Tips on Creating Names - The Art of World Building
Jul 222021
 
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Making any aspect of our work challenging for the audience can kill enthusiasm and conversation about it, and this includes names. This issue can manifest in several ways, each with its own solution.

Keep it Short

Long names tend to be harder to read, remember, spell, and pronounce than shorter ones. This includes too many names, or syllables within a name.

More than three names may be excessive. In English speaking countries, we typically use just the first name, the surname only when being formal, or both when introducing someone. The middle name is almost never used unless it is part of a stage name or someone goes by that instead of the first name. We can invent something different, and other cultures have already done so, but the point is that we seldom use more than this. We can invent a long name like Liminera Solto Ariso Nubien Arta Astol Munir, but few people want to see that more than once.

Names with too many syllables are hard, too. Four syllables is considered long but not unwieldy. Exceed this infrequently (once a story). Strive for between one and three syllables much of the time.

With long names, such as Limineraslyvarisnia, people tend to skip much of it rather than working it out as we did when inventing it. In actual usage, such names get shortened anyway, such as to Limi or maybe Nera. It can still be advantageous to invent such a lengthy one to create a sense of cultural differences, but we’ll want to use the long version once or twice, such as when introducing the character in narration, or at a formal ceremony.

In addition, sometimes parents or other authority figures will use the long version when expressing disapproval or affection. By contrast, the short version can be a show of familiarity, whether that’s appropriate or not. If we want to use this device in a story, maybe we should still use the short version in narration (implying this is how the character thinks of themselves) and only put the full name in another character’s mouth.

When writing content such as a summary or book blurb, use the version that easiest to absorb. The long version could give the impression we’ll be doing that all the time and possibly turn off a potential reader. However, using first and last name can be good if the combination sounds very cool and gives a hint about their character or type, such as Talon Stormbringer, the name of my all-purpose fantasy action hero.

Keep it Simple (Apostrophes and Hyphens)

People are drawn to simpler things, and that includes names. World builders can easily create a sense of somewhere different from Earth (or another culture in our invented world) with unusual naming conventions, but some approaches can be overused or otherwise annoy readers. This includes too many consonants, hyphens, or apostrophes. One of these per name is better than several, even if spread across a character’s given and surnames.

One problem with too many consonants together, like Ghlnalenkm, is the difficulty in pronouncing it. Some readers may find this easier than others due to similar occurrences in their language, but others won’t and something as simple as a name shouldn’t be a point of consternation for our audience. In the case of Ghlnalenkm, the “h” adds no value. We could also surmise that there’s a vowel somewhere in the start, such as “Gal” or “Glen,” producing Ghalnalenkm or Ghlenalenkm. Why not just write them that way ? Or get rid of the “h” and get Galnalenkm or Glenalenkm.

Hyphens are used to connect two words, like Smith-Davies when a married woman wants to keep her surname when taking her husband’s surname, too. While the culture might use hyphens, that doesn’t mean we need to show it to our reader all the time. In the above case, maybe mention Smith-Davies and then reduce it to Smith for the rest of the work. We can write something like, “She went by Smith instead of her legal name, Smith-Davies, out of laziness, but never in the presence of her husband, who’d been known to arch an eyebrow when she didn’t add his Davies.” This smoothly gets in some characterization and tension while doing some housekeeping exposition.

Why is an apostrophe used? It takes the place of an omitted letter, or potentially several them. This justification reveals how truly optional this is – and therefore how easy it is to avoid. Do we really need to replace a letter? What’s wrong with it?

Before doing this, decide what letter is being omitted and whether it seems better that way. Fantasy writers have been using (abusing?) apostrophes for a long time, and this is precisely why many people loathe it. A quick Google search will reveal a heaping of scornful posts about this. Do we want our audience rolling their eyes? That’s contempt for us, so probably not.

To avoid that reaction, we should have a justification for it, though the obvious problem with this is the need to explain it. However, a single sentence can do. What justification do we need? Making a long name shorter by replacing letters with an apostrophe is a good one. We can replace Smith-Davies with S’Davies; that’s an awkward example because it sounds bad, but you get the idea. We can explain, “Recruits were called Marmillionor partly to haze them with the unwieldly mouthful that had produced widespread derision for eons, and which shortened to M’ionor upon graduation.”

An apostrophe is also used for a contraction, such as “can’t” instead of “cannot.” The main issue we face is that people won’t understand what we’re contracting unless we explain it, so it looks random. We can get around this with some characterization: “He’d been a wizard of the Marmili Order before becoming one of the famed knights of Ionor, and while the combination was rare, the title of M’Ionor struck awe into everyone but the surly guard barring his way.” Note how in this case the “I” is capitalized due this resulting from two titles being combined, unlike the previous example, where letters within a single word were omitted. This could be written Mionor, but the significance of two merged titles is then lost, though many won’t realize this detail.

We may want to use the apostrophe to suggest pronunciation. This often happens when several adjacent vowels should be sounded apart rather than as one. For example, the word “Tourten” is likely read as two syllables (“TOR-ten”), but writing it as “To’Urten” makes it three (“tow-UR-ten”). We could further decide that the first two letters are short for “Torni,” for example; this means “To’Urten” is short for “Torni Urten.”

The one thing we don’t want to do with apostrophes is have no reason for using one (or giving the appearance of this). Making a name sound like a fantasy one by including a senseless apostrophe is not a reason. It is the most loathed justification and considered shallow. Even when we have a good reason, we should use them sparingly. “All things in moderation.”

The Issue of Similarities

There’s an idea that an author should avoid having two characters whose names start with the same letter, such as Adam and Aiden, in the same story. The reason is that people often don’t read very carefully and mostly notice the first letter, especially if the names are also roughly the same length. In misreading it, they can think a different character is saying or doing something, causing confusion.

The same principle can be extended to naming places or things in a given work. Don’t name one place Newall and another one Norall; in this case I’ve also made the ending the same to illustrate this point. A variety is easier to accomplish if we’re world building to tell a specific story, because we can invent the names just for that story, but if creating a world for general and repeated use, we do run the risk of inventing two places that appear in the same tale sooner or later. While not a guideline to obsess over, the trick here is to not name adjacent places too similarly, as they’re the one most likely to be visited within a single story.

Sound

A name’s sound matters more in mediums where people will say it, but authors should still think about the impression it creates and how easy it is to say. Be sure to say your invented words aloud. This tells us much about how feasible it is and whether other characters are likely to use the full term or shorten it. If we’re struggling to pronounce it, that’s a bad sign. Don’t worry if your audience doesn’t say it right, as it’s bound to happen for even mono-syllable words. If accuracy really matters to you, we have the option of providing a pronunciation guide on the book’s website. This can take the form of a short audio file of ourselves saying the name. Modern technology makes it very easy to produce such recordings.

Appearance

Books aren’t really considered a visual medium, but the look of a word matters for style. While we can’t read elvish, Tolkien’s flowing script creates a smooth impression, while many hard consonants can suggest brutality and coarseness. Adding silent letters can change appearance while not interfering with pronunciation. We may want to use certain letters within one culture, such as always using a k instead of a c, or replacing i with y. For example, Lonnieri vs. Lonnyery. Letter combinations can also be frequently repeated, such as “ier” as in the names Kier, Lonnieri, and Raediera.

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