Creating Unique Names - The Art of World Building
Jul 152021

Inventing a name that no one else is using appeals to both world builders and our audience. But it’s possible to invent a name that’s already in use without realizing it, and we can always claim this excuse, partly because it’s unrealistic for us to know every name ever used by every creative person in history. The odds of any author coming up with a name no one has ever done before, or ever will again, are slim. Even so, we should try, because uniqueness prevents confusion and a reader associating the name with something that’s already familiar. We often hope that a character, place, or thing we’ve invented becomes famous; a distinctive and cool name helps this. It’s worth noting that combining familiar words helps audiences absorb them quickly. The example in the previous “Compound Names” section demonstrate this.

Sometimes people who have multiple names become known by just one, like Cher, Bono, and Sting. They are said to be mononymous. But it’s far easier to create a unique name by combining words (for places) or given and surnames (for people). There are far more Lukes than there are Luke Skywalkers. There’s only one Han Solo. Only one Princess Leia, who could almost be considered mononymous in that she’s got a title and one name; it’s not clear in the films whether Leia is her given or surname (it’s her given; her surname is Organa even though her family name could also be Skywalker were it not for adoption).

When inventing a name, don’t worry if you invent a word that, as it turns out, already exists, even if you’re naming a plant, animal, or species instead of a character. It’s not ideal but also not a big deal. There are countless words in English that have two meanings and there’s no reason yours can’t become meaning number two. On the other hand, if you find that the word exists and is objectionable in some way, or easily confused with what you’re doing, you might change it in one of the ways mentioned in this chapter.

As a case in point, I used “drek” long ago only to later learn that it means “shit” in German. Go ahead and laugh. I did. And then I stopped using that. It pays to Google any word you invent. Ignorance can be bliss until someone in the know sends you an email and you cringe. As “drek” illustrates, a word that doesn’t exist in English may exist in another language.

It can become an exercise in futility trying to avoid every last word, so don’t worry too much. I once invented “kryll” for one of my Llurien species only to discover many years later that “krill” are a type of marine life. I decided I don’t care partly because I spell it differently and few people are going to know that word. And if they do, they know krill are a small crustacean whereas my kryll live on land, meaning there’s little reason to confuse one with the other. Nonetheless, a beta-reader once pointed it out with “LOL! Why are you naming this after tiny fish!?!”

A more recent incident brings up another problem: someone far more prominent than you can invent a similar name long after you did. In this case, Seth MacFarlane’s show, The Orville, also has humanoids called krill. I still frown every time I hear it, but I’m not changing a name I’ve been using since 1991 because Seth used a similar one starting in 2017. I know some people will ask why I stole Seth’s name instead of using one of my own, criticizing my lack of originality and even claiming I’m a Seth fanboy. On the plus side, I published The Ever Fiend in 2016 featuring a kryll, so I have proof I used it first. Still, I wonder why Seth named his humanoids after tiny fish!


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