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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
More on Naming Characters
March 5, 2003


Question:

I've noticed throughout many of your stories, that the names of the characters are unique. In your books, you don't go with the conventional "Jack" for a name, instead you have "Ender, Bean, Hot Soup, Fly Molo." I was wondering what your thought process is when your creating a name for a character?

-- Anonymous

OSC Replies:

Naming follows many conventions in real life. Just think of the sources of common American names like Bob, Matt, LaDawn, Shaneesha, Ted, Howie, Mary, Sean, Tony ... and that's just first names. Some of them are ancient, some of them are new coinages; they come from English, Irish, French, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish ...

And yet ... in any culture there are consistencies and continuities. The Romans had only a handful of first names - everybody was Marius, Julius, Lucius, etc. And the family names were fairly limited. But then they had the "extra" third name, like Cicero, which was also a family name but became probably the most unique part of a person's name. That's very different from our pattern.

In naming characters in fiction, then, I try to either fit in with an existing naming system, or to devise a new one that makes sense within the culture (or that simply amuses me <grin>).

Within that system, I then choose names that will either suggest by sound or meaning something about a character. Of course, much depends on whether he chose the name himself, it was applied to him by others, or it was given with the normal randomness of naming, and whether it's a birth name or a nickname or an honorific, etc.

Then there's the "first letter" problem. In a work of fiction, it causes readers endless confusion to have two characters whose names begin with the same letter or sound. So besides all the other concerns, you have to make sure your main characters have names that are easily distinguished. The first letters/sounds must be unique, and it helps also to have different rhythm patterns. In other words, you don't name five guys in a spaceship "Bill, Ted, Mack, Rod, Dick." You name them "Bill, Moshe, Vernon, Alexander, Philippe." Or whatever works within the culture(s) they come from.

When it comes to alien names, it is vital that they be pronounceable. Names like Hk'T'qsahshh are cute to think up - but hideous for the reader. Without realizing it, even when we read silently we are pronouncing everything, and if a name is unpronounceable it slows us down considerably. Besides, if the readers starts thinking of it as "that H guy," you can't have any music in a sentence where that name appears. Better to think of spellable, pronounceable Anglicizations of the aliens' names.


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