.

Now how to do this? It seemed such a big moment that telling her she would be called such and such was hardly a fitting way to do it. “Kneel down here,” I told her, indicating beside the bath. I waited for her to get into position then I touched her on the shoulder. I felt a tingle, nothing solid. “It will be fine. Catherine, can you pass me that glass please?”

I lowered myself using a hand on the side of the bath so that I was kneeling in front of her and we were eye to eye. Then I scooped up some water in the glass and held it over her head. I gave her a short blessing in Gyshyn and, as I poured the water over her, I said simply, “I name thee Cassandra.”

The water splashed though her and onto the floor, but the symbolism remained the same. This name would stick I felt sure because I have the power of Naming. Ordinarily this meant that I could simply know anyone’s name, but it would work the other way around too, just as it had for Adam when Mother and let him name the animals, and his wife Eve.

There were no fireworks. No burning. The siren shook a little. “And now I have a name? I am Cassandra?”

“Yes.”

Very quietly she began to sob. “Names are dirty, foul things,” she said, “and I never wanted one. But I think … I think I might like being Cassandra.” Her face screwed up with emotions I couldn’t be sure of and she leant forward enough that I could wrap my arms around her ever so softly even though it was impossible to properly touch her. I glanced at Catherine who frowned and actually looked a bit upset too. I started rocking back and forth just a little.

[The Last Titan]

Well, there are my thoughts.

Happy naming!