“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene 2
While the Bard of Avon may have had a point that a name is nothing more than a mere label or signifier, that doesn’t stop names for things from being devilishly difficult to come up with. This is evidently a malady that I’m not alone in suffering, as the official NaNoWriMo site has an entire forum, “The Appellation Station,” dedicated to helping participants devising names for everything from a kingdom to the main character’s second cousin once removed (on the mother’s side.)
Earlier today, I asked the following on my twitter feed:
to see what ideas the undoubtedly witty, intelligent and good-looking people who follow me could come up with. The responses weren’t a huge surprise, though they did alert me to the existence of something called the “rAlphabetE” spinner ring which I want to award myself with should I be a NaNo winner this year.
What were the other responses? The most common thing I heard was to hit up baby name books & websites, which makes sense, as they are resources that are all about choosing names for people. Of course, that’s not always a perfect approach. For example, no one’s going to cower in fear if your supreme villainous overlord, master of evil and consorter with demonic forces goes by the name of “Bradley Kerrigan.”
In fantasy and science fiction stories that I write, I want to make the names of my characters from the same regions or planets seem like they share a common cultural identity. I try to achieve this through the use of similar linguistic origins, so I tend to use foreign language dictionaries (or during NaNo, Google Translate) to find phonemes with a common heritage.
For example, in my 2013 novel logline, I mention a sacrificial victim. I don’t have a firm idea of her society yet, but I had decided it was going to be influenced by Norse and Celtic imagery. I plumped for the first name of Erica for a few reasons. Firstly, I just liked the sound of it. Secondly, it has roots in Old Norse. Looking at some name meaning sites, I discovered that it can mean “eternal ruler,” which was a lucky coincidence considering that the character is going to be possessing people from beyond the grave.
I’ve also decided that Erica is from fairly humble beginnings, being the daughter of a blacksmith. Using Google’s translation tools, I’m told that “blacksmith” becomes “inion” and daughter becomes “gabha.” I decided to mash the syllables together to arrive at a surname, and now the character goes by “Erica Inibha.” I’ll probably use similar methodology for other characters.
I tend to look for names I like the sound of before I worry about meanings, but having spoken with some members of the Richmond WriMos Facebook group in one of our monthly write-in/critique meetings, I’ve found that the opposite approach of trying to find a name that fits the meaning of the character’s arc is equally common. For example, a male mentor figure is needed, one might look up names that mean “guide” and decide the mentor will be christened “Hadi,” an Arabic name that means, roughly “religious guide.”
There are as many approaches to names as there are names, of course. Which do you favor?