This is a guest post by Mathew Gallagher.
If (like me) you’re not entirely in touch with reality, names for people and places are perhaps not as forthcoming as those who can set their stories in New York or Nottingham, and their characters being called Sue or Dave.
So, what do you do? Use a name generator? Well yes, you could, but where’s the fun in that?
If you’re going to create a world, then you may as well own every part of it!
So if you find yourself sat before your notebook, typewriter or laptop wondering, ‘what on Earth am I going to name this person, or this place?’ then read on. Inspiration may lie just a few scrolls away…
1. Out with the new, and in with the old
I’ll start with my favourite source for naming characters and places: Old Words.
Whether it’s Old Norse, Middle English, or Latin, I have a fascination with words we no longer really use. They’re often obtuse, or spelt in ways which are archaic or redundant.
In the project I am currently working on, I named the characters who could use magic after various elements.
For example, my lead character is called ‘Eyr’, from the Middle English term for ‘air’. Similarly, another character is called ‘Fyrendelle’, where ‘fyr’ comes from Old Norse for ‘fire’.
In a recent workshop, one writer used the Latin term ‘Amica’ for their piece’s villainous social media platform. ‘Amica’ means ‘friend’ (specifically female friend), which I felt was a clever way to define what the platform was trying to achieve.
J.R.R Tolkien (being the language wizard he was) also did this with his own Middle Earth languages. The forest of ‘Lothlorien’ in Lord of the Rings was derived from two Elvish words, ‘Loth’ and ‘Lorien’.
While I’m not suggesting you create your own languages to make names from, it just goes to show that you can make stuff up as you go along!
2. Prefixes and suffixes
In a lot of languages we usually describe places with a prefix or a suffix. American readers will undoubtably be aware of the use of ‘New’ before place names. British settlers reused the names for York, Jersey, and England, so you can too!
From my own writing, I used names such as Heatherswick, Queenscarden, and Springbourne.
Heatherswick’s name was derived from the region’s native flower, Heather, and the suffix ‘wick’ meaning town. Likewise ‘carden’ means thicket and ‘bourne’ means river.
In these examples, I regularly attached a suffix to a word that described the place. This means that the reader has a understanding of what the place might be like, before they’ve even read any description.
J.K. Rowling also employed this method in Harry Potter. The fictional Scottish town of Hogsmeade, for example, takes the Celtic word ‘Hog’ (a common prefix in Harry Potter) and attaches it to ‘meade’. While the latter has never been explained by Rowling, it could come from the drink mead, seeing as the story’s characters are often depicted drinking there.
The prefix/suffix method is perhaps one of the simplest ways of coming up with place names, but is often surprisingly effective. Try it! See how adding a descriptive word to a prefix or suffix feels to you.
3. Word smash
Okay, so ‘word smash’ is pretty basic way of saying ‘portmanteau’ but from the imagery you should understand what I’m trying to say. Take two words, and put them together.
Recently I decided upon calling a place Mother’s Embrace. ‘Great!’ I thought, thinking that I’d summarised my matriarchal country in a way that I was happy with.
Then my partner reminded me that about a year or so ago we’d played a game called Horizon Zero Dawn, in which the game’s starting area was called, you guessed it, Mother’s Embrace.
I’m not proud to admit it, but you should know that I swore profusely for several minutes. I went to bed that night believing that my draft was basically over (don’t tell me that’s dramatic, I won’t hear it) until I put my head on the pillow. Then it hit me! Why not switch the words around?
In that moment, Embther was born (and my draft was saved). It carries the same meaning as before, but doesn’t tread on anyone else’s toes. This also lead to me coining the term Embtherian, a descriptive term for anyone, or anything, coming from the region (which something you should bare in mind when creating place names!)
4. Borrowing from other languages
In a way, we’ve already touched upon this particular method, but those examples focused solely on older languages. There are thousands of languages still in use today. That’s a lot of sources for your names!
I personally really like this method, as it enables you to hide simplistic meanings behind a language barrier, which readers are often enticed by.
For example, Himiná is a mountain that comes into play toward the end of my draft. Its name comes from the Icelandic terms for heaven (himinn) and reach (ná).
A slightly more obscure place name I chose was Melrakki, which is the Icelandic term for ‘Arctic Fox’. Arctic foxes do appear in this region, and similarly the region is also rather cold, so arguably achieves the same end as my previous example.
In terms of characters, I recently decided upon the name of my ‘lone ranger’ type character. I chose Allen, which is an English variant of the Dutch word Alleen, meaning ‘alone’. It’s subtle to the reader, but you can take pride in hiding their traits in plain sight without them knowing.
Of course (and forgive me for pointing out the obvious) if you’re planning on writing a fictional piece that is inspired by another country or culture, then it’s worth investing some time to learn or research the languages used by your influencing country.
For example, your piece inspired by Japanese folklore shouldn’t have a city called Glasgow. Likewise, your sprawling adventure inspired by the Scottish Highlands shouldn’t have a city called Osaka (unless of course you’re going for surrealism, in which case, knock yourself out).
5. Amalgamation and clipping
We’ve already discussed portmanteau, so the concept of amalgamation will feel familiar. The main difference between the two is that amalgamating words doesn’t necessarily have to carry the meaning of the origin words into the new one.
To give an example, here are three names of towns in my current draft; Ataya, Na-Yun, and Listun. Each place combines the names of two towns or settlements in Far East Russia. While the names carry no specific meaning, they do enable an authentic Far Eastern Russia flavour.
Clipping (or truncation) is the opposite. You’re snipping away letters to create something new.
Take ‘Na-Yun’ from the previous example. We could snip away ‘Na’ so the settlement is called ‘Yun’. Doing this still retains the Far Eastern feel of the word, but makes it short and snappy. In this case, ‘Yun’ would perhaps be better served as the name of a person instead, which means you’ve just scored a two-for-one in a single idea (Yun could be the Elder of Na-Yun, for example).
I hope this helps inspire you when you’re stuck for ideas for names. Before I go, allow me to pass on some advice that was given to me.
Firstly, try and keep the names of your protagonist(s) simple or, at the very least, easy to read. Their name(s) will likely come up a lot in your piece.
If your reader is struggling with your character’s name, they’re likely to put down your writing, regardless of how good the rest of the work is.
So while I encourage you to experiment, don’t go mental and call your protagonist ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch’.
Finally, don’t worry too much!
What might be Barry today, could be Bartholomew tomorrow. Abbie might become Freya, or Mother’s Embrace might become Embther.
Like a lot of writing, the things we need to say will eventually come to fruition with time, in flashes of inspiration in often unsuitable or inconvenient places (or at least, that’s how it usually ends up for me!)