For any novelist, many factors go into choosing a good name for each character, including: Culture or ethnicity, Physical appearance, Personality, Temperament, History, and Rank within the story. These comprise the broad swath of identity which a name is meant to convey. Sometimes, an author will want to run counter to stereotype with a name that intentionally defies the conventions. Even so, the character “Maximus” is unlikely to be a shy, effeminate pacifist of eastern origins, with nothing but a small role in the latter part of the story. Rather, he’s likely to be the brawny warrior/general from an imperialistic nation who’s probably stern, short-tempered, has two broken bones at any given time, and is perpetually threatening to take over the whole story.
As a linguist and scholar of ancient languages, Tolkien was unmatched in name selection, creating evocative new words that imprinted so deeply in the reader’s mind it soon seemed hard to imagine that character being called by any other name. I generally determine names in one of two ways: phonetically or visually. They must strike the right tone and have the right texture or nuance, either to pronounce or to read, though preferably both. There must be balance and meter between syllables or words. One word or two? Or three? If there is an ethnic implication, the tone must suggest something larger than the name itself. This applies to place names, given names, object names, etc. Let me give you some examples from The Legends of Karac Tor:
Faielyn is a city of romance and charm. Dinglet is not. The former, with extra vowels and lack of hard consonants, has an air of sophistication and mystery. Dinglet sounds trivial by comparison. Likewise, Aventhorn is a fortress of classic strength, while Stobnotter is more appropriate to a remote village. Rake Hightower runs the risk of caricature, I’ll admit, but it sure beats Mort Frogswallow as the arrogant High Constable of the King’s army, unless of course the constable was not heroic, but sniveling and political. And what do you do when you need to name a new monster? Choices abound, but orcs, trolls and vampires are a bit used up. Care must be given to creating a totally new class of monster. Choosing a new word that sounds like an old word can help. What about Goths? For those who remember 8th Grade History, you might recall that the Visigoths and Ostrogoths were fierce Germanic hordes that swept across Europe as part of the destruction of Rome. Such a term, bearing history within itself, may already trigger an image in the mind of the reader, even if they don’t know why. By association, my Goths benefit, as brutal marauders. There’s a connection for non-history buffs, too. Drawing on the term “gothic,” I’m able to borrow something familiar from our language–suggestive of graveyards and creepy medieval architecture. By extension, a Goth is something fearful. Nobody would fear the Pinklets. I don’t care how large their army or sharp their teeth, it won’t sell. The name is too disconnected from the thing it is meant to embody. Name and identity should have synergy, so that every time the name is read, it reinforces principle character attributes without having to restate them. Flogg makes a good gnome name, as might Worr and Wurt and Gorker. But for my taste, Dag Boneswallow or Hali Throckmorton start to try too hard, become too cumbersome. And Tubby just doesn’t work at all, unless the story is told with a winking sense of humor! Finally, there’s Nemesia, the witch who is stealing the memory and identity of an entire generation. Can you identify her name? It’s a combination anagram: Amnesia (forgetfulness) and Nemesis (enemy). Pretty cool!
Over the course of five epic books, The Legends of Karac Tor unfolds the story of four brothers—based on my own sons—thrust into the crisis of another world in the wake of their mother’s untimely death. It is thoughtful, gritty, magical fiction. If you read it, let me know what you think. But here I must part with the Bard. While “a rose by any other name” would smell as sweet, would you want to smell it—would you even give it a chance—if it it were named Scumleaf? 🙂