Naming Characters

I struggle with naming characters. It doesn’t matter if the character is for a story or for a role playing game. I struggle. I always have. But it is getting a little easier.

When I invent names out of thin air, they always seem fake to me. It could be that since I know they are fake that I just can’t get over that faked feeling. Every time I have started writing a story with one of these names I struggle because the character never becomes real for me. That imagination gear just doesn’t engage and I end up with a stiff and lifeless character in a stiff and boring story.

As a youngster I could invent stories about other people’s characters, because they seemed real to me. But there is not much of a future in writing about characters others have created. These days unless you are on the Star Trek pastiche bandwagon or are willing to ghostwrite, you have to be an established writer before you can get a mega media market deal. And from what I hear, even those deals are not great for the writer.

I really tried inventing names. Names that would rival Hari Seldon, R. Daneel Olivaw, Ender Wiggin, or Charles Wallace Murry, but every name I created seemed flat, dull and artificial. I really needed a solution to my dilemma. Then one day during the two years I went to college at Ohio State University I was faced with choosing a role playing character name instantly. Steve, my roommate, and I were trying to figure out how to generate characters for the new DragonQuest role playing system he’d picked up. Since I figured the first character I created would be a throwaway character, I just nabbed a name from the Fred Saberhagen novel Berserker’s Planet that I had just finished reading. Giles the Treacherous was born. The role playing character was nothing like the character in the book. The only attribute that they had in common was the moniker. The thing was the character felt real. Soon afterwards I created another character for the game. I liked another character in the Saberhagen novel, Thomas the Grabber. But I didn’t want to have another “so-and-so the something” character, so I attached Thorun as a surname. Thorun is a tribute to Thorin Oakensheild of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The character Thomas Thorun became real for me as well. I realized that if I had a character in mind I could use existing names or to build a name around the traits. Based on this insight I was able to create character names and write stories that (I thought) were not lifeless and boring. I never sold any of the stories I wrote during college and after a while, I stopped writing.

Recently when I decided to pick up the pen again I had forgotten all about my method for creating character names. I struggled. And then because I was into tracking down my family history I used Pembroke Somerset as a character name out of frustration over my inability to create character names that felt real. My great-great grandfather and great grandfather were both named Pembroke Somerset Atkinson. My great grandfather went by the nickname Bob. I have several science fiction stories penciled out with Pembroke “Bob” Somerset as the main character. One is nearly complete, although I haven’t looked at it for about ten months now. My point is that Pembroke Somerset feels like a real character to me.

I also decided to give my hand at an anthology that was requesting submissions. The anthology was about magic and machines and how they might interact and impact each other. I struggled with a good character name. I had a great world. (It is a fantasy steampunk alternate history world.) The magic system was all worked out. I even had ideas for other stories set in the same world. But I didn’t have a good character name and the story wasn’t flowing. It seemed, you guessed it, lifeless and boring. I was considering giving up on the story when the publisher of the anthology closed its doors. Problem solved.

Then I got an invitation to write a story that would be considered for an upcoming anthology from a new publisher, Carnivah House. The invite was based solely on the fact that one of the editors knows how creative my mind is. He just happens to be Steve, the Ohio State roommate that played DragonQuest. He is an up and coming author just hitting his stride.

My problem with the invite was that I couldn’t get this magic and machine theme world that I had created out of my head. I almost turned down the invitation to participate in the Carnivah House anthology. But why not use that world for the anthology and just create a totally different character? I had gnomes in the world, but I had not really thought much about them. New character, new race–that started the juices flowing. I knew immediately that I wanted to have the gnome’s surname to be a reflection of the silly names artists are giving garden gnomes here in the real world. Winklewisp, Merryweather, Hodgepodge and the like.

Childhood memories intervene. My sister created a name when we were kids. Safronsibauld Sebastian Thistlethwart, or “Sabby” for short. I stole Thistlethwart. It was perfect. And since I was back on a JRR Tolkien kick, I chose Noldor for his first name; he will be called “Nold” by those close to him. And if you are not a total Tolkien geek, you may not know that originally Tolkien originally called the Noldor race Gnomes, but changed it to avoid the stereotype that name already had. As soon as I had the name–the very instant I decided on the name, a story popped into my head. Even if it is not accepted, it had the effect of really getting my creative juices flowing.

Back in June I realized that the other story that I had started for the magic and machine anthology was a good story, but it was being told by the wrong character. It is Thistlethwart’s story. I have rewritten most of it and am going to send it off to a publisher that picked up the magic and machine anthology idea. It doesn’t precisely fit their guidelines which differ from the original publisher’s, but I figured I’d send it there first. Who knows, they may just like it enough to stretch their criteria a tad. There are other markets that I think would publish it, so I am not worried about it finding a home. Talk about creative juices flowing, how about that ego? I am already assuming (as an unpublished fiction author) that I will get a specific story published! Ah, the power of positive thinking.

Which brings me to my recent epiphany about character names. I relearned what I had forgotten. If I choose a name that seems familiar to me, and that might have some hint as to the inner workings of the character him/herself then the character will feel real to me and it becomes easier to write the story. I needed a musically inclined gnome supporting character for this magic and machine anthology story. I think Delp Entwhistle will do just fine. I just hope Brad Delp and John Entwistle are looking down from rock-n-roll heaven with approval.


4 Responses

  1. You could always check out which offers a wide array of random name generators. It does a pretty good job of it, too. It’s much better than the dice-based system I devised in college, which gave the world D’vimaer.

  2. Hey! Where was that site when I was role playing? Oh, right, the internet as we know it didn’t exist…

  3. omg, so i googled my name and my last surprise is that it is being used by a role playing game… it’s funny, lol

  4. Welcome Thomas Thorun! I put that name together back in 1981 never thinking that a real person would ever have it.

    Kind of weird. But I guess I won’t freak out as long as you are not a spear wielding Bard.

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