A common question for new writers is where do you get your character names? You wouldn’t think that was much of a problem, but a lot of stories are populated by the all-too-common John’s and Mary’s. Jumping to the other extreme, we run into some tales filled with Xg’hanpl and Krnozj and other disemvoweled words. Where do you find that balance of uncommon but pronounceable?

For human names, I’ve got a few easy sources that should be in every writer’s toolkit. The first is a baby name book, segmented by ethnicity. That lets me choose a Polynesian name for the traveler from afar while sticking with German names for the locals.

whitepagesThe second reference is the phone book. This is mostly useful for last names, as I’d like to avoid Mr. Smith as well as Mrs. Gnorpthrk. However, it’s sometimes tricky to pick out an ethnically appropriate last name from the phone book, but some googling for “Polynesian surnames” or the likes will get you a lot.

A third resource I have used on occasion is the name of a journalist or famous celebrity that I happen to find in a newspaper or online article. No, I haven’t had a Walter Cronkite or a Brad Pitt in any of my stories, but I could easily use a Walter Pitt or a Brad Cronkite.

For alien or fantasy names, it’s a bit trickier, even though it need not be. There are certain names that are common across cultures here on earth simply because they are straightforward combinations of common phonemes. John is a common name for a reason. It’s easy to say. However, we usually see John dressed up differently in each culture. For some, it’s Jonathan. For others, it’s Ionakana or Joanico.

If you want to go more alien, just play around with slight variations like Johen or Jorn. Then you can completely divorce yourself from even the J-O-N form of John and start dropping in other sounds, like Sohn, Boen, Johl, or even Kaem. You can do the same to longer names too. Karen becomes Bashel. Walter becomes Salken. Even Catherine becomes Toshiline. They all look unusual, but they’re still phonetically plain enough to be easy to pronounce.

twistedtongueAnd why should it matter that they’re pronounceable? After all, aren’t some alien mouths capable of making sounds we can’t even strangle out? Well yes, they can, but that’s not the point. The point is the readers have to care about these characters, and it makes it that much easier if their names can ring in the readers’ ears. Otherwise, the tragic love story of Xgrthum and Nzkla becomes that sappy tale about that X-dude and the N-chick on the distant world of I-don’t-give-a-crap.

How about the rest of you? What alien name has really stuck with you?

4 thoughts on “Names

  1. I’m also annoyed by unpronounceable names, in spite of my fondness for Elric stuff. 🙂 (I think Moorcock is doing it ironically though, so does that count?)

    At any rate, one set of names that stuck with me in a very negative way were Mary Gentle’s “Grunts!” Orc names. Now I realize this book is a comedy (though not the sort of comedy that works for me), and the majority of people reading the book would not have my reaction, but she used a ton of Sumerian names for her Orcs. (Ereshkegal, Ninurta, that sort of thing.) It was as jarring to me as having a race of pacifistic elves named things like Attila, Gengis, Adolf, etc. I don’t think she meant it “ironically” though, since Sumerian names and culture aren’t really household topics of discussion in most houses.

    Your point about not giving unpronounceable name to characters you are supposed to care about is well made. Every author should attempt to read their sentences aloud and see if their names can be pronounced. (I personally think that all text should be read aloud as an editing step, but sometimes I think I’m alone on that point.)

    • I read “Grunts!” and had a similar reaction to the names.

      Actually, I should clarify and say I read the first half of the book. Then I gave up, because it was the least funny “comedy” I’d ever read, and I just couldn’t buy into the story or any of the characters.

      • I read “Grunts” as well and also had a bad reaction, but it had nothing to do with the names. I honestly can’t even remember much about the names.

        As it turns out, I started at the beginning of November 2000, just before the Bush-Gore election. As you may recall, there was something about a fixed election in the books plotline, and as the uncertainty and vitriol grew in our political world, that particular plotline not only stopped being even remotely funny, but it began to seem in very poor taste.

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