Naming Science Fiction Characters Is Not Rocket Science

I see so many conversations about character names on Twitter, I thought I’d wrap up all of my thoughts in one post.

  1. Make it pronounceable
  2. Follow the rules of the world you’re writing
  3. Every name does not have to be a creative masterpiece

Pronunciation = Remembering

As a reader, I like to think about the books I’m reading. (*gasp* I know. Crazy). And when I think about the book, I like to use the character’s real names. I’ve read books where the character names are incomprehensible.  If I can’t say your character’s name, I either (a) make something up (I called Hermione Granger Herm-ee-own until I read something where JK provided the Her-My-Owe-Nee pronunciation); or (b) I dub them something totally different.

  • avoid excess punctuation mid-name, if at all possible
  • avoid names with no vowels.

If your main character is named Cthimeowszitch, I’m entirely likely to call her “C-meow-chick” in my head.  I will never be able to google that name to find more of your work, and when the movie comes out, it will take me about 6-8 tries to figure out who is who, because no one is referring to your MC as “C-meow-chick” which is her name in my head. 

Being able to pronounce and remember a character’s name is the way to make a character lovable, relate-able and understandable without even trying.

If you must, if you absolutely must write something that’s incomprehensible, then include a pronunciation guide somewhere.  I love Kevin Hearne‘s books, and deeply appreciate that he provides this because he has to have non-pronounceable names. It’s a rule in his world…

Names Follow Rules Too

I know Anne McCaffrey gets the dubious honor heaped upon her brow for being the first to popularize apostrophes in character names.  But to readers of the series, it was very clear.  The apostrophe was actually there to represent removed letters (grammatically correct, yo.) and it was done to differentiate the names of Dragonriders from the rest of the Pern society. We call a Masterharper by his title, the Dragonriders should have some sort of dignifying mark in name, right?   Right.

Though it started an unfortunate trend among science fiction and fantasy writers, I’m going to have to defend the estimable Ms. McCaffrey. Her names followed the rules of her world, and actually clarified – at a glance – to the reader what sort of person we were dealing with.

If your world is tied to or anywhere near the real world, then you had better be comfy with real world names and their rules. There are studies that show that kids with the more popular and common baby names for their birth year tend to be more popular in school. Similar studies point to common names being found among CEOs and University presidents.  The names that are further down on the  popularity list belong to the slightly less popular kids, and so on.

I frequently recommend looking up baby names for the birth year of your character, and checking out the names in the range closer to where their personality would put them. I go so far as to make sure siblings in the same family all from the same 5 rank-range, because mom and dad aren’t going to change their levels of quirkiness from child to child.  You rarely see an older brother named John and a little sister named Popsicle.

I don’t care what rules you use for your naming conventions. It helps if they help the reader have a shortcut to who you’re talking about (like the Dragonriders’ apostrophe). It helps if your weird rules simplify life for the reader, rather than complicate it.

Put the Name Generator Down, Step Away From the Syllables.

I can admit, Careen Emerson is a weird-ish name. She wasn’t a popular kid in school, so it’s okay.  She’s also my main character, so it’s perfectly fine for her name to be a little unusual. You will remember it. You can pronounce it. When you see it, you will get a picture in your head of this woman.  That’s the goal.  But for every Careen, there has to be a John. In fact, I would add in a Dan, a Sonia and a Ben.  Sure there’s a woman named Ayala Jones, but it suits her culturally and personally. She will be a major factor later – I want her name to stick.

Do you see what I’m doing?

The weird names – the Katniss / Hermione names – they are tagged to vital characters, and balanced by the Harrys and Rons and Primroses.  (Okay, I admit it, Peeta Mellark is totally called “Peter” in my head, because that’s just annoying.  But you get my drift.) Key characters can get away with the fancy stuff. You can dig into the meaning and sound and percussive rhythm of a name for a main character.  But please don’t do that throughout the book for every character.

It’s totally okay to name someone Bob. I promise.

2 thoughts on “Naming Science Fiction Characters Is Not Rocket Science

  1. I always pronounced Hermione as Hermie-own-nee until JK thought to have Ron explain her name phonetically in book four of the series. By then it was too late…
    Part of the reason I hated Stephen Donaldson’s sci-fi Gap series (LOVED his Covenant series) was because of his character’s names, Morn Hyland and Angus Thermopyle. Yikes! I think Donaldson Googled ‘Scotland’ and went from there… *shudders*

  2. Pingback: Logistics, logistics: Naming and dating characters | Write on the World

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