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WorldBuilding: Naming Techniques and Philosophies

by Whitney Carter (originally posted on

Last week at my Saturday writer’s group, we had a discussion about character names. One of our people is taking her first crack at fantasy, and one of the questions I had for her was whether or not she intended to change the plain Jane names she was using in her drafts. She was, she said, but was unsure of how to go about choosing fantasy names. This lead to a discussion on the different techniques for choosing character names, and how consistency within each universe is important.

Here are some naming themes you could use for your next story.

  • Real World Alternatives. These types of names are pretty straight forward, change a few letters around, add a suffix or prefix or mesh two names together. These names are perfect for a fictional world that resembles our own, or in worlds where you don’t want the fantasy focus to be in the typical places. An added bonus is that these types of names will have a fresh feel while not being tongue twisters.

  • Anagrams. Creating an anagram of a name or character quality (or even both) is another way to go, especially if you want the name to have certain sounds. You might try this online anagram creator. Although I plugged several names in and didn’t get anything, I tried several phrases or two-word names with better results. Taking the letters to actual paper is another alternative.

  • Using Dead Languages. This is my preferred method, primarily because a lot of my fantasy takes place in a spin of a previous era. Languages like ancient Greek and Latin are quite beautiful, and when you go this route you have the added bonus of some word roots being familiar to your readers, which could translate into less exposition.

Even if following a theme doesn’t float your boat, there are some additional conventions to consider when creating names.

  • Test your fictional names aloud. Try them with different inflictions, and examine ways that they might be mispronounced. A high likelihood of a mispronunciation doesn’t mean you need to change the name, it’s just something to be aware of as you go.

  • Keep the length under control. Especially with non-standard names, you don’t want your readers stumbling over a mouthful every three or four lines. If you have a character that necessitates a long and unwieldy name (such as royalty) give them a single syllable nickname.

  • Keep your setting in mind. This means taking worldbuilding components like the era and region a character was born, their age, and any root word meanings into consideration as you write. Be consistent, and take thorough notes as names are one of the most frequently changed parts of a story.

  • Characters trait based names. Choosing a quality that your character is going to extoll is a pretty common practice in fiction. Roll with it, by all means, but use it with finesse. Word geeks will pick up on overused names and too obvious ties will spoil the character’s development.

  • Characters with similar sounding names. This goes without saying, but it’s best to avoid this type of confusion. I know it’s tempting in the case of twins, or characters you want to draw obvious parallels between, but you’ve got to resist the urge. Your story and your readers will thank you.

  • Easy on the apostrophes. I love beautifully written names as much as the next girl, but you have to balance the beauty of the word with its functionality within the sentence. Think about how readers might stumble over an oddly placed apostrophe, or how the name will look with an ’s attached to the end.

There are other naming rules, such as never ending a name with an s and never throw random letters or syllables together, but those are less useful and more tropes. Ultimately, practice is likely to help you determine your favorite naming schemes for the different types of stories you write, but until then experiment and find what works. Don’t be afraid to discard what doesn’t, either, even if it comes from me. I promise I won’t cry.

Guest post contributed by Whitney Carter. Whitney is an avid fantasy writer and blogger currently working on her debut novel, Alpha Female. When not writing, she can be found either under a large pile of purring cats or amid collapsed bookshelves. You can find more of her work here.

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