The Importance of Names: Naming People, Places, and Things

Names are important. When we were naming our fifth child we had toyed with the idea of Kiera. We both really like the name itself. Only problem was so far the last four all exhibited traits of their name’s meaning. The most common meaning of Kiera I found was: The dark one. Enough said.

Instead we chose another path, Olivia: olive branch; peace keeper. Even at the age of six she does have the ability to defuse a situation between her older siblings, not that she doesn’t instigate a few of those situations herself to begin with. How that all works I have no idea, maybe it’s us parents that treat them as such and they adopt that mentality.

Okay, so I know not everyone fits into that example. But at least consider last names, they do give us a person’s ancestry, even if it may only be a small portion of it. Even when we consider the names of products, services, companies, and so on, they tend to lend us some information to lead us to what it might possibly be. Usually. The same can be true of places.

This is why as writers and authors we put so much into what names we chose. We can’t just slap something onto it as a label just because we like it. The names we give things need to match the who, what, and where.

Characters

It is even more important to pay attention to those name meanings when naming characters. For some smaller characters, a name may be the only real description of him/her we get/give. Some readers may really have no clue as to what that character’s name stands for, but when it is combined with whatever part they had to play, it tends to give it away. I’m definetly not saying they need to follow that meaning to a T, that is most likely a little unrealistic.

It’s also an easy way to save our own sanity as the creator. There are so many options, that it can be extremely overwhelming to try and find the perfect one. Matching a personality trait with a name’s meaning can limit the options we have to choose from.

Another thing to think about is time period. This of course also has to depend on the genre you are writing in. For anything futuristic, you can literally chose any name from the past or present but also make up something completely new. But if you are writing anything that took place in the past, you might not want to use any modern or futuristic names.

Also keep in mind where this person is from. If your character is from 1450 England, both parents and grandparents were English, you might not want to give her a French or Italian name. Without a valid reason, that is.

Using baby naming websites or lists is a good way to see a variety of names. Most have options for gender, ancestry, first letter, and some even let you search by meaning. There are lists specifically for modern names, ancient names, medieval names, and so on. Once I’ve narrowed down on a few names I do a separate Google search of that name to verify the information supplied by the initial search. Many names have various meanings or are a form of another name. Either way I like to have some of the history of the name. Many times I’ve researched a name and ended up picking a different version or spelling of that name.

Places

This one is easy if they places you mention in your story really exist. You would use the name given. The only problem that could arise is if the current name has changed over time. And only if you used the wrong name according to the time period. But what if the old name isn’t well known? One option is to poll people. Find out on average how many people are aware or have even heard of the old name. If none or very few, notate in the book the first time you mention the current, more well name either in a footnote or a notes section in the back of the book.

Another option is to describe the location in a way that allows the readers to accurately map it out in there mind. Where they could infer the information and connect the dots from old name to new name. This choice might not be a good one if the region is one where country and place names have changed often, or if the targeted audience might not still have real clue. One other option is to create an introduction at the very beginning of the book. This isn’t a prologue. I know there is much debate on prologues, this is you as the author giving your readers information that would be helpful to them. This is a an awesome idea if you are writing a historical fiction or something similar with real places and people.

Now how about created places. How do you name those? The sky is the limit really. You could easily choose something reminiscent of a exsiting place it might resemble. Or you can make something totally new up. There are a lot of name generaters out there, some are random, just click the button and a new name pops up, others ask you to put in key words or words you want to include in the name. All you really have to do to find one you like by searching name generator.

My current series has two issues. Part of it takes place in our reality, our world. Any names I use there are real. But most of it is completely made up. It’s a whole other world, there are multiple countries, even more cities, regions and villages that all needed names. Some were easier than others to name. I used the type of people that resided there as a stepping stone. I used directions as part of a couple names and also features that dominated the area. Two countries are named after the original conqueror. My favorite thing to do was to translate two simple words into other languages. Most were translated into Latin or Welsh, and combine them. When I did this I did not use the translations from the same language.

One other option for these made up places is taking a word and adding an ending from another language. When I was really stuck I did check out a few generators.

Features and Things

So what about land features? Well, no matter how different your made up place is, the features themselves can still use real names. A river in reality is still a river in la-la land. But it would be both strange and confusing for the people in your story to call every river: River. Rivers need names too, as do forests, mountain ranges, oceans, lakes, and you get the point. If it’s mentioned it needs a name.

For land and water features, brainstorming names is similar to that of places. One other option is to use the place it is located as it’s name. Think the Mississippi River.

Things, actual objects or even ideas can get tricky too. Usually if there already is a word for it, it is perfectly okay, and sometimes important for understanding sake, to use the that word. The tricky part comes when it is something that doesn’t exist in reality. Or a variation of something that exists. Most likely you would be describing it in a way that people can visualize or understand what the object or idea is.

Keep in mind the origin of the thing, time period of it’s creation, society of those you use it, and even the people themselves who are referring to it. If there are created languages in your story, and it is specific to that culture, use a word of that created language. The key when giving something a name readers would be clueless to decode is to create a description of the use or purpose of that thing that will clearly explain what it is.

When writing a fantasy or science fiction story, naming people, places, and things can be an honest creative endeavor. There is no limit, old names, new names, made up names, there really aren’t many boundaries.  It can also easily become very frustrating, for both writer and reader. If names are difficult not only to pronounce out loud but also to pronounce in their minds, readers are going to find some other way of processing that name when that character is mentioned.

One last tip, or thing to think about, is when naming anything, consider other names used within the story. If multiple characters have the same or similar names, how are readers going to determine which one is being referred to? But what about family names? Just as in real life, one family may have multiple people with the same name, or a variation of it. One way to keep it easier to determine who is who for readers is to give them a nickname or shortened version of the name. When that isn’t really an option, include a marker, something that can easily identify that character when it might not be easy to determine which one is the focus. This can be a difficult issue when writing historical fiction, especially when real people are involved.

When I get feedback on what I’ve written, I also specifically ask about names. Are they easy enough to read/pronounce, is it clear who is who, or what is what, and so on. I keep a list of back up names, just in case something really is an issue for readers. Don’t be afraid to ask for the feedback givers advice or why something doesn’t work well for them.

 

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