Names are important to us. They are how we identify something or someone and differentiate it in our words from others. They are just as important in literature as in real life as we are often given a name before any kind of description or background.
In literature, names can have an impact on how readers react to the owners of the names. The feeling of the name, its origin, meaning, and the connotations associated with it can all affect a reader’s connection with the character just as much as how the character is written.
For example, would so many readers have been willing to follow Katniss through the Hunger Games if her name had been simpler or traditional? Would so many people have fallen in love with Harry Potter if his name had been aristocratic or complicated?
Now, different authors use different methods for choosing the names they feel are best for their characters. Some might even have different methods for different books, or even within the same one. Some choose by meaning, others by feeling. Some find names in baby naming books, in the phone book, or in the sender field of spam emails, while still others, especially in the fantasy genre, simply make up names, possibly creating origin and meaning as they go.
I used to be one of those authors who would randomly create names, or, more accurately, pull them out of thin air. I had characters named Shylan and Suntia (two different worlds) and other names that I can’t remember without looking through old notes. And if I can’t remember them, albeit 8 years later, how can I expect my readers to?
Unfortunately, once some names are created and used, changing them later just doesn’t feel right. For that reason, my old habit of random creation is still visible in parts of my fantasy novel, Peace of Evon: Missing Heir.
For example, the names of Evon’s five dukes, Seyan Lefas, Kawn Parshen, Peln Sageo, Jem Cosley, and Tern Chanser, all hail from this time. Only Jem’s first name, of all of them, had a specific origin. The king, Ferez Katani, also has a first name that was randomly created, though his last name has a meaning that will be revealed in later books.
My habit of random name creation was “cured” when I took a break from writing Peace of Evon to work on a story called Gates to Calonai. This is a story I plan to publish once I have finished what should be the Peace of Evon trilogy.
In Gates to Calonai, True Names have power, enough that someone can control or change a being if one know that being’s True Name. For this reason, no one uses their True Name, or the name their mother gives them. When I decided to use this concept, I knew I had to find a consistent way for people to choose their (or other people’s) “nicknames”.
This is how I came to reference other languages for names.
Almost every name I use in Gates to Calonai comes from Latin, which is referred to as the Ancient Tongue in the world of Calonai. The only exceptions to this rule are the few friends on Earth the main character nicknames before she learns the Ancient Tongue.
When I switched back over to Peace of Evon, I found myself craving a way to give purpose to the names I gave my characters. At the same time, I decided to define the separate cultures and countries within and around Evon with different languages.
So were born the Fayralese (based on English), Zhulanese (based on German), and Pecalini (based on Spanish) languages.
This, combined with a wonderful Character Naming Book published by Writers Digest, cinched my new technique for naming characters. Now, every character I create in Evon, no matter how small, bears a name that fits both the character (meaning) and that character’s culture (origin).
Therefore, a stubborn Zhulanese man might bear the name Stein (German for “rock”), a female Pecalini Mage Healer could be named Corteza (Spanish for “bark (of a tree)”), and a male Animal Mage from Evon (where the first language is Fayralese) might go by Starbuck.
Other rules that apply to my current technique for Evon include the ideas that mages are often given names referencing their magic and the names of some deities change with the culture. Also, the magical creatures, who do not view separation of the land the way the humans do, will often choose their names from the language that currently holds power, from a language that is old yet still respected, or even from the Fae language (a language I have based on Celtic and that a certain race of elves have attempted to claim as theirs alone).
Yet, even as I expound on character naming, I’d like to acknowledge that characters aren’t the only things in literature affected by the quality of their name. In Peace of Evon, as in many fantasy books, I mention a few things that don’t exist in the real world. For these, I prefer simple, descriptive names: fire willow, desert cat, Twin Moon Blades.
The last is actually a Fayralese name for Zhulanese weapons called Scharfmonde, literally meaning Sharp Moons. The weapons are single blades that curve from a straight handle up over the knuckles, providing an image of crescent moons. The Fayralese name is also a reference both to the fact that they are often used as a pair, one in each hand, and to the Gemini moons, a pair of moons that circle the world to which Evon belongs.
Finally, place names are just as important as everything else. Amusingly enough though, my decisions on place names run the gamut of most of the techniques I use. Several names, especially those of the countries, hail from my time of random name creation. Most city names, especially throughout Kensy, find their origin in the languages of their area.
Yet, still others, like the named places on the Spiritual Plane, bear simple descriptors: Carith’s Workshop (where souls are created), Land of Free Souls (where mortal souls spend eternity after they’ve been removed from the Cycle of Incarnation), and the Tapestry Room (where the Fates weave the Tapestry of Mortal Life).
Now, I don’t know if names are as important to other authors as I feel they are (or even if others find them more important), but I think most understand, whether intuitively or by learning, that, sometimes, you just need a good fit, or the story won’t work out quite the way you want it to.