|A friend of mine recently asked me for some advice on naming characters. I’m a lot older then he is and as a long time comic book and science-fiction and fantasy fan, he thought I might have something to say on the subject. Certainly, in the old days, names like Peter Parker and Clarke Kent were all the rage. Lana Lang and Lois Lane were both Superman’s girlfriends, creating some confusion for the less informed. Alliteration is always amongst the first examples of how not to name your characters but I have some thoughts of my own on how to name your characters.
The crux of my advice when naming characters is to have a hierarchy. And have consistency within that heirarchy.
To break it down further, the top teir in the heirarchy should always be The Genre. Fantasy names are different to science fiction names, but also romance names should be different to thriller names. As I deal mainly in fantasy, and chances are, so do you, let’s concentrate on fantasy, with a little bit of reality thrown in.
The next tier in our heirarchy is Their Culture. Their Culture means consistency in naming characters according to the culture they belong to. This can be country, county, or in the case of Gods: pantheon. Barbarian gods would all have a similar scheme, but, this would be a different scheme to civilized gods, who would all be named similar to each other, being from their own scheme. Don’t throw in any Ba’al’s with your Ebon Moonshadows.
The third tier in our heirarchy is linked to culture as well. It is Our Culture. What culture in our real world does your character’s culture mirror or resemble the most? Best selling fantasy author Sara Douglass, while admitting she struggled with character names for her first series, says, "Whenever I start a new world now, I go to one reference book for the culture that I'm basing my world on (for instance, one of my favourites is The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible) and take the names from that, or at least develop them from that."
Last is peculiarities. Or peccadillos. Things like shortening of names, nicknames etc. In the case of my friend, he has one character from the future and another character from the past. They both exist in a fantasy setting, so no Kris Starblazers fighting alongside Christopher Longmuscles. I told him to look at names from our future and our past. Chris used to be Christopher and is even Topher now. My friends character from the future might have a longer name, or be known by a shorter name but his character from the past and his contemporaries could all have one name that is not usually shortened or lengthened. A simple consistancy like that, through the names of his characters, would mark the differences between the two timestreams.
In the old days, the go-to source for naming patterns was superheroes. These days it could be athletes. Browse the rookie list of any league and you will see a pattern in naming emerge. Campbell Brown. Tom Bellchambers. If you want your characters names to standout, but without jarring the reader, a nice simple rule is to couple a fancy first name with a simple last name or a simple first name with a fancy last name. It worked for the parents of future super-athletes, so it should work for you as a future super-author.