Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Naming Characters

How do you come up with names for your characters?

Wow, that’s a bag of tricks and techniques infinitely wide and endlessly deep. There isn’t a single way to do it. In fact, I personally use a whole range of techniques that will vary depending on the tenor and tone of whatever it is I’m writing. Different types and genres of novels require different approaches; contemporary novels, fantasy, and science fiction might need you, as a writer, to think about names in totally different ways.

For the far-future, post-Collapse literary novel my Talespinner and I are writing, we frequently turn to the Bible. The story takes place in the Dominionate, an expansionist theocratic empire spanning most of the central part of North America founded on something like a Calvinist, “sinners in the hands of an angry God” interpretation of Marist Catholicism. The Dominionate subscribes to a predestinationary, “Divine Plan” theocracy that is also (as most theocracies are) rigidly hierarchical and strongly authoritarian, so many people give their children Biblical names, or derivatives of Biblical names.

For the contemporary urban fantasy Eunice and I are writing, we simply chose common names in modern England. The story is set in London in 2016, so it was pretty straightforward, really; there are countless web pages filled with common names. Not just “what to call your baby” sites (though those are handy too!), but demographics pages listing things like “the 2,000 most common names in the UK between 1990 and 2010” and whatnot.

Except for the protagonist—a British-born Chinese web developer named 魅力 who goes by “May”—and the names of people in the sex worker guild, which are self-chosen because they tend to protect their true names for magical reasons, almost all the names were drawn from lists of common UK names.

For the far-future, post-scarcity Passionate Pantheon novels Eunice and I write, it’s…complicated.

There are two kinds of names you’ll see in the City of the Passionate Pantheon: modern names subject to linguistic blurring by the passage of thousands of years, and names in the language of the City.

The linguistic blurring is simply a matter of taking present-day names and trying to understand what might happen to them over centuries of linguistic drift. Most of the people who made it off-world in the novel are pan-Asian, with relatively few North Americans or western Europeans surviving to become part of the people who would eventually settle the planet of the Passionate Pantheon. Relics of those few who exist remain in some of the names of the City, which derive from modern Western names.

We applied basic linguistic rules to those names. For example, elision (the dropping of sounds) distorted Donovan into Donvin and Ashley into Ashi. Thomas became Tomash; the final S sound was blurred into an sh (/ʃ/). Ryan became Riyan (pronounced REE-yan); the long I became a long E.

The other names are native to the language of the City. While we don’t actually include any of this information in the novels themselves, Eunice and I know quite a lot about the language spoken in the City:

It emerged from a pidgin, then later a creole of several pan-Asian languages. It’s tonal, not atonal like Western languages. (It’s uncommon for pidgins to be tonal, but it does sometimes happen; Singlish is an example.) It was guided and shaped by the earliest AIs that the colonists created. It has a writing system nothing like any terrestrial language, though that’s outside the scope of this answer. Names in the City are self-chosen. Parents don’t name their children; they refer to them by one or more common words, but these are placeholders, used until the person becomes an adult. When a person steps into adulthood, usually somewhere around forty or fifty years of age (the residents of the City have radically extended lifespans and live for hundreds of years), that person will have a naming ceremony where they announce their chosen name to the City. After momentus or noteworthy life changes, people may choose a new name.

Names in the City, like many words in the City, often have long vowel chains that aren’t common in Western languages. So you’ll see names like Janaié (pronounced jan-eye-AY), or Calaïas (pronounced kal-ay-EYE-ass); when you see multiple vowels in a row in a word or name in the City, each individual vowel is usually pronounced.

We haven’t gone as far as creating the entire language of the City—Eunice and I both have an interest in linguistics, but neither of us is a conlanger—but we have created small snippets, and names are occasionally drawn from those snippets:

Instead, you give just little glimpses of it, enough to suggest that this is a fully realized character in a fully realized story without meandering off into exposition-land or taking the focus away from the story you’re trying to tell.

The fabric parted for the drone. She followed it through three layers of shimmering curtain. Inside, filtered sunlight created a dimly-lit, ethereal space. “Are you ready?” the drone asked again.

She nodded. “I am.”

“Have you chosen a public name, to be shared with all the City, by which you will be known from this day forward, until you choose to change it?”

“I have.”

“Have you chosen a private name, to be shared, if it is shared at all, only with those of your choosing, by which you will know yourself?”

She nodded once more. “I have.”

“As a child,” the drone said, “you came into this world without knowledge, not even knowledge of yourself. You were dependent on others to provide for you, and even to give you a name. As an adult, you know yourself, and you choose your own destiny, even your own name. What name do you choose from this day forward?”

She closed her eyes, drew in her breath, and fought to keep the quaver from her voice. “Janissa.” It was, she realized, the first time she had said the word aloud. “I take this name from Jahn Nissaré Nasaḥ, the story of the timid bird, as a reminder to myself to choose who I want to be, even when it’s scary.”

“As a child, you were cared for by others: your parents; the gods, with me as their representative; the whole of the City. As a child in the care of others, you concealed no secrets. As an adult, you choose how much of yourself to reveal to those of the City. Your private name is the first thing you will keep even from your parents, as a symbol of your independence. What is your private name, so that I may carry it to the gods, to be shared with nobody else?”

“Delazi,” she said.

“May I use your private name?”

She swallowed. “You may.”

The drone dipped in a bow. “Delazi, I am pleased to meet you. Are you ready to continue?”

Janissa bowed to the drone, then took her place in the center of the slab. “I am.”
A person who takes a new public name will add it to the front of their existing public name (or names), and will append their family name to the end. A full name is built from a person’s private name, which is generally shared only in extraordinary circumstances with the most intimate of partners, followed by a list of public names in order from most recent to least recent, followed by a family-group name:

The garden spun. Then, suddenly, in a single moment, Yaeris was wrenched from her body. She soared up, up, through the ground, through the vastness of the Confessory, and higher still, until she was looking out over the City. She knew, without knowing how she knew, exactly how many drones flitted about, and knew the name—a name encoded in a burst of numbers that had no representational system outside of her mind—of every one. She saw the City from a thousand different vantage points at once, and knew every one of them was a drone. The City vibrated with colors she had no names for, ranging deep in infrared and far in ultraviolet. She saw people going about their daily lives, and was aware of all the myriad threads that bound each of their lives to the lives of those around them.

She knew that the man in the garden with her was named Semkat, and he had been a priest of the Quickener for seventy-four years. She knew the flavor of the air, which told her rain would fall again tomorrow. She knew exactly how many strawberries grew on the spiraling ramps of the agricultural towers that surrounded the City, and felt the bliss of tuning the nutrient flow through the ten thousand channels in each ramp to make sure every berry would be plump and sweet. She felt ferocious, overwhelming joy at every small act of creation: every tender blade of grass that sprouted from the earth; every new drone that emerged from the City’s Providers, each different from all the others; every work of art created by everyone who lived in the City. The whole of the City sang a never-ending song of inspiration. Every act that brought something new into the world flooded her with an exaltation that filled her beyond capacity.

And she knew that in a garden in a room far below the Confessory, a woman who had been Genshei Yaeris Halavis Ordolin Latakati of the Dalmassaran family, and was now, for a time, something more, screamed and clamped her hands over her ears to try to stop the flood that poured into her until her head threatened to burst.
I’m not saying you need to do that deep a dive into the culture or language of your story, of course, only that you, as a writer, can if you want to.

Point is, there isn’t one system. There isn’t even one system that a particular writer uses. The system you use will depend on the needs of your book. What’s the culture? What are the expectations? How religious is your fictional society? How closely does your story map onto the real world?