Saturday 5 October 2019

Fantastic names and where to find them - Alex English

What's in a name? I find that names say so much about a person that I can’t get really see my characters until I've christened them. But fantasy characters deserve fantastic names. Once I have one, they spring to life before me.

I keep a little notebook of juicy words, most of which I've snaffled while reading poetry, and this comes in very handy when coming up with fantasy character surnames. However, I do also use generators when I'm in a pinch (or just fancy some fun). Here are a few methods that I've tried:

1 Look on the map

It was when I was listening to Philip Pullman‘s audiobook The Collectors that this idea came to me. Pullman had named two of his characters Horley and Grinstead. As a former resident of Reigate these names are very familiar – Horley and East Grinstead are both nearby towns in Surrey/Sussex.

There are plenty of peculiar British town names, but of course you could use any location. Snodsbury, Pucklechurch and Picklescott are all fabulous. Mudford Sock sounds like a ready-made character.

2 Construct a compound noun

These work particularly well in fantasy and this method is a favourite of mine for coming up with surnames. In my current book I have a Quickthorn, a Daggerwing (which also happens to be a butterfly variety, another great source) and a Milkweed, to name a few.

This generator gave me Gravelweather, Stepslinks and Skyflake. Some for the notebook!

3 Try the Roald Dahl method

For a more commonplace character, you might try using your Roald Dahl name – take your grandparent’s first name and add it to the first thing that catches your eye. 

I’m Arthur Cushion.

4 Consult your inner librarian

Your librarian name is the first name of the oldest person you know followed by a last name composed of the adjective that describes how you move through a room combined with the main ingredient from the last sandwich you ate. 

Mine is Sarah Stompavocado. Read the full twitter thread for lots of fabulous ideas!

5 Get real

On a more serious note, for those of us attempting to represent cultures other than our own, it's worth spending the time to get names right, rather than sticking to what we might think we know. A recent CLPE report found a disproportionate number of 'diverse' characters named Jasmine.  

I find this name generator useful for generating realistic contemporary names, and it can be adjusted by age group and country of name origin. If in doubt it's always best to ask for help from someone in that community. 

How do you come up with names for your fantastic characters?

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks Alex - a very useful post!

Rowena House said...

Another super useful post! Via Google, I found a site that lists the commonest names for a particular year. Going down to No. 10 or so should avoid the 'Jasmine' effect! For The Goose Road, I used war memorials in France and Britain to pinpoint historically accurate names. Very moving to read the lists in towns and villages, and also fascinating to see which names are still current and which have faded away.

Susan Price said...

1. Pleck - Cakemore -- Franche

3. Elsie Toiletduck Jonathan Mould

4. Rita Strideraisin

Penny Dolan said...

Great post, Alex. Thank you very much and agree about the need to research precise names. Name fashions are so important; I used to include the dating of names when I talk to groups about writing for children. I warned about what I called "the Susan effect", but I think even "Susan" may be coming back into use again too.

Additionally, I need to have the names for the characters first as well.

Alex English said...

Rita Strideraisin! I can just imagine her. Thanks all for your comments, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Alex, I loved that name generator! It gives you the person’s name, age, address, even email address! I tend to write fantasy set in a sort of mediaeval Europe secondary world, and mostly create names connected with the language of the country I had in mind. I’ve only recently written my first urban fantasy, so I had less trouble with name choice.

Sue Bursztynski said...

PS Rowena, can you give us a link to that web site with common names for years? It sounds useful. Are they names popular in English speaking countries or others as well?