If you’ve written anything at all, you’ll know the hair-pulling madness that comes of having to name ALL THE THINGS. People, places, made-up foodstuffs. The most common suggestion (based on my completely unscientific random scrolling of twitter) is to use baby name books. Which is probably not a bad start, but what if you’re doing historical fiction, or fantasy where you’ve lost your mind and decided to invent names for all your characters? Or you don’t want to name your characters Emily and Olivia and whatever else is currently trendy in the English speaking world? Do other linguistic communities do baby name books, or is it an Anglo-Capitalist thing?
There are a couple other things you can try:
Google can help out. For historical fiction, or even if you just want something different, you can just type “15th century Venetian women’s names” into your search bar and hey presto! names. Or “medieval German given names”. (Bartilmebis, anyone?) A big thank you to the wonderful people who compile these lists!
Another option for the desperate writer who still has 85645215963 more characters to name? Type random letters on your keyboard til you find a sequence you like. wofueanaidhfiwmfog: how about Anaidh? This one obviously wouldn’t work for dictation softward, and I can’t speak to non-alphabetic languages.
Long names are fine. Short names are fine. Wonky spellings, straightforward phonetic spellings, full-fledged patronymics? Go for it. Even diacritics, although editors and publishers might object. And however dumb you might think your names are, just remember: Scientists named the massive super-hot explosion which brought the entire universe into existence the Big Bang.
Every once in a while on twitter, people talk about how they visualise a character, or how a casting choice didn’t meet their expectations, or their dream cast for a book. And I just don’t get it, because I don’t picture characters with that level of visual detail. Not even my own. I can describe them, make choices about their overall shape, but I can’t match them up to a fully fledged three dimensional physical human. Now, if something’s wildly off about a physical representation (whitewashing), I’ll notice, and I’ll definitely notice if the character doesn’t match how the character on the page behaved, but otherwise, I’m just sort of “eh”. In my head, characters have about as much physical detail as if I’d drawn them, and I’m a terrible artist.
It’s not just people either. I apologise to anyone who’s spent days labouring over their worldbuilding of physical details, but when I’m reading, it’s mostly generic “building” or “forest” or “lab” or “market”. I almost never picture the physical landscape in specific detail, which of course is probably why I struggle with adding these bits to my own writing. My default is “they went to the house”, not “they went to the ancient mansion, its green paint now faded an unsettling shade of grey”.
Weirdly, the only time I seem to really see a landscape is when that landscape is, in theory, more barren. Like in The Tombs of Atuan: I could picture the desert where the Place was, and the almost lightless underground tombs. Or, now I think of it, in The Farthest Shore, when LeGuin takes her protagonists out on the open sea. Maybe when there’s less to imagine I can manage better? Don’t know.
All of which to say, when I say “I’d never really thought about what they looked like”, I really mean it!
Which is more important, plot or character?
Oh, how we love our binaries…and this one is about as useless as a lot of binaries. I like mysteries, I like a good puzzle, and that’s “plot”. I love a good character, and will follow a well loved character through the most bizarre and unlikely of plots. What I’ve noticed, for ME, is this: to come back to a book again and again, to buy up all the books in a series, to imagine alternate endings and what-ifs, I need to love the characters. The most fascinating plot in the world won’t hold my attention if I don’t care about any of the characters, but I will follow beloved characters doing the most mundane things. And those characters may not be “likeable” or “relatable” or whatever gatekeeping term is in vogue: they have to be interesting, in one way or another. (For me, Iago, who had no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, is the star of Othelllo.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just see if there are any new Good Omens fanfic about braiding hair.
Full disclosure: I’m a white anglo person. Which means I have a whole lot of privilege in the place where I live, and a lot of other places too. I don’t always see it, but privilege is like oxygen: I don’t have to see it to benefit, and you don’t really appreciate it til you don’t have it. And lately, I’ve been seeing it on the writers’ corner of twitter, and it’s about something pretty important: names.
I love the #WritingCommunity, and it’s generally a great place to hang out. But this keeps popping up as advice:
Keep your characters relatable! Give them short, easy names, like Jen or Kate or Dan or Taylor. Otherwise readers won’t be able to remember who’s who.
And fellow white anglo people, can we not? The assumption that the best names are short, uber anglo names? And that short, uber anglo names are the most relatable? On a planet of more than seven billion people with thousands of languages? No. And no, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with you giving your characters said names – it’s the assumption that those names are the most *relatable*, that anything else is too hard or too weird or whatever. It’s the Daenerys Targaryen test: if THAT name isn’t too weird or unrelatable for literally millions of people, neither is anything else.