Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Names, Part One
Names are one of the hardest parts of writing genre fiction. Here are a couple brief tips.
1): Try to avoid putting unnecessary consonants in your names just to weird them up a bit. Jerry Holkins once said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that when publishers have finished printing all their other books, they wind up with a surplus of Qs, Zs, Xs, Ys, and apostrophes, and that they use science fiction and fantasy as a way to dump their excess stock of these letters. If a character’s name is John, just call him John, rather than Johyhn. No one will mind, and it makes your work more accessible outside of the genre audience. Along those lines, don’t use common misspellings of modern names for your characters. I once corrected every single instance of “Jhon” in a 10k word short story before I realized it was intentional.
2): Names need to be distinct from each other. One of the things that drove me nuts when reading George RR Martin's A Dance With Dragons was trying to keep all the Mereenese characters straight. All of their names were just similar enough that I kept getting them confused. This was not improved by the fact that a whole lot of characters were introduced at the same time (and that they all had Zs and Qs in their names.) Nicknames can help with this, but can also cause confusion – I had no problem remembering who The Shavepate was and what his motives were, but it’d take me a couple seconds to remember that people were talking about The Shavepate when they used his actual name.
3): Names should be speakable. It’s hard to talk about your book with someone when the names are unpronounceable, or could feasibly be pronounced five different ways. If a reader speaks the name of a character out loud, anyone who hears it and has read the book should know who they’re talking about.
4): Names should be consistent. Names within a given culture should have some similarities. To lean on examples from George RR Martin once more, nearly every Targaryen name contains “ae” – Aegon, Aemon, Baelor, Daenerys. Northern names often have a double consonant – Robb, Eddard, Lyanna, Liddle, Norrey. Westerland male names have a lot of “Tys” – Tytos, Tywin, Tyrion, Tybalt, Tyrek. These little bits of shorthand give your readers some immediate insight into the characters (or at least their family tree) without needing any exposition, and makes your world feel more cohesive.
I’ll address names again at a later date, but this should hopefully provide some guidance. Feel free to share your own naming tips in the comments!