Since I'm vanishing again this week to write Elder Empire, I thought I'd leave you guys with the answer to a question I get asked all the time: how do I come up with names?
Now, in the interest of writing a streamlined blog post, I have boiled down my process of coming up with names into an arbitrary number of steps so that it sounds easier than it really is!
Step 1.) What are you naming?
This is more important than it sounds. When you're trying to name something, you have to know not only what it literally is (a country, a character, a famous goblet) but also what its role is in your story.
When I named King Zakareth, one of the primary antagonists from the Traveler's Gate trilogy, I started off with two pieces of information: he's the king, he's not a good guy, and my characters start off thinking of him as this tyrannical dark lord.
That immediately starts me thinking in the right direction. I'm not thinking of names like "Chad" or "Thimble" or "Hyberian Thimblewinter" because those don't sound like names for an evil king.
Which brings me to the second step, which is...
Step 2.) Make up a bunch of names.
Just brainstorm. Using the guidance from Step 1, come up with a BUNCH of names. I use baby books, random name generators, darts thrown at boards, movie credits, consulting space oracles, any methods I can think of to come up with a bunch of names.
Then I start whittling down the names to my favorites. This can take hours.
I keep a running list on my phone, and whenever I run into or think of a cool-sounding name, I write it down. It gives me material when I hit this point again...but there's never enough on the list. Never enough.
I spend a lot of time on this section. After you've populated such a list and narrowed it down to your favorites, you pick one and move on to Step 3.
Step 3.) Does it sound cool?
I was tempted to put "Is it appropriate to the setting?" here, because it's more important, but you can make a cool-sounding name setting appropriate. It's harder to take a setting-appropriate name and make it sound cool after the fact.
This part is of course subjective, but it's still important. How does the name sound to you? A lot of times people get hung up on trying to find the perfect name for your character or your favorite magic sword, but at this point it's really more about sounding neat.
This is also why step one is first: more important people, places, and things need cooler-sounding names. If a country is only going to be mentioned once as "the exotic land to the north ruled by sentient flies," you can just come up with a name off the top of your head. Zenethar. It's Zenethar now.
If it's the country your characters live in, it bears a bit more thought.
But it's also not just how it sounds to you, but also how it sounds to other people. Get your beta readers to tell you what they think of the names. If some names stand out as being not cool enough or too cool (your bartender's name doesn't need to be Arondolio the Magnificent), just change them.
Step 4.) Is it appropriate to the setting?
This is very important, but it comes fourth because I usually do it fourth. If you think your character is a Senator who should have an ordinary name, you might think of something like "Steve." But that doesn't fit your sci-fi setting, so maybe "Sheev" instead (do it).
Steps 2 and 3 are where I play around with names the most, trying out variations. Since most of the Territories are named after mythological afterlives, I had the world's hardest time coming up with Valinhall's name.
Seriously, it was a huge pain. But the breakthrough came when I thought of Valhalla (that took longer than you might imagine) and then played around with variations of the name until I came up with "Valinhall."
That's a combination of Step 3 (looking for something that sounds cool) and Step 4 (making sure it's appropriate to your setting...and in this case, the setting was a world in which these magical dimensions are named after mythical locations).
Step 5.) Avoid overlap.
What else have you named? If you've got a main character named Simon, you probably don't want another major character named Saman. Or Sian. Or Sonim.
You want to make sure that your most important names sound AND look as different from one another as possible. You have to consider both how the names sound when spoken out loud and how they look on the page.
If one of your characters is named Simon and the other is named Lymann, you're never going to confuse that on the page, but you might out loud. Alternatively, Simon and Síman might be pronounced very differently, but they look almost exactly the same.
But the main mistake people make is naming too many characters with the same first letter. Harry, Herbert, Helen, Humpty, and Huxtable are very different character names that you're not going to confuse, but it gets real mixed up when they're all sharing a scene.
So anyway, that's how I do it. It's more of an art than a science, and I spend way too long on it during each book.
One final tip: your reader makes the name work in their head. They will come to associate the qualities of the character with the name over time, even if the name doesn't suggest those qualities at the beginning.
For example, "Palpatine" is not an especially evil-sounding or intimidating name.
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