Monday, August 8, 2011

The 7 Secrets to Naming Characters, Races, and Places for Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror Fiction Writers

The Problem
It’s common for writers of speculative fiction to find themselves stalled in their writing or editing while they try to find the perfect name for a new race, place, dimension, species, currency, or object or for a humanoid or non-humanoid character. When a baby name book or website just won’t do, what do you do?
The Solution
I’m providing my 7 secrets to naming people, places, and things that I use when I write speculative fiction. Many of these tips will not immediately provide the perfect name, but they will get you thinking and get you creating and generating names. Somewhere in the process of using these techniques, the naming block will be cleared from your mind and the perfect name will come to you.

Before I can tell you my secrets, I’ll need to set up the tools that you need in order to use my techniques. And, since some of the techniques result in rather raw results, I’ll need to describe ways to massage your initial results into usable names.

Tools Required
You will need to generate random names and/or words in order to use these techniques. To do this, use a physical book and randomly select words from it using your finger or other pointing device (with your eyes closed during the selection process). Otherwise, find an online version of the same resource with a random selection generator. Depending on the technique(s) that you select below, you will need either a print or electronic version of a baby name book, atlas, dictionary, novel, non-fiction book, textbooks and/or other written material.

Also, the stuff around your house, in stores, or in photographs is useful for generating word lists. Lastly, you can generate words by asking someone to give you a word list without telling them why you need the words (e.g. “Tell me the first six objects that come to your mind” or “Name a color, an animal, an emotion, and a place”).

General Tips for Using these Techniques
Before you get started you should realize that the results will be in a raw state. To make them work better, you will usually need to massage the results a bit. Some massage techniques include
  1. Adding letters. The vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and y as either a consonant or vowel are particularly useful.
  2. Substituting vowels and ‘y’ for existing vowels or consonants.
  3. Substituting letters or letter combinations with a similar sound, but a better look.
  4. Using a hyphen ‘-‘ or an apostrophe (‘) to make the word look exotic and to indicate breaks and stress in pronunciation (Baha-Ra, Ba’hara). To seem even more exotic to readers of English, use vowels with diacritical marks, but be sure that you are aware of how that effects the pronunciation.
  5. Tweaking the order of letters after you have applied the main technique. (Bja = Baj, Hna = Han, etc.)
Focus on the sounds of letter combinations rather than the actual letters and don’t forget to write in the incidental vowel sounds that we have to make in order to combine some letters together (John = Jahan, Johaan, Johin, Johun, Ja’han, Juhan, etc.)

Also, some of these techniques are naturally better for races, places, and object than they are for character names. It’s odd, but there seems to be a slight correlation between the source of the word(s) and the applicability of the end result. If you use place names, the result will often sound like a place. If you use object names, the result will often sound like an object. However, you can sometimes massage these results into something that sounds more like a character name.

Finally, make sure that the name you like is pronounceable to the average reader, that it’s short enough to not seem overwhelming to the reader, that it doesn’t mean anything in another language that you wouldn’t want it to mean, and that it is not a trademarked word. Do a search to see if the name you created already exists. If the word exists, find out what it refers to, and if necessary, use an online translation engine to see what it means.

The 7 Secret Techniques
At last, it’s time for me to reveal the techniques that I use for creating speculative fiction names. I’ve also left the example results in rather raw states so that you can see what you’ll end up with before you do much massaging.
  1. Use a baby name resource to find a name, but reverse the letters of the name that you select. If you are into the meaning of names, you may or may not want to assume that you reverse the meaning when you reverse the letters. Derek = Kered = Kyrad, Kahred, etc. John = Nhoj = Nahaj, Nyho, Na’haj, Na’joh, Na’hajo, etc. Arthur = Ruthra = Rythara, Ra’Athra,
  2. Select two names from a baby name resource and meld them together. John + Arthur = Joarth, Jarthon, Artajo, Atohn, Jothur, Jart, Arjo, Nartor, Rohn, Rohaan, Uroh, etc. 
  3. Using mostly adjectives, write a short (2-5) word description of the character and then take the first 1-3 letters of each word and combine them together. Demonic red flying shadow creatures = drefshacre, cresharef, demfre, deflyre, shafcre, etc. These usually end up sounding rather like nonsense, but can be massaged into Creshay, Defalya, Shacra-Du, D’Emafra, etc.
  4. Take a common word and massage it beyond easy recognition. Shared = Shaareid Eaten = Eyatten Dog = Doa-yag (of course you wouldn’t want to use this for a dog-like creature or it would be too obvious). Or do the same with a common name Derek = Deyrak, De’Arek, Dyrk, etc. John = Ja’haan, Johyn, Jaun, etc. Arthur = Aytur, Arythe, A’hyor, Ataru, etc.
  5. Using an atlas or a map, select random city or street names and do the same as number 3. Elm Park Donaldson Sahara = Elpadosah, paeldosah, sahdopael, padosael, etc. Massage to Sael Pado, Elapadu, Sa’hado,etc.
  6. Select random objects from your house, a store, a photograph, or words from a book and do the same as number 3. (Or just generate a list of random words and apply step 3.) Notebook, pencil, fan, computer desk = nopefacode, penofacoda, fanodepenco, cofanopede, depefanoco, etc. Massage to Fasoden, Cofano Pedo, Anopede, Odape, Cyfano, Cyphedo, Copado, Faynoco, Dyphen, Denoco, etc.
  7. Cut note cards into small rectangles or squares. Write one syllable on each small card from a random list of words. Add more small cards with short letter combinations that have sounds that you like (saa, aan, du, eya, du’a, etc.) that didn’t make it into the initial mix. You should have at least 40 or 50 of these cards when you are done. The more of them you have, the better your selection will be for generating multiple unique names. Place all of these cards into a bag, bowl, or jar. With your eyes closed, select 4-6 of these cards. Now, try to arrange all or some of them into a good sounding name. Don’t forget to massage the raw results. And don’t be afraid to toss a card back and get a different one to replace it.
Final Notes
You can also modify technique 3 so that you are using groups of letters from the middle or end of the words. Or just take 1-3 letters from random places in the words on your list. It’s sort of a game more than a specific technique.

I hope this has helped you get over the hurdle of your writer’s block caused by inability to find the perfect name.

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