July 2023
Alan Dean Foster

Name of a Name

How do you come up with the names for your characters?” That’s a simple question whose answer is often more complex than people think. The key to inventing names is the same as the key to everything one writes: maintaining the internal logic. This applies to made-up names as much as it does to plot, atmosphere, action, and everything else in a story.

For example: if your characters are all from the same geographical background, it can be confusing for the reader if they are named Philippe, Marcel, Angelique, and Xin Hua. If a writer is going to do that, then it behooves them to explain how someone named Xin Hua ended up in the company of three Frenchies. Of course, if the story is set in the US, then any and all ethnic and geographical namings are legitimate. But the writer would still benefit from explaining the disparity.

If the story is set in New York, then there’s no problem naming the characters Philippe, Douglas, M’baku, and Rostenkowski. See the power of names? Without knowing anything about the story, doesn’t that lineup immediately sound more interesting than Mark, Ed, John, and Nick?

Science-fictional and fantasy namings are no different, but offer greater opportunities to be inventive — as long as you maintain the internal logic. My best-known character is a young man named Flinx. Seems entirely made up, except it’s not. His real name is Philip Lynx, but the contraction, Flinx, is much more interesting and memorable. Further, in his fictional universe, “lynx” is a disparaging colloquial term for a middle- to upper-class prostitute. So simply through his name, we learn several things about the character.

A Thranx by any other name would smell as bad.

Alien names offer even more opportunities for innovation. In the same universe as Flinx there exists a race of intelligent insectoids called the Thranx. It would be a simple matter to throw weird combinations of letters around and call them Thranx names. But why waste the opportunity? Why not make something of alien nomenclature? Good writers never waste such opportunities.

Every Thranx name is composed of four syllables. Take Truzenzuzex. “Tru” is the character’s personal name, “Zen” the family name, “Zu” the clan name, and “Zex” the name of the hive from which he comes. Sylzenzuzex, therefore, would immediately be recognized as a relative. Whereas Partenroset would not even qualify as a distant relative.

Take another species. If one is called “T’parl,” then it would make sense (and maintain the internal logic) to call a couple of other members of the same race names like “S’baln” or “A’qulm”. Notice that in addition to the names having a first letter followed by an apostrophe, each capital letter is followed by four letters only. So “C’wento” doesn’t work. Unless you find a way to justify it and maintain logic.

The names of another species, the reptilian Aann, instantly signify status. A proper name will be followed by a number of capital letters. The fewer the letters, the higher the status and the more important the individual.

All of this is fun to play with, but it isn’t anything new. As a philologist, Tolkien understood that orcs and elves, Uruk-hai and humans had to have names that were individualistic, yet consistent with their kind. The same is true of any good fantasy, science fiction, or contemporary fiction.

When I was reading science fiction as a youngster, it never occurred to me that most if not all the names of the characters sounded like they came from Topeka. Then I found the work of Poul Anderson. Poul’s humans came from every possible ethnic background, one of my favorite characters of his being Nicholas van Rijn. I had to look up where “van Rijn” came from. It greatly broadened my understanding of character, and when I started writing I did the same as Poul. The diversity of names carried over to those assigned to aliens. For more examples, note the names in Dune.

Having trouble coming up with names? Here’s a quick trick I discovered when I was having the same problem (with humans; alien names were easier for me). Assuming you want more diversity in your character names than, say, Bob Edwards and Elaine Smith.

Find a map of anywhere. One with good detail. Let’s use Iowa. Find the names of two small towns or features. Combine them. Lo and behold, you have names like Creston Lennox, Alison Rockwell, Peterson Quimby, and so on. Free, easy, and sounds natural.

Setting a story in Morocco? How about Beni Tagmout, Oulad Tamanar, and Jbel Tamanud. “Jbel” means ‘mountain,’ so you can apply that to a big guy and ….

See how much fun that is? Just be sure to maintain internal consistency, be your characters human, alien or fantasy-derived.

Occasionally you come across names of real people that as a writer you’d desperately like to use, but because they are just that, real, you have to avoid them. When I was in high school there was a top basketball player named Appleyes Ford. Loved the name; can’t use it. Life is full of such examples. I think my favorite appeared when I was watching BBC news this morning. The anchor was talking to an attractive correspondent who was with a refugee agency or the diplomatic service or some such about the situation in Sudan. As is common with TV reports, the name of the non-anchor was displayed at the bottom of the screen. Because of that I couldn’t quite take the correspondent seriously. I keep seeing her with sword and shield instead of laptop and phone. Her name?

Opheera McDoom.

I am not making this one up (which is okay, because I make up plenty of others).

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.