On a blog about storytelling, this post is long overdue. Aptly put, this is about the hows, whys, whats and whens of naming people, places, things, and ideas. Everything needs a name, and we are often able to supply a multitude even in real life. But in matters of choosing the punchiest, best name, discretion is needed.
There is only one rule when choosing names. The others are merely pieces of advice and guidance. Should you choose to ignore my words, I wouldn’t bat an eye. But here is the only rule: use your instincts. If a certain word sounds good for the character, then put it in. If you wanna name this kingdom X or that object Y, then go on ahead. Sometimes you can instinctively discern the name for a given object.
However, there is one trap that you need to be wary of: Just because a name sounds cool does not mean that it is suited for the way you are using it. “Merlin” is a cool name, but don’t apply it to a poor small-town farm boy. Know your contexts and use your head. If it sounds like this would be a good name for a mentorlike character, then use it for that kind of character and only that kind.
That said, there are many ways to get names other than making them yourself. There are many commonplace words that gain new meaning when authors choose to reuse them. George Lucas took the word “force” and used one if it’s meanings (loosely) to create the term “The Force”. He did invent his own words, but sometimes the commonplace one will work.
Try this in your own stories. There’s a beast the lurks in the shadows and sees all things? Try a synonym for “see” or “look”. “Descry” is a nice, outdated, archaic word, so what about “The Descrier”? Neat, no? Use a word that has an inferred meaning, like calling a clandestine warrior “the blade”.
There’s also the fine technique of mashup words. Take two cool-sounding words and stick them together. More accurately, take their syllables and stick them end to end. “Arthur” and “Keynes” become “Arkeynes” or “Keythur”. This can be used in any variation. Feel free to cheat and distort words all you want to make names.
Then, of course, there are baby-naming books and things of that sort. However, in my mind, down-to-earth names found in baby-naming books tend to be a little too unoriginal for my purposes. Still, if you’re a fan of Contemporary Realistic Fiction, I see no problem with it. But, if you want to buy one of those things, go for it.
Here’s a cheating tip for naming places: most places will sound nice if they have “ia” (pronounced ee-yah) at the end. Places like “Eternia” have a ring to them because of this. However, cool names outside of the “ia” loophole can sound pretty good as well. Places beginning with a vowel (especially “a”) have a tendency to stick in the mind.
Another good way to cook up names for things and people is to model them after other names. Or, even better, you can steal the names altogether. It happens fairly often: you modeled this character in your book after this character in another book or movie, so you want them to have a name similar to their model. This is fine, but make sure the name carries some good originality on your part.
The best method for naming things, however, is to put yourself in a situation with the thing or person you’re naming. Imagine yourself holding this sword. What kind of sword does it look like? Sometimes a name will just occur to you. Instead of trying to decide a name, make the thing you’re naming more colorful, more original. Remember, a natural name is to be desired over the necessarily cool-sounding one.
Good luck, and happy writing!