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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Marlowe Hammer, Mxyzptlk and other horrible name problems

Names are the worst.

No really. They are just horrible. Trying to figure out names for characters is like naming a baby, but a least a thousand times worse. Because this is LITERATURE, you know? You need a name that is meaningful, even iconic. Certainly memorable at the very least. You want to name the next Harry Potter, the next Captain Ahab, the next Atticus Finch. You certainly don't want a mess like Anna Karenina. Hell, it took you 400 pages just to figure out that Kotsya is Konstantin, and Konstantin Dmitrievich is Konstantin Levin and on top of everyone having three names all of the names sound the same. I speak Russian and even I got confused in that mess. Seriously. Seriously.

Anyway, here you are now on babynames.com looking up meanings and root languages trying to find snappy, memorable names that are going to put your characters on the map.

Congratulations. You know have a mess like this:

My partner says that this movie is a must-see. Or that it's truly horrible.
It was definitely one of the two.
All names with punch, all pretty unique (except for you Harold. What's going on there?) And you know what? YOUR NOVEL IS NOW RIDICULOUS. Miles Archer? Rusty Mars? Brick Bardo? Spade Chandler? Marlowe Hammer??  

Let's face it: these names are definitely not up to the Ebenezer Scrooge standard. Instead, you've created great names for SNL's next film noir skit. 

The key to naming is trying to find a balance between memorable and plausible. This is especially important if you're making up names for a sci-fi or fantasy novel. It's easy to get carried away when you've got complete freedom. But before you go and start naming your characters like they're from DC's 5th dimension, think about it. Can you actually ever remember how to spell Mxyzptlk's name on your own, let alone say it?

Mister Mxyzptlk (right) and his girlfriend Gsptlsnz (left).
I would have lost this fight since I can't remember his name forwards let alone backwards. 

The key to coming up with new names that are going to fit your worldscape without being overwhelming is to keep them familiar. Take cues from history or mythology. Take inspiration from words, or offbeat names that already exist. Just switch up a letter in something otherwise ordinary. Do you like the name Brad but don't think it fits in your fantasy novel? Your character's name is now Brid. Ta-da. A new name that is easy to say, easy to remember, but also not the name of your awful neighbor who never mows his lawn.

The point is, you don't want to be obnoxious. Obnoxious names are not going to win you any points with your readers. I've put down novels before just because 50 pages in I couldn't even remember the main character's name. That shit is just annoying.

So take a moment. Reflect on your names. And then start the scrapping and renaming process. Because trust me -- no one wants to spend 300 pages reading about Trixiebelladonnadactyl Tlaxxzop*.

*Actually, that name is kind of awesome. There are exceptions to all the rules.


  1. Special mention iconic names: Arthur Dent; Clark Kent; Amelia Pond; Lazarus Long...