Naming Your Characters

Last week I detailed the progression of my main character, from Dungeons & Dragons character to his current incarnation within my Work In Progress. One thing I did not mention last week (mostly because I was saving it for this week’s post) was the main character’s name. And that is because this week’s post is all about naming your characters – or more to the point, how I come up with names for my characters.

My main character is somewhat unique among all my characters in how I came up with his name. It started with the name of my D&D character, which is Idris, after the actor Idris Elba. I picked that name partly because I really like the actor, but mostly because it is just an uncommon, and in my opinion, very interesting sounding name. I also decided my character didn’t really need a last name, so Idris it was.

Once I decided that my D&D character would be the perfect inspiration for my story character, the first realization I came to was that I didn’t want to steal Idris Elba’s name for my story, so I changed Idris to Idrin. And he needed a last name, so I pulled the name ‘Avarus’ out of the back of my brain – it just sounded like a cool last name, and went well with Idrin. And thus Idrin Avarus was born. Of course, afterwards I looked up the word ‘avarus’ and it turns out that it is Latin for greedy or covetous (it is the Latin root for the word avaricious), but I figure I can live with that.

For my other character names, I use a more standardized, less random process. It starts with a wonderfully useful website – Kate Monk’s Onomastikon (an onomastikon is a dictionary of names). This site has hundreds and hundreds of names, categorized by region/ethnic group. So if you know what sort of people inspired your character’s people, you can go right to that group and find names that fit.

As an example, Idrin’s closest compatriot is a dwarf. In my story world, I based the dwarves on Viking raiders (except they are land-based raiders, and not the sea-born raiders that the Vikings were). Because of this, I wanted all dwarven names to be based on old Norse names. That is how I came up with Hallgrim Damsgaard, dwarven mercenary. The other character that I used this method for was my lizardman character. Being desert-dwelling beings, I wanted the lizardmen to have an Arabic feel to them. Going through a variety of Middle Eastern names, I put together Dhsan Johari Mohktar Eftekhari, lizardman scout and guide.

On the subject of lizardmen, I decided that I wanted to give them an actual race name other than “lizardmen” (which then became a derogatory term that other races called them, and not something they ever called themselves). And this leads me to my second source for character/place names, and that is Google translate. I absolutely love Google translate. Of course, it helps to be a bit obsessive/compulsive, as the way I use it is a fairly time-consuming – and very repetitive – process. But on the upside, it is a fantastic way to come up with exotic-sounding names that work really well in a fantasy setting.

The process is this – I bring up Google translate, then choose a word or phrase that fits the character or place I’m looking to name. Then, one language at a time, I go through and translate the word into every language that Google has, until I find a result that I like. Sometimes I’ll take the exact word, other times I’ll modify it slightly (or combine a couple of words) to get something that works for me. Again, you need to be either OCD or very, very patient, as often words won’t give you something that you like, so you’ll have to try a variety of words until you find what you’re looking for (and Google has quite a few languages to go through).

In the case of my lizardmen, the English word I ended up using was “shield” (I can’t remember any more why I chose that particular word, but I’m sure I had a reason at the time). And the translated word I came across was the Somali word “gaashaan”, which just had a reptilian-sounding feel to it. And thus my lizardmen became the gaashaan.

This is also how I came up with the name for my ratling thief/con-artist, Bajingan – which is a Javanese/Indonesian swear word that essentially means “bastard” or “scumbag”. A fitting name for an unsavory thief, I think, and one that quickly became one of my favorite character names.

This method also worked for developing a handful of simple phrases in the gaashaan language. I would translate the phrase I wanted into different languages until I got a handful of words/phrases that I liked. I would then make little tweaks and adjustments to them so they were no longer real words. My reasoning for this is that I didn’t want my made-up languages to be identical to an actual real-world language. Having a character’s name be a word in a real language is one thing, but the words my (non-human) characters speak needed to be at least partly made-up.

For the language of the goblyns, I had to go a little further afield. I wanted the goblyn language to have a very Gaelic/Celtic feel to it, specifically Scottish (because if you’ve ever seen Gaelic written down, it certainly looks like a non-human language). Sadly, however, Google translate does not have Scottish in its database, so I had to do a little Internet surfing, until I found a couple of sites that did English to Scottish translation.

As with the phrases I’d made up for my lizardmen, I didn’t want my goblyns to be speaking actual Scottish, just something with a similar look/sound to it, so instead of using exact Scottish words, I would combine and slightly alter words, which gave me a wholly made-up language, but one that had a distinct Gaelic feel to it, which was what I was looking for.

For me, creating words and phrases, and coming up with names for my characters is an incredible amount of fun. Now that being said, I’m not enough of a linguist to want to try and develop my own full conlang, but there’s something very rewarding in creating those little bits of fantasy language, and giving them a consistent sound that fits the race that is speaking them.

I would also say that finding the right names for your characters is the one of the most critical steps in creating a character. I don’t know about other writers, but I find that the moment I find the right name, I can immediately start to picture my character – who they are, how they think and act, what they look like. All of it is reflected in their name.

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