Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's in a name?

I've always struggled to come up with names. For pretty much anything. That can cause a few issues when I am world-building, which is when you realise just how important names are.

Some people seem quite content to write away with anonymous characters, only coming back to fill in the names later. Trouble is, I need to have names. I can only go for a page or so talking about [the opponent], or [the engineer], or more usually [xxx], before I grind to a halt.

And then I'm stuck. Often for a long, long time.

One of my D&D characters many (ahem) years ago was anonymous for ages, until, in desperation, he ended up with the inventive moniker "Ivor Name".

So, when I tell you that my working notes for Ghosts of Innocence mention no fewer than eighty named characters (yes, I counted!) you can see I have a teensy problem. Of course, many of those characters only play bit parts in the story, maybe brief showings in a scene or two. Some never even appear and are only mentioned in dialogue. But they all have names. I know who they are.

And then there are all the other names I had to find to populate my world. Ghosts is a starfaring adventure, so it involves lots of ships (thirty-three). And planets, and continents, forests, rivers, get the picture.

The easiest to come up with, for me at least, are those that bear little resemblance to modern western conventions. That's great for places, and for some characters.

The most effective technique I've found is to sit down and let my mind roam free, trying out random syllables and letting them collide and spark off each other until I hear something I like. Then I write it down. And then another, and another. I don't care what they're for at this stage, though sometimes as I write it occurs to me that this would be a great place name, or that is ideal for a character. But the point is to build up a stock of maybe twenty or thirty unassigned names. Then, when I need to name a place or a minor character, I can quickly draw on my stockpile and move on.

Main characters take more time and care, of course. You are going to hear about them a lot, so the right name is important. And for anything significant I usually Google it to make sure there are no unwanted connotations or collisions with the real world.

For Ghosts, I wanted to evoke a sense of the exotic, so I sometimes went overboard on weird combinations of syllables, like the venomous head of the Emperor's Domestic Household, Mabbwendig ap Terlion (a.k.a. Mad Mabb). In many cases I wanted names to evoke something of the character, like the oily and devious Willem Skimlok, or the solid and dependable chief engineer Calder Brasch.

And now I'm into a sequel, you'd think I'd have it easy, wouldn't you? Not so. Some of the old characters are still around, true, but I ended up killing off so many in Ghosts that I'm more-or-less having to start over.

Serves me right for having a murderous assassin as a main character.


  1. Eighty named characters? wow! Have you considered not naming at least some of the bit part characters? That's a lot to ask readers to remember along with ship and setting names.

    I need to name my characters right away. That's usually the first step before even hitting the page. Writing with a place holder XX would be hard to get into their head. I've done the wander the keyboard routine too. heh. Works wonders sometimes.

    Good luck with the new name assignments!

  2. Hi Jean,

    Believe me, I put a lot of thought into it before naming a minor character. In fact, when I stopped to think about your comment, I realised that I do have a whole load more bit characters who will forever remain anonymous.

    I think out of the eighty, I'd describe maybe twenty or so as important characters. They are main characters or those who pop up throughout the story. A handful more are in a few scenes, and the rest don't need to be remembered.

    So why name them? Well, I usually start with leaving the name out, and if I find I'm referring to them more than a couple of times then it's often easier to name them. They might only appear for a few paragraphs and never be seen again, but my guide is whether the writing starts feeling contrived and clunky.

    However, probably half of that eighty are people who are referred to in dialogue somewhere, maybe only once. Maybe two characters greet each other by name, or talk about a third party. I hope it's clear from the context that these don't need to be remembered!

    Do you ever find yourself in that position? And how do you avoid overloading the reader with too many names? And have you ever tried totting up all the names that crop up in a story, just out of interest?

    BTW, my random name technique doesn't involve a keyboard. The tools I use are pen, paper, and suitable relaxants like sun & beach, or moderate application of alcohol :-)

  3. I keep track of all my characters in a reference file. When my file starts to get too long, or a I notice a trend of one line descriptions as to who that person is and why they are in the story, I start cuttting or combining.

    Yours might legitimately be needed. Many of mine were in sideplots that I found could be cut to streamline the plot. People that got killed were better off without the emotional attachment of a name in my characters mind.

    I started my clean up by questioning anyone who wasn't a main or supporting character. Did I really need that scene? Could it be combined with another scene to reduce excess characters? Then I tried to rewrite each of those that I felt needed to be kept, seeing if they worked by not naming the bit part character. Sometimes the reducing made me see that I truely didn't need the part at all. There was often another way to convey the scene's impact or events on the main character.

    I went from 37 named characters to 17.

    A pen and paper? Egads! I remember those things, but my fingers are glued to keyboards these days. Even I have a hard time reading my own writing when the creative spirit takes hold. :)


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