Being a fantasy reader and writer, names are extremely important to me. When browsing the bookshelf, people read the summary of a book and already make judgments on based on a 150 word blurb. And what’s the first thing they learn about your book? The character’s name. Readers make judgments based on names, particularly in fantasy novels.
So here’s some friendly reminders for when you need a name.
Make sure it’s pronounceable. Please, please, please, please, please, check this at least ten times. There are some names that are straightforward like Bilbo Baggins. But then there are some crazy names like M’aiq. Just how do you pronounce that? I can come up with four pronunciations off the top of my head. If you’re unsure if your name is easily pronounceable, write it down on a piece of paper and ask people to say it for you. If more people get it wrong than right, it might be wise to consider a change of spelling, or changing the name completely.
Names with apostrophes and dashes are annoying. Done correctly, having names like the aforementioned M’aiq or Gulum-Ei can work well if they come from a culture that commonly uses names like that. But if tossed around randomly, they are annoying and look stupid.
Be consistent with the names. This ties into a point made above. If you have two different species that were formed on opposite sides of the world and all the names sound interchangeable between them, it looks like bad writing and worldbuilding. If you have some sort of theme in your names, make sure it’s easily noticeable.
Avoid the obvious names. Most of you have been in this spot. You’re reading Harry Potter for the first time, and Harry is off on his way to Hogwarts and he’s just met Ron and they’re hitting it off, and then this kid named Draco Malfoy comes up and starts to talk to him. You know instantly that Draco is going to be a little shit just because of his name. Similarly, you know Bellatrix Lestrange and Lord Voldemort are evil and you know Luna Lovegood is good without needing any other evidence than their names.
Follow the Pokémon rule. Shannah McGill coined probably one of my favorite rules for naming ever. The Pokémon Rule. In the games, you have only ten characters to give your Pokémon a name. This keeps the names from getting too long, and in fantasy, having long names can be a huge problem.
Don’t get weird with the spellings. I’m not a big fan of using real names in fantasy novels, but I don’t mind them too much. What I do mind is when someone wants to name their character Jennifer but they spell it Ginnafur to make it fit the fantasy setting. If you’re going to use a real name, use it. Don’t slaughter the spelling.
If it’s suitable for a porn star, it’s probably not for your character. Common names used by porn stars are any gem stones, Disney princesses, Candy, Angel, Roxy (with as many Xs as you think is appropriate), or basically anything listed in this infographic.
Be consistent with the names. Yes, this is down here, too. I touched in this briefly in my How to Avoid Mary Sues post. If all your supporting characters have names like John and Bill or Rachel and Liz, don’t give your protagonist a name like Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way. It sticks out and rather than sound cool, all it will do is make readers laugh at you.
Check your character’s initials. Bella Swan, while bearing a name fitting of a porn star, also has to go around with the initials BS. No one wants that.
Make sure all of your characters have different sounding names. I wanted to kill George RR Martin when he decided to have two characters running around named Jon and two named Robert. But just as confusing is when you have two characters named Jane and Joan. It makes it hard for readers to remember which is which. Try to spread your characters out evenly along the alphabet. If possible, only have one character for each name. But if you start having repeats, try to make them sound very different, like Caroline and Chell.
If you’re writing historical fiction, make sure your name isn’t out of place. For a story about a young woman in New York during the 1920s, Millie is a perfectly acceptable name. Addison is not. There are plenty of resources on Google that have information from censuses to help you pick out an appropriate name for the era you’re writing.
Lastly and most importantly:
GOOGLE THE NAME. I don’t care if it’s fantasy or real, always Google your names. You might think Ian McKellen is a fantastic name for your character now, but you won’t once you realize it’s already the name of an extremely famous actor.