Fluffy the Terrible, and Other Appellations

I’m (somewhat reluctantly) working on a story in a new universe. Ground dwelling fairies are fighting with tree dwelling fairies and won’t tell me why. Why must these things pop into my head when I have the least amount of time or energy to deal with them?

But if I could answer that question, I’d be rich, and I wouldn’t mind having nine thousand projects all pop up at once, because I could take my time in sorting them out.

Ahem. Never mind. The point is that a new writing universe requires new characters and places, and that brings us to naming conventions.

Like every other aspect of writing, the point of naming is to communicate information to the reader as clearly as possible. And while it’s possible to slip character information into a story in other ways, naming is a useful tool. TV Tropes has a zillion pages devoted to this; the page for Awesome McCoolname is one of my favorites, simply for the laughs.

It’s a peculiar hang-up of mine that a name should generally indicate the character’s gender (Hm, I wonder why?), or at the very least, it shouldn’t contra-indicate gender. If you’re going to name a boy Marie, you’d better have a good reason for it, like, he’s a French aristocrat from the 1700s, when that was a common first name for boys, who would then have a long string of masculine middle names to make up for it. The man in question would have been called by his title (by strangers, hangers-on, or casual acquaintances) or by a nickname (by family and close friends).

Names are also good for relaying to readers a character’s ancestry, occupation, or other odd details, particularly in fantasy writing, where no one bats an eyelash at characters called Gwydion the Lame or Barthold of Kingstown. It’s possible to convey that information to a reader through other means, but why discard a writing tool if it can be useful to you and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story?

Occupation-based last names can be used for subliminal signaling. Think about it- if you have a character called John Smith and one called John Lancaster, who’s the working man? Most people would guess that John Smith is the working class character, even if that’s not the case. In fantasy or historical fiction, John Smith is probably a metal-worker of some kind. If he’s not, you might consider explaining why not, depending on your setting, because hereditary last names go in and out of style throughout history and didn’t become common in England until the 1300s.

A canny writer can use appropriate last names to their advantage. They can also mislead for comic effect, as in the case of Robin Hood’s sidekick John Little, who is most certainly not. First names are good for this, too, like naming an ultra-masculine guy ‘Tiffany’. It’s been done in real life, but because it’s uncommon, it can tap on the funny bone of your readers.

Naming patterns can also be used to evoke a particular cultural image. The Garians in A Kingdom of Glass are a horse-focused steppe culture and have mostly Eastern European names. It gives them an exotic feel, whereas the more conventional Morlanders have mostly French and English names. Sándor Rákoszi can live in a yurt; George Foix cannot.

Patronymics are also good for this, because readers are used to seeing particular constructions associated with different cultures. Patronymics are many and varied. The easiest construction is ‘Character, son of Name’, and because it’s fairly generic, you don’t have to worry that you’re accidentally signaling a particular culture. ‘Character Namesson’ looks Northern European/Viking and is still used in Iceland. ‘Character mac (or mhíc) Name’ is Irish and so is ‘Femalecharacter ní Name’- MacName, McName, and O’Name are hereditary last names, not a patronymics. Russian patronymics could take up an entire post of their own, and of course, there are patronymics associated with modern and non-European cultures. A common modern construction is to give the child its own name and use parents’ or grandparents’ names as middle names.

Let’s talk word order. The Western World has a long established tradition of using ‘Personalname Familyname’ to identify a person, but some Asian languages use ‘Familyname Personalname’. So does Hungarian; it’s a holdover from historical invasions from the east. It’s not overly surprising that Western culture is much more focused on the individual and that individual’s actions, whereas Koreans, for example, put more emphasis on the family’s reputation and the importance of belonging to a particular clan or tribe. Writers can use this to their advantage, by subtly showing that the fantasy or science fiction culture is extremely family- or individually-oriented. (For most of us, this works best if you want to use ‘Familyname Personalname’ to show that the culture is family-oriented, because most of our readers don’t even notice ‘Personalname Familyname’, it’s so familiar to us.)

Some real-life cultures don’t even use personal names, and you, the writer, can follow their example if you like, to show a character’s relationship to family or what that family values. Ancient Romans didn’t give their girls personal names; they were known by their family names among strangers and their nicknames among family and close friends. And we, two thousand years later, have girl’s names like Julia, Claudia, and Camilla, because of it.

Sometimes, the universe requires you, the writer, to make up your own character names. (Hello, science fiction writers of the audience!) If you’re going to do this, try to follow a pattern and make them recognizable as names. If the reader is reading along and has to stop to figure out what Nalwnrgk’a means and if that word is meant to indicate a character, you’ve lost the reader and that’s a Very Bad Thing. Ignore this is you’re writing historical fiction or trying to evoke a particular culture, both of which have their own naming conventions that you ignore to your peril. Very few readers will tolerate characters named David Evans or Mary Anne Reilly in a book about ancient China.

Some caveats: give a character a name that suits them. Some characters will jump up and demand to be called by a particular name, and who are we to argue? Most of my characters aren’t quite so insistent; I tend to get a vague image of them in my head, along with a basic understanding of their role in the story, then hit baby name websites for suggestions. Though I will say that the first two fairy characters in the new universe didn’t require that; they showed up already named Mara and Ailil. I’m not arguing with a couple of foot-high fairies. They’d probably kick me in the shins or start gnawing on my ankles.

Another caveat: Naming conventions are just that, conventions. The Name Police are not going to string you up by your toenails if you don’t follow them exactly, and with the advent of indie, it’s possible to find an audience for anything, even if the characters are oddly named. Most readers are used to seeing the above conventions but a fresh, new method can also be attractive.

What naming conventions do you use in your works? Which ones cause you to throw a book against the wall?

74 thoughts on “Fluffy the Terrible, and Other Appellations

  1. Fluffy is not terrible don’t you dare let her hear you say that she’ll barbecue you, then eat you

    with fries, and ketchup.

    1. I dunno, being barbecued and eaten with fries and ketchup sounds pretty terrifying to me.

      Okay, fine, I admit it. I completely forgot about our very own Fluffy when I was trying to think of a title for this thing. That’s what I get for leaving it ’til the last minute.

  2. I think it funny (Odd?) that once you have named a character in a yet to be published work, after a time, you CANNOT imagine them with any other name, even though the work is a WIP, and there is no overriding reason to consider their name immutable.

    1. Renamed a character in editing, once, after a reader kept reading “Payam” as “Pam.” I still sometimes use the original name for him…

    2. Some of my characters are very insistent as to what their names are and I could never name them something else. But this is not always the case.

      I called the protag in Hunting Wild Tulliya all through the first draft and the various revision drafts, always with the vague sense that I didn’t have the right name for her. Only when I was on the verge of clicking the publish button did the right name come to me: Remeya.

      I was relieved that I thought of it before clicking that button! The find-and-replace was quite simple.

      1. Tell me about it. It took me fifteen years to write my first book (to be fair, I came up with the concept in middle school and was not ready to write it then) and during the interim, a particular name that I used was also used in a similar fashion by a writer whose work is still popular. But I couldn’t change it. It wouldn’t budge. The reasons I picked it are still valid, if not obvious, and if anyone asks why I copied the well-known writer, the true answer is: I didn’t, and the character refused to be renamed after I read the other work.

        1. …the character refused to be renamed…

          You have me chuckling in sympathy. In my soon-to-be-released novella, one of my characters insists that her name is Igrainne.

          I’ve urged her to reconsider. “You really shouldn’t have the same name as King Arthur’s mother,” I tell her.

          She smiles kindly back at me and says, “It’s the other way around, you know. Arthur’s mother happens to have the same name as mine.”

          So, Igrainne she stayed. 😉

  3. My “Name in a book” pet peeve –

    The character introduces him/herself verbally, immediately followed by the other person trying to pronounce the name as spelled.

    “My name is Ian”
    “Eye-an? What kind of name is that?”

    Also, characters whose names are ridiculously similar for no good reason. Not talking Oin and Gloin, or Fili and Kili, but Julie and Julia, Susan and Suzanne, and even Kathy and Cathy. While in reality, it is possible for two people in the same circle to have similar names (my best friend in HS was Amy, I’m Aimee), in a book please give them names that are different enough that I don’t have to keep going back to figure out who is speaking.

    And for Bhob’s sake, buy a vowel. If everyone in your book has names full of consonants and punctuation marks, and I can’t even begin to pronounce them? I’m probably not finishing the book any time soon.

    Thus endeth the rant.

    1. This is why I pronounce my made-up names myself. If I can’t do it, chances are nobody else can.

    2. Oh, gosh, I second the “do not have characters with similar names”! Especially if said names are long. I don’t want to have to go six characters into a name before I can figure out who is talking.

    3. While poking through genealogical records, I came across a pair of twins named Agnes and Agnetis. Being Catholic, the records were in Latin.

      Being an inflected language, things happen to names (and these are actualy Poles, so even more things happen), which means you rarely see Agnes as Agnes. I tend to think of it as 3rd declension, so I’m looking for something like Agnes, Agnetis, Agneti, Agnetem, Agnete, Agnes.

      But what do you do with Agnetis? Agnetis, Agnetatis, Agnetati, Agnetatem, Agnetate, Agnetis? Never shows up that way in the records. Seems to be used just like Agnes. Which means I can’t figure out which record belongs to which twin.

    4. I could see it if was done slightly better…

      “My name is Ian.”
      “Eye-an? I always thought it was pronounced Eee-an?”
      “My folks… aren’t exactly normal.”

      1. I once knew a Kara (care-uh) and a Kara (car-uh), a Kari (care-ee) and a Kari (car-ee) at the same time. Not to mention Karina and Karenna in the same cast.

    5. Many years ago, I worked in a small store where on occasion 5 of the 6 of us were John’s or a variation.
      Good thing for nicknames.

    6. Hey, Professor Tolkien didn’t make them up either; he pulled all of them out of the Icelandic Eddas.

  4. I actually had someone ask me once why the characters in my Indo-Persian fantasy couldn’t have “normal” names like Bob or Frank instead of Bahadur or Shahin… and someone else in the group agree with him. Not sure if I should blame that on their age (middle) or midwestern heritage, but I didn’t get a lot of use out of those two.

    1. I notice this in reviews of Fantasy or Historical movies where a smartass reviewer wonders why everyone has a “weird” name.

            1. “But when they turned their faces,
              And on the farther shore
              Saw brave Jim stand alone,
              They would have crossed once more.”

          1. Inscribed onto clay tablets near the dawn of the written word. Lost, then recovered, reassembled, and translated by a civilization nearly unique in its regard for the past.

            More than four thousand years later, click and have the electronic djinni read it to you: https://youtu.be/IPYf8AwNvKg

          2. “We’re the Mesopotamians! Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal and Gilgamesh!”

            Thank you, They Might Be Giants, for wedging those into a singable order.

            1. I haven’t heard that one. Which song? I’ve got You Are Old Father William, and the one about The Birdcage for your Soul.

          1. Not one of Moore’s better works, unfortunately. It was readable, but not a ROFL like, say, “The Stupidest Angel.”

            1. I got The Stupidest Angel as an ARC from my bookstore job. Still own that sucker. “A heartwarming tale of Christmas terror,” just about sums it up.

    2. I have a “Shahin” from the fantasy-counterpart Persia in my Greco-Roman fantasy. Good that you stuck to your guns; as much as I love the EarthCent series I get thrown out of the story whenever the character “Aisha” appears. She’s supposed to be Hindu, so why is her name Aisha? When I was a kid I couldn’t get my Muslim and Hindu friends to play together; I can’t imagine a Hindu naming their daughter for Muhammed’s wife. Should have been Aishwarya, or Arundhati, or Aditi, or Aja (I have a soon-to-be-resurrected space opera featuring an Aja so I’m partial to that one).

      To me those names aren’t hard to pronounce, but I’ve attributed that partly to familiarity and partly to learning phonics back in the day. I’ve heard the latter isn’t necessarily taught anymore, which might explain the reviewers you had.

      1. I suspect it has to do with a bad baby naming book that stuffed both under ‘Indian names’. (Since both names occur in the nation of India.) Not all of them even partially twig on to the cultures involved as separate from the nations.

    3. I have an uncle like that. The book will ALWAYS suck if it doesn’t have easy to pronounce English names.:(

  5. Yes, choose names that are consistently from a particular European country, one per fantasy country. (Magyar is not an indo-european language.) It helps readers to remember them. And if the country has strong clan associations, names from Scotland likely work, even if the place is clearly someplace else, and readers would recognize the names from someplace else.

  6. Going along with Aimee’s comment about “buy a vowel”, extremely long single names are almost impossible to pronounce.

    Would you want to pronounce a fifty letter name?

    I have divided such names into two or three names.

    Even if you give a character that long of name, make a point of having the character saying “but you don’t have to call me that, just call …..”. 😉

  7. Note on using mythic names, you run out of pantheon pretty quick. Luckily there’s lots of pantheons. That’s how my Valkyries started out with names like Brunhilde, Gudrun and Göll, but ended up also being Nike, Athena and Persephone.

    1. Try naming historical Picts. There’s less than a dozen attested names, all of them male and kings.

  8. Some notes on Chinese naming:

    Yup, it’s family name first

    Some family names are extremely common (Zhang, Zhong, Wang, Chang, Chu, etc — IIRC there’s about 100 of these)

    Only 1 given name (but can be more than one character)

    Like in the Old Testament, parents can name their kids anything they please (go look up the names of the 12 sons of Jacob – some are classic like “I have struggled with my sister and won”. Although there are some common names, I’ve run into plenty of good ones like “Every generation a farmer”, “Red soldier” (girl’s name), “Victory piano”)

    The same name can be used for both boys and girls

    Pinyin makes a difference, because it’s ambiguous without tone marks, so the same name in pinyin could refer to different meanings (different characters). And romanized names can vary depending on when and where it happened (e.g. Chew vs Chu)

  9. For a recent work, set on a colony world which has regressed into medieval levels, I decided to give them appropriately medieval names. Since religion plays a large part in the society, many names are Biblical. Last names are either their profession, or, if they have none, a patronymic.


    Isaak the Farmer
    Tomas Isaak’s-son

  10. One fairly simple naming convention that has served me well for alien cultures in two unrelated story universes (the original story universe was just for fun, or, if you prefer, ad libitum, and it seemed a shame to waste a good naming convention) has been to use a hyphenated two-part name. For males both name pieces are have a single syllable and always end in a consonant (for example, Surl-Than) while for females the first name piece has two syllables and always ends in a vowel (Issa-Fal). Traditional or behind-the-times clans (or stories set in an earlier era) would use three part names resulting in names like Jor-Vek-Set and Kara-Til-Than. This gives me names that have an alien feel to them while still being easy for readers to keep track of, easy to read, and easy to pronounce.

    I have another story setting that is sort of an alternate 1930s and for that one I use the Social Security Administration’s “Popular Baby Names” page. You can use that to find a rank ordered list of the most popular baby names in the United States for any year after 1879 – very handy so long as you have decided what year your character was born.

    I actually had a discussion about naming conventions with one of my sisters earlier this morning, only our focus was naming conventions for places rather than characters. I had star system in which the naming convention for planets was “Thracian Kings and Queens” and needed a fitting naming convention for any moons those planets might have. I also had a fortified town built on top of the ruins of a starport, so naming convention for the starport and then a convention for devolving that name to the name of the fortified town. (“I could just go the easy route and call it Port,” I said. “Port Fort?” my sister asked. “Right, not that then,” I agreed.)

    1. I would totally read stories about the beleaguered commander/mayor of Port Fort. Just me?

    2. A bit like how DC writers in the Silver Age established Kryptonian names: Jor-El, Quex-Ul, Faora Hu-Ul. Little-known fact: General Zod’s full name? Dru-Zod.

      Of course, they also had the unfortunately named Va-Kox.

      1. No kidding? I never knew that about Kryptonian names – cool! Like I said: it’s an easy an effective naming convention… with the addendum of: so long as you avoid names like Va-Kox.

        As for the beleaguered commander/mayor of Port Fort, parts of his tale are currently woven into two stories. I imagine someday he’ll get his own story though and no doubt someone in that story will be mocking him for being the commander of Port Fort.

        1. Female Kryptonian names used to have a patronymic: Superman’s mother Lara was Lara Lor-Van when she was single, Lara Jor-El when she married. Nowadays I think it’s just like the male names, i.e. Lara-El.

  11. My colony planet that devolved to medieval levels has family names, some of which are based on the original settlers’ professions. There is, for instance, the powerful Satcom family.

  12. When I needed names for the different Realms of Nightmare in a novel I used the months of the French Revolutionary calendar: Nivose, Thermidor, Ventose, and so on. For the necroids (undead based on Clive Barker’s cenobites) in The Book Of Lost Doors I gave them ironic names denoting beauty, Exquisite, Sublime, Precious, Shimmer and the like.

    When making names for fantasy worlds, I tend to take a list on names of a particular ethnicity, break them down into syllables, and then mix up the syllables. Thus for one story I had Maxel, Ivor, Svella, and so on. The woman who was a stranger to the town I named Conessa, from Italian rather than Russian roots.

    For me, the main thing is that names of people (or things) from the same culture should feel the same. If you’ve got a tribe where the characters are Thruck, Fark, Vrin, and Sshoolech, your readers are going to wonder if that last guy is maybe from out of town.

  13. Names are a pain.

    But since a name tends to have a lot of baggage, I try a lot until one clicks. That tells me a lot about the characters.

    1. Hungarian, before the 1930s-40s, could be almost as convoluted for women’s names. Some kept their maiden name as their legal name, others used it as a secondary name with that of their husband’s family… and it was based on social status and where in Hungary they were. I tried it, and decided that since I was altering history, I’d just alter that as well.

      1. The realization of “since I am already altering history, I can just alter (x) as well!” has saved me from a fair number of headaches when it comes to technology and cultural idiosyncrasies.

  14. When I was hunting for names for the Chinese fantasy novel, I lucked out because a book about courtesans and high culture in the early Song Dynasty included name meanings for most of the women’s names. A different (dryyyyyyyyy) book about the genealogies of late Tang dynasty aristocratic families also had some men’s names, and lots and lots of old noble names that have since disappeared from common use. Gold mine!

  15. Reading the history of WWII, I quickly learned that a disproportionate number of Allied generals were named “Evelyn” or “Claire.”

    1. There’s a great running gag in Paul Kidd’s Greyhawk novels about the Justicar, a big, burly monster-slaying badass whose birth name is Evelyn.

    2. We’ve got guys at work named Shannon and Stacey. Two women I worked with had, respectively, a daughter name Jordan and a son named Jordan; the one with the son named Jordan also had a daughter named Shannon.

      1. I’ll mention that to a friend of mine. His name is Robert. So was his father, grandfather, both uncles, both brothers, and various other relatives. Nobody remembers how the tradition came about.

        Alas, all of his children are daughers, so he has not carried on the tradition. Though I lobbied hard for it; in these days of gender-crossing names, “Robert” would be a perfectly good Grrrl Pwr name. Or at the very least, “Roberta.”

        1. I knew a guy named Alex. Turns out that his name was John, and so was the name of all of his brothers—so they all went by their middle names. Which makes you wonder, what was the point of that?

        2. Bob traces back a little bit further in my family, and is known to have been after Bob Lee. Considering my own sympathies aren’t in that direction, I’m forced to conclude that politics isn’t truly heritable by blood.

    3. You missed the great literary connection — for a little while, Evelyn Waugh was married to Evelyn Waugh nee Gardner. Supposedly the names are pronounced differently according to the sex, and (something I didn’t know before) he-Evelyn’s full name is Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh.

  16. I recall a comic with a Roman Legionnaire named “Little Mouse”.
    It was “Asterix und Obelix by dem Olympaeschen Spielen”. The editors would carefully translate all the Latin words and phrases used in the book into German in footnotes. So the all, burly Legionnaire’s name was footnoted as “maeusschen” or “little mouse”.

    The Latin word being translated was “Musculus”, which was a perfectly good name to bestow on a muscular hulk. It’s a pure accident of translation that changes that to an ironic name along the lines of “John the Little”.

    1. BTW, Asterix and Obelix was originally written in French. My daughter brought home a copy from her school library (translated into English, of course). I don’t recall a “Little Mouse”, but sounds like her book didn’t include that story (since I don’t remember a Musculus character either).

  17. Vowels are your friends. Apostrophes are not (and neither is this Russian thing, whatever it’s called: ъ).
    I very rarely sound out names in books. If it’s something like “Bob”, yeah I know how it sounds. If it’s something like Aragorn (who I thought was “Argon” for years), it needs to be visually, not phonetically, different from other names. Arathorn is not cool (but since he never shows up, whatevs).
    After watching Spy Kids and the door password, I got jealous and invented a longer name. When I remember, I introduce myself as “Mark Russell de la Wrasse con Howard pod Blackwood Sizer, but you can call me Mark”.

    1. The Russian thing: Hard sign. Used in about a dozen words in the language, but indispensable for them at least as far as indicating pronunciation goes. There’s another one called the soft sign. (Doesn’t have the little tail thingy at the top) Much more common.

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