Once I’d decided to follow up The Dragon Lord with a sequel, I knew exactly who to give the story to: Cash Azella, one of the bodyguards from TDL, had an ‘in’ with the enemy they faced. Cash was supposed to go behind enemy lines as a spurned traitor and find out what the bad guys were up to, stumbling across his love interest along the way.
At some point between books, I changed the alphabet and naming conventions of his culture. Azhela Qhashiil was the exact same man, but he no longer wanted a story of his own. Changing how I spelled his name (not even the name itself!) somehow altered his entire future.
I liked the new naming convention too much to change it back. Qhash’s cultural origin was too important to the plot of The Dragon Lord to give him another background. He was stuck with the new spelling, which meant I was stuck with a book that I just couldn’t write.
Qhash wasn’t the only problem. His intended partner wouldn’t co-operate either. I started from scratch and came up with two new characters.
The story is essentially the same: a spy is sent behind enemy lines to figure out what the bad guys are up to, and he stumbles across his love interest along the way. Yet Vaterin Rastik and Nordet Kaska wrote an entire novel where Azhela Qhashiil and Itor Nori wouldn’t.
According to On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels, “Most romance heroes’ names are short, and they often start with hard consonants, like B, D, G, J, or K. The firm sound of the name seems to help characterize the hero as a no-nonsense man of action.”
I would argue that “J” is not a hard consonant, but I’ve read enough romance (and books about writing romance) to believe the rest. I have no idea if the same rings true for gay romance, but most of the straight male romantic protagonists I can remember have certainly had hard-consonant names. Meanwhile, most of the female protagonists in my Amazon history begin with soft consonants like R and S, or with vowels like A and E.
“Nori” is a soft name. It suits the character he turned out to be, but it doesn’t make me think of someone who could survive a demonic wasteland alone, traumatised by physical and emotional torture.
“Kaska” does. “Kaska” has lived a hard life on the streets, and was in constant danger long before he was taken by the demons. He’s broken, but he’s still fighting because he doesn’t know how to give up. The hard ‘k’ somehow makes me believe this guy could fend off monsters and scrounge for food in the rubble of a wasteland, where soft “Nori” does not.
(Nori is still in The Spy Master, by the way. I turned him into a minor character instead of the protagonist. I didn’t change his name or his personality, but I gave most of his background to Kaska and they’re both all the better for it.)
Think about how you feel when you see “Ameretat” versus “Fu Huang”. What does “Thor” mean to you? How about “Ahriman”? What vibe do you get from “Bessie”?
Names give off impressions. This is so well known that Behind the Name allows you to filter names according to the type of impression they give. You can search for names the BtN community considers “rough” or “upperclass” or “serious” or “devious”.
Names make people feel things, often without knowing the meaning or the etymology behind that name, and sometimes without ever hearing it before.
That’s why it’s so important to get the names right. You don’t want your action hero to sound like a pansy, or your floppy-haired fop to have a surname like Schwarzenegger (unless you’re going for satire).
What’s in a name?
Clearly, names matter. They matter to your readers, who look for deeper meaning whether they know it or not. (There’s a whole sub-culture of MTV’s Teen Wolf fans devoted to figuring out the meaning behind character names and how they relate to the plot.)
You can tell your readers how to feel about a character or an organisation just by giving them a name. “The Justice League” is clearly a group seeking and/or serving “justice” (unless you want to subvert the positive aspects of the name). On the other hand, “The Red Skull” is probably not a nice man because “red” suggests blood or anger in Western society and “skull” has connotations of piracy or death.
Connotations & Stereotypes
Rightly or wrongly, some names will have clear and deliberate connotations. It’s a safe bet that naming your character “Adolf” post-World War II will immediately make him suspect, if not an outright villain. Someone called “Jarvis” is probably going to be an English butler. “Black Widow” is probably an assassin who uses her feminine wiles to approach her targets because that’s how the black widow spider does it.
Thanks to these associations, you can also tell your readers a whole host of basic statistics like gender and nationality. (Téo Barros is not likely to be from the same country as Fujimoto Akio, and most people would not name their son Elizabeth.)
Other names will be a blank slate, which can free you up to give them a meaning of your choice. This is important for made-up worlds where calling a character “Tom” or “Sarah” is going to sound ridiculous (especially in high fantasy). You can get away with that in modern/urban fantasy and science fiction, but how much less epic would The Lord of the Rings have been if it had been about a Hobbit named Charles?
You can still use bog standard names in fantasy if you play around with the spellings a bit. Both Tolkien and George R. R. Martin did this with characters like Sam(wise) and Petyr. Most readers never read books out loud so their brains will put inflections on these words that make them foreign even though they’re not. (We also tend to take the easy route for pronunciation, even with our own words. My “Zhen” is meant to be pronounced with the French j, like in j’taime, but I always pronounce it as “Zen” (as in the religion) even in my head because it’s easier.)
The downside to having a blank slate is that it puts the onus on you to translate whatever meaning you give a name to your reader because that meaning is not already built in to the name’s history in society.
Names matter to the writer, too. Roleplayers on Elysian Fields (EF) used to spend days looking for the perfect name for their character before they could start writing. I have close to two pages of alternative spellings for Takerin Ishuka because I couldn’t get it quite right. (Ishuca, Izuka, Izuca, Ishuka, pazooka, kaboom.)
Names matter so much they can alter the course of an entire story, or change the personality and background of a character, or even kill a novel altogether — as I discovered when Cash rage-quit on me and I had to turn The Spirit Walker into The Spy Master because he was being a little baby.
But names can also inspire. Vaterin Rastik and Nordet Kaska were both far more interesting than Azhela Qhashiil and Itor Nori, and it was getting the names right that helped to finish their story.
The Benefits of Change
I’m normally a heavy proponent of the “just write!” motto. It’s far too easy to get bogged down in finding that “perfect” name for an organisation that never even shows up in the story, or for the character who hands your protagonist their lunch.
But if a name feels wrong, writing for that character is like trying to draw blood from a stone without the benefit of alchemy or magic. It’s just not going to work, and it’s going to continue to just not work until you give up and throw your computer out of the window in a hissy fit of epic proportions.
It’s worth it, then, to take a bit of time to get it right.
Of course, there could be a lot of reasons something isn’t working. There could be issues with your plot, or your characters might not be rounded enough to carry a story. Generally speaking, getting the “perfect” name should be one of the very last considerations in both writing and world-building, which is why my most frequent advice is to “just get the writing done”, then worry about perfecting everything. I can almost guarantee you’ll change your mind on a lot of names by the second and third drafts, anyway. (My entire world map has changed about seven times since I first drew it, and most of the names have changed along with it.)
But if the names are honestly preventing you from getting further in the story (as they were for me), by all means experiment to search for something better. Finding the perfect alternatives freed up my muse and let me write the story I’d been trying so hard to get on the page. (Though, in my case, the new names led to two entirely different characters, so it might be a bigger change than you expect!)
How important are names to you?
For a lot of writers, names can be crippling if you don’t get them right — but other writers seem to have no trouble at all using placeholders and changing their characters’ names on their editor’s request.
How important are names to you? Do you spend hours playing with generators? Do you create a list of potentials for quick access while you’re writing, or do you get bogged down searching for the perfect name for the new character you just introduced?
Do you care what meaning a name has, or do you double-check every one to make sure they fit your character’s personality?
What’s your favourite name of all time? I don’t really have one, but my pairings always start out with K-Z names in my head (Kai & Zhen, for instance, or Kol & (I)zuka, or Kip & Zarek). I have no idea why. Their personalities are never the same, and their names often change by the time they reach full draft status, but I can get going on a story much easier if the main characters are K-Z to start.