This article is by Grace Robinson.
People sometimes ask me how I come up with names for my fantasy stories – names of characters, as well as names of creatures, places, and things.
I don’t have a standard formula for inventing names, but after doing some thinking, I realized that there are three main methods I use.
I believe that many authors use these methods in one way or another:
1. Use descriptive words in plain language.
This is the simplest method, and perhaps the least glamorous or fantastical, but it works. It’s usually most effective for names of places, groups, or things, rather than individual characters.
In Jeff Smith’s Bone series, the bad guys are alternately referred to as either Rat Creatures or The Hairy Men. These names are perfectly descriptive of the furry, bear-like animals that can wield weapons like men but have all the personal charm of rats. No complicated fantasy names to remember in the majority of this series, actually. If you can keep the Rat Creatures, the Great Red Dragon, and the Hooded One straight, you’re good to go.
In the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5, the main bad guys are called Shadows. It’s creepy, descriptive, and archetypal – and that’s all you really need to know about these aliens. While Babylon 5 has its share of made-up names – Vorlon, Minbari, G’Kar, etc – you’ll never get the Shadows mixed up with anybody else.
2. Look to mythology for inspiration.
This is a common naming method in fantasy and sci-fi. If your story is a retelling of a myth, or is directly inspired by the mythology or folk tales of a particular culture, then using mythological names is quite acceptable – even expected.
J.K. Rowling uses a mix of different sorts of names in the Harry Potter series. She draws a lot of her names and ideas from mythology. Hippogriffs, centaurs, mermaids – she uses these familiar creature names, while putting her own unique spin on the creatures themselves. She also pulls from mythology for character names: such as Draco (Latin for “dragon”) and Sirius Black (as in the ancient Greek’s name for the “Dog Star” that followed the constellation Orion the hunter).
J.R.R. Tolkien was a fan of Norse mythology (well, more like a scholar of it) and much of Lord of the Rings finds its roots there – both in proper names, and the storytelling itself. The Viking-like horsemen of Rohan have names like Théoden, Hasufel, and Dwimorberg. These are names not pulled directly from mythology, but Tolkien the linguist created names that could have been found in Old English or in an Old Norse tale.
3. Just make up words.
This is probably the most common method for naming things in sci-fi and fantasy. There are all manners of tricks for coming up with names – everything from online name generators to playing with scrabble tiles. I don’t have any one system, and I’m not sure what method other authors might use. But I do know that human creativity is all that is really needed.
George Lucas first came up with his Star Wars names before online name generators were available. Wookie, Yoda, Tatooine, Jabba – just everyday made up names.
L. Frank Baum most definitely did not have a fantasy names app on his phone when he was creating names like Ozma, Gillikin, Munchkin, or Glinda when he was writing his Oz books.
Your Favorite Method
Hopefully this helped if you are stuck with inventing names for your story. All of these methods are equally valid ways of inventing names. You can mix it up, stick to one method religiously, or find another way altogether.
Please share in the comments! What’s your favorite way of coming up with fantasy names?
About the Author:
Writer of fantasy. Fan of arctic places, world music, mythology, and linguistics. Soon-to-be world traveler and published author. Born and raised in Virginia, Grace Robinson studied English and creative writing at Hollins University. Currently living in Virginia with a rabbit and a lot of books. Visit her blog at storytellergirlgrace.wordpress.com.