Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She had a podcast/vlog at www.StoryworldFirst.com. You can also find Jill on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or on her author website.
*This is a Retro Rewrite of a post I wrote in 2013. I changed it up a little. If you want, you can read the original post here.
How do you come up with names for the people in your books? Do you make them up on the spot? Do you name them after friends? Is there a better way?
There are lots of ways to find lists of first or last names for contemporary stories. I've listed some below. But what about historical stories? And what about fantasy or science fiction? Let's start by taking a closer look at earth's own history.
For some reason, many ancient cultures named their children whatever word came to them at the time of the child’s birth. Abraham named his son Isaac, which meant “laughing one,” because he and his wife were so old when the boy was born, they couldn't help but laugh. And when Rachel was in difficult labor, she named her boy Benoni, which meant “son of my sorrow,” but after her death, her husband Jacob renamed the child Benjamin, which meant “son of my right hand.”
With this method, names could be any word: nouns, adjectives, verbs, alone or combined, or even phrases. In Gaelic, Berach meant “sharp,” Ruadh meant “red,” Aisling meant “dream” or “vision,” and Fechín meant “little raven.”
You can find more examples from different countries in this brief history of surnames.
Names were also dithematic, which means that they were formed of a prefix and suffix. For example: Alfred means “elf counsel” because “alf” means “elf” and “rad” or “red” means “counsel.” Ben means “son of” in Hebrew. Bat means “daughter of” in Hebrew. I made use of that practice in my Blood of Kings books with the "mi" meaning "son of" in the giants' culture, for example, the name Jax mi Katt.
Check out this list on Wikipedia about German names. You can choose any two elements on that list and combine them to get a name. Then you’ll also get a meaning. Look at the examples column in the center to see examples. Here are a few more I made up: Remwulf (PeaceWolf), Ernswint (HonorStrength), and Deganstan (WarriorStone).
If you were writing fantasy, you could create your own list of made up prefixes and suffixes that you could take from to create a feeling of uniformity in the names in your world.
Theonym, which comes from the Greek theos (god) and –onym (name), was a popular way of naming children in Norse times. Using the god Thor's name as an example, I came up with: Thorburn (Thor’s bear) and Thorleif (Thor’s descendant). If you have a god or gods in your novel, you could name characters after them.
Names Taken From Religious Texts
Are there martyrs, saints, or famous kings or warriors in your novel? Why not name a character after one?
Historically, bynames were literal descriptions of a person. This could involve one’s father’s name, for example, William had a son and named him Edward. So Edward's full name could have been: Edward William, Edward William’s, or Edward William’s son. See how that works?
Bynames could also involve the place a person was born or an occupation. For example, our Edward might be called Edward William’s until he’s a man, then he moves away from Harenton, the town he grew up in, and becomes an apprentice at a smithy. The people in his new town call him Edward of Harenton until he completes his training and becomes a master blacksmith. Then he might be called Edward the Smith.
Here are some other popular names that came from occupations: Abbott, Archer, Baker, Brewer, Carpenter, Farmer, Farrier, Potter, Weaver, Taylor, Thatcher, Smith, Swain (a swine herder), Weaver. The website Behind the Name is a great resource for names. Here is a list of surnames that derived from occupations. You can also filter your searches on this website by country.
Perhaps Edward’s father William still lives in the same house he grew up in, a house in a glen in the middle of a forest, so he is called William Forestglen. Some modern surnames that developed in such a way are: Atwater (at the water), Beckham (home by the brook), and Hill (hill).
Bynames might also be names of status or nicknames. Here are some examples to inspire you:
Marcus the Giant
Charles the Baron
Edward the Wifeless (Aww, poor Ed!)
Mary Burned the Barn (Forever labeled by her greatest blunder.)
Richard has Twelve Sons (I think someone is bragging.)
Bart Full of Ale (Oh, dear.)
Sarah Sings All Day (I hope her voice is good.)
Daniel Cut Purse (The lousy thief, anyway.)
Frank Waste Penny (Must have a shopping addiction.)
You can do all kinds of fun stuff with names in fantasy novels. You can create your own practices for giving titles or names, like in my Blood of Kings series, the guardians of orphaned children bestowed an animal surname on the child. You could also make up fictional titles based on occupations, like the Star Wars titles of Darth or Jedi.
So, think about the world you're creating. What historical Earth date does it parallel? How were names chosen then? Look back in time and see if you can come up with some fun ideas to help you name your characters.
Here are some more tips:
1. Find real names
Looking for interesting contemporary names? Start with baby name books and websites. (I highly recommend Behind the Name because some of those online baby name websites are all ads and no real information.) You can also look in old telephone books (if you can find one). You can look at Facebook profiles, on sports team rosters, or by perusing author names in the library. You can also make up fun names from nature, animals, colors, and from maps or your own country or foreign countries.
If you're writing a historical story, start by Googling historical names from the years your story takes place, then subtract the age of each character and look for popular names in the year each character was born. You'll likely find that some names were used throughout several generations. You can read novels that were written in the same year as your story or that take place in the same years as your story. You can also look up lists of names by historical event, for example, I looked up the passengers list from the Titanic. You can also browse name lists. Here are some of my favorites:
Fantasy Name Generator
Unique Baby Names
Generic English Place Names
List of Titanic Passengers
Behind the first names, with meanings of names
Former names of islands
Behind the surnames
Most popular surnames
List of Occupational Surnames
Take for example the name Mary. Mary is the English form of the name Maria, which came from the Latin Mariam, which came from the Aramaic Maryam, which came from the Hebrew name Miryam. You can research the etymology of a name or create a logical etymology of your own that fits your storyworld.
3. Combine two or more real names
Combine two or more names to make something new. Emily and Grace become Emilace. Donald and Christopher make Donopher. Katherine and Louisa and Elizabeth become Katisabet.
4. Change the spelling of a real name or a word
Jill could become Jyl. Matthew becomes Methoo. Rainbow could become Rayneboh. School becomes Skuul. And take the word "hallelulia." From it we could get several interesting names: Hall, Hallay, Lelu, Lulie, Lulia, Layleeah, Ailule (going backwards), and on and on you could go.
You could also play around with names you made up. For example, if we played with the name Dasia, we might get: Dasiel . . . Dasielle . . . Rasielle . . . Raselle.
5. Create your own language
This tip always comes with a warning. Creating a language can be a trap that one might never escape. (See this post on how to create your own language.) If you do create some part of a fictional language, you could certainly make names from it. Not only that, you could create your own prefixes and suffixes, words for magic, creatures, or other storyworld elements, and use some of those as names.
If you’re totally stuck, try using a name generator. There are name generators for EVERYTHING! It's a little out of control. But they can sometimes be helpful. Either you'll find a name you like, or one of the names will inspire the perfect name. Here is a name generator I found for creating noble surnames. You can Google anything, for example: fantasy name generator, historical name generator, fairy name generator, creature name generator, mad scientist name generator, ghost name generator. I could go on and on.
Google the name to see if it is already used in a famous novel. If it is but it’s a different genre, you can probably get away with it. But even if you were writing an Amish romance novel, I wouldn't use the name Katniss. It's just too recognizable. It's also wise to see if the name you chose isn't the name of a famous criminal or some other person who will come to the top of the search results when readers look up your character. :-O
If you've chosen to use something you found on a map of from another language, you should Google it to see if there might be any hidden meanings in foreign language translations. You don't want to accidentally name your hero something derogatory in another tongue.
8. Consider the meaning
It can be fun to give your character a name with a meaning that adds depth to the story. I did this with Hebrew words in the Blood of Kings books. For example, Achan means "trouble" in Hebrew. The man who raised Achan was making a point when he named him. Most baby name books and many websites will give you the meaning of a name. (Again, Behind the Name is a great place to start.)
Watch for "hidden meanings" that are too obvious. When you see the name Darth Sideous, it doesn't even sound nice, right? And what about Draco? If my name was dragon, I’d likely have a bad reputation without trying. In the book Finnikin and the Rock, the girl character Evanjalin is introduced and since the name is so close to the word "evangelist" instantly many readers wondered, "Hmm... Might she be the savior of her people? Might she bring good news?" Be careful that some of your character names aren't story spoilers.
9. Check that first letter
Take a look at your full character list. Do you have too many names that start with the same letter? That is a great way to confuse your readers. Also check for names that rhyme or have the same amount of syllables. Switch out some names until you have a nice variety.
10. Keep it simple
I know, it’s difficult--especially when writing fantasy, but try to choose simple names. I made a mistake with my very first book in naming my hero Achan. I can't tell you how many people I've met that pronounce his name ah-chan, though I pronounce it ay-kin. I wish I would have put a short pronunciation guide in the front, but I promise you, a submission to a publisher that begins with a pronunciation guide will be treated as a red flag warning, so try to keep things simple. Take a look at this list of famous characters from fantasy and science fiction literature, film, games, and television. I can pronounce every one. Can you?
Agent Smith, Albus Dumbeldore, Aslan, Bilbo Baggins, Blade, Buck Rogers, Buffy, C-3PO, Captian James T. Kirk, Chewbacca, Data, The Doctor, Ellen Ripley, Emmet Brown, Gandalf, Han Solo, Harry Potter, John Carter, King Arthur, Leonard H. McCoy/Bones, Link, Logan 5, Luke Skywalker, Malcolm Reynolds, Merlin, Morpheus, Neo/Mr. Anderson, Q, R2-D2, Randall Flagg, Spock, Starbuck, Terminator, and Yoda.
So, say your names out loud. Are any of them at all awkward? Ask others to read them out loud. Did they stumble over any? Did they pronounce them right? Did you avoid adding unnecessary apostrophes (Sh’mal) and diacritics (Nüélmăr)? These are all good plans. Simply is often best.