Word and language creation can be one of the joys of world building. However, they can also be one of the biggest black holes standing in the way of a writer and completing their goals.
Wait, but wasn’t the great J. R. R. Tolkien inspired by the creation of his languages Quenya and Sindarin to write the classic The Lord of the Rings?
True. But here are some other details about Tolkien:
1.) He was a professor with a deep interest in philology (historical linguistics/literary criticism).
2.) He never finished Quenya or Sindarin.
3.) His busy schedule (and the tiny event known as World War II) meant that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t finished until twelve years after he started it.
History lesson over. The point is, we all have busy schedules, writing time is at a premium. If you want to go ahead and create an in-depth language (or languages) for your story world, far be it for me to stop you.
In the meantime, you’re writing a story. With nouns: people, places, and things. And nouns need awesome names. Sometimes names are intuitively easy. Characters come right to you, full of themselves and ready to play ball. At other times, those characters end up dubbed MC (main character) or BB (Big Bad) for half the draft. The same thing can be true for locations and the names of specific objects. As much as I like to say “story before everything else,” it can get really annoying to lack an important name when drafting. So here are a few tips and tricks to try if you’re in need of a new name.
Note: the following does involve pillaging and stealing from other languages. But you and I speak English, the language that has shamelessly stolen from other languages for hundreds of years. So let’s continue the proud tradition, in order that we might get content onto page.
Choose Your Language
Do a little research online and listen to different languages. Which one seems to fit your culture? Are they more warlike? Perhaps choose a language with hard, guttural sounds. More genteel? Perhaps a more soft-sounding language with lots of /L/ and /sh/ sounds. Or play against type and pair an aggressive race with a sweet, musical language. Feel free to use these sounds as a basis in your name creation.
Choose Your Meaning
Do you want or need your character’s name to mean something in particular? Sometimes searching those meanings in different languages can yield results. Do a little creative spelling mix-up, and you have a good name.
Change Up Letters
Find a name that sounds adequate, then shift around the letters to make it pop. “Valerie” sounds good, but not quite right? Try Valerine. Valeriel. Valeros. Avlerie. Malerine. Valyrie. Keep playing with beginning and ending sounds until you get something you like. Just beware that if you get too creative, the name can come off as trying too hard, or just be difficult for the reader to process.
Known to Unknown
You’re writing to an English-speaking audience, and there are certain sounds people naturally associate with certain concepts, locations, or objects. Whenever possible, work with this flow rather than against it. Don’t be afraid to make things a bit obvious.
One very easy known-to-unknown trick is simply playing around with an existing English word. For example, a story has a race that lives in underground catacombs and crypts. With a little adjustment, the word “crypt” becomes “Cryptaro.” Since the reader can process the name quickly, they are mentally prepared to dive into that race. If you want something a little less obvious, try going to one of the root languages of English. Use an online translator to find that word in the other language, and then change up the letters from there. Extra bonus points if you pick through Latin, Greek, or Anglo-Saxon!
Whether you use one of the above or one of your own methods, here’s a short litmus test to help you avoid the worst naming woes.
Name Litmus Test
1.) Can the reader pronounce the name? Readers will forgive a lot, and they aren’t necessarily reading the book aloud–but then again, they might! Do you really want them to be processing your overly-complicated name as “blah” or some other space filler?
2.) Does the name sound like any other words in the story? Make it intentional. Some readers are going to read into it anyway. You might as well work with this. Otherwise, try to switch things up. One of my downfalls is a love for names beginning in “a” or “t” or “l” –and I’ve had kind friends point out when too many characters have names that start with one of these letters.
3.) Is the name longer than five syllables? If so, I humbly ask that you reconsider. High fantasy epics are particularly prone to extra-long names of Significance and Meaning and Purpose. But we live in a time of brevity. The Sacred Scroll of Gysonithwiella could just as easily be Gysonith or even Gyson, and as long as the plot is good, the reader will not know the difference.
4.) Does the name rhyme? Refer to rule two. If names rhyme, it should be intentional. Andrew Peterson did this well in his Wingfeather books with the “Fangs of Dang.” Memorable, whimsical, and evocative. Just be aware that rhyming can come off as humorous (think Dr. Seuss).