Thursday, August 19, 2010


A dear friend recently linked me a trailer for the third season of the Star Wars cartoon series The Clone Wars. She asked me to see if I could guess where she'd stopped enjoying it. So I watched, and the whole thing seemed to be going pretty well: space ships, lightsaber fights. There was corny dialogue, but nothing too embarrassing... That is, until they introduced their new bad guy for the season.

His name was Savage Oppress.

No, really. I checked, just to make sure our ears were all right.

I watched a few episodes last season because they had a particularly cool bad guy... but even he had the unfortunate name of Cad Bane. I guess maybe they were worried that people would forget who to cheer for.

Anyway, this got me thinking about names today. Names aren't an afterthought. Most of how an audience imagines a story is guided by hints, rather than full blown descriptions. A name is a subtle but powerful way of helping people picture what you want to convey. For instance, picture someone named Melvin. Maybe Herbert or Bartholomew.

Go on, do it.

It's different than naming someone maybe Gregor or Jason, which is different than going for Ezekiel or Jedediah. All these names have baggage attached, cultural expectations we mostly share if we're from the same time and place.

They're like a spice: used lightly, they enhance your work. If you overdo it, your audience won't notice anything else. The parts you've gotten right will be drowned in it.

More than that, inconsistent naming conventions can hurt a story, pulling a reader out of the moment and straining their suspension of disbelief. A town that produces both 'Joe Smith' and 'Ilana the Grey, Slayer of the Moon-Beast' strains credulity without a very good explanation.

The trouble is, names are also hard. Most people, myself included, aren't very good at coming up with names on the spot. There's nothing magical about this deficiency, it's just not something that most of us do very often.

This is where research helps. There are tons of resources out there, if you look. I thought I'd share some with all of you, in case anybody else was toying with writing.

Behind the Name: This one is first names only, but it's really neat in that it lets you search for names by meaning. So if you want a name for a girl that means lucky, it would return a list like this.

The Random Name Generator: This one generates lists of first and last names. The gimmick here is that you can decide how obscure you would like the names to be, based on how many people had that name according to US Census Bureau data. The down side is that the generator doesn't match the ethnicity of the first name to the last name, so you can get silly results like "Conchita Keobaunleuang." I fix that by mixing and matching.

Of course, the subject of culture and names, we come to:

The Onomastikon: An enormous list of names from various cultures, often with meanings included. I use this a couple of different ways. First, I love it for significant characters because it's fun to browse through.

Second, I like to give all the members of a fictional culture names from a single Earth culture to offer a little cohesion to their descriptions - a simple, unobtrusive shorthand. (I also really like Assyrian ones for things that need to feel ancient and mysterious. Those guys knew how to sound awesome.)

The only down side is that some of the links in the Onomastikon are broken, and were like that when I first stumbled across it.

Of course, sometimes stuff shouldn't sound like anything you'd find on Earth at all. For that, there's this:

Fantasy Name Generator: This is a very flexible random name generator. I leaned on this one heavily, the last time I actually ran a game of D&D. A lot of the results are noise, but there's generally a handful of really fun entries per page. It's also good in that it can easily be used for places as well. Almost all the names in Ton-Vorash, including the titular city, came from this generator.

And, finally, I have one dedicated to place names now. I really have a hard time with those. It's:

Serendipity: This one isn't so different from the one right above it, just specifically intended for places.

I think that's it for today. I'm trying to get back into making this a habit, though.

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