Names in Fantasy – 3 Ways to Invent Names for Characters and Creatures

Sirius Black
Sirius Black

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.

Examples:

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.

Examples:

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.

Examples:

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.

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Gumihomihomiho
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Gumihomihomiho

One day i decided to write a fantasy story. At first i have no idea what creatures will appear there but when I’m writing an outline i decided to make an original fantasy creatures. They’re basically humans wich get a curse because they’re drink the water from a cursed lake. At first I’m not gonna give them any names but suddenly a name appears out of the blue in my brain. Urglins, cuz they’re ugly.

erin
Guest
erin

I wrote down a code to make my language, and I put words through that to make character’s names. So for my main character’s name, Kylkedia, I put perpetual through my code (p=l, e=y, t=d etc.) and then screwed around with what I got until i got a decent sounding name out of it (adding an -ia ending). For another character’s name, Thalin, I put Ceasar through (because they’re both overly ambitious people). So basically, if i need something not in english, i use my code to come up with whatever sort of word or name i need.
If anyone else is thinking of doign this, for the vowels i use IPA over how we anglophones pronounce vowels.
Except I just realised that r actually becomes n and not l, but that’s beside the point 🙂

Rapidash
Guest
Rapidash

I usually just think of things that remind me of that character and then try to make a clever reference to that thing.

Ashana Lian
Guest
Ashana Lian

My methods are pretty similar to those above! I don’t use apps or name generators, though I’m sure they’d be pretty good.

The trusty guide book I’ve been using for years is the Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon, which sorts the names by culture, gives you a detailed description of how children are named in different cultures and were surnames usually come from, and also a reverse index at the back. I’d recommend it every time. 🙂

For fantasy, though I often get tired of names that sound too ridiculous, like the author banged their elbow on a keyboard and didn’t bother to fix up the vowels and consonants. I much prefer when names sound like ones we are familiar with, and actual names from non-western cultures also sound great, like somebody else said in a comment above.

I read The City by Stella Gemmell not so long ago – I loved the names in that book.

Grace
Guest
Grace

Thanks for recommending that book – I hadn’t heard of it before. 🙂

P. H.
Guest
P. H.

I find naming consistency of sound & form helps identify characters as belonging to a certain society or people-group. Also, if you are basing a speculative culture on a known one there are great sources of naming to use as a basis of naming characters and places.

Grace
Guest
Grace

I agree. 🙂

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Guest
Anne Marie Gazzolo

Thanks for this post! I normally just put letters together and see if they feel right to me as a name for that person. I goof around with combinations until they do and viola! I have my name. 🙂 One time also my dad gave me a great name out of the blue while in a bookstore.

Grace
Guest
Grace

Yep, just mixing letters together until it feels or sounds right is a valid method. Nothing beats a writer’s intuition!

ALB2012
Member
ALB2012

Baby name books or online resources are great. I’ll also take a common name and mis-spell it – Like Emmae or Kaia. Nordic/Celtic or other regional spellings can be useful too. This goes for place names as well – look up meanings – like wald/wold for woodland, or mere for a lake/water.

Grace
Guest
Grace

I’ve always been a fan of foreign and/or ancient names and words for things.

Sarah McCabe
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Sarah McCabe

I make long lists of names for use in my world that I obtain from books of myths and folklore or often from lists of historical figures found on wikipedia or other corners of the internet. I divide my lists of names by the culture that they come from, and pick and choose from them based on the language flavor I am trying to create in my fantasy world. My favorite cultures to use are Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Old Finnish, Celtic cultures from multiple areas (Irish, Breton and Welsh, etc.), Ancient Sumerian/Akkadian, Persian, and more.

Grace
Guest
Grace

That’s a great method. Attention to detail like that is important!

The Magic Violinist
Guest
The Magic Violinist

This is a great reference guide for me. 🙂 Fantasy names are especially hard for me, because there’s a fine line between it being unpronounceable or being too generic. I often end up taking a creature that already exists (such as a unicorn or a troll) and putting my own spin on it. Although I am especially proud of myself for coming up with Mouselets (mice with human-like qualities). Great post!

Grace
Guest
Grace

Glad you enjoyed it! There’s nothing wrong with using established creatures – or even established, real names – and putting your own spin on for a fantasy story. 🙂

Alejandro Saenz
Guest
Alejandro Saenz

Great article 🙂

My friend, Grace from the blog “StorytellerGirl” let me know about this through her post anout with a link 🙂

Cool tips.

Julian Saheed
Guest
Julian Saheed

Great article. I find that I use the ‘come up with new names based on sounds I like’ method. I think if you have multiple cultures in your novel it is important to have similar styles to names. In the same way that different backgrounds hold similar names in the real world. In my current trilogy I try to make sure that by announcing a character’s name the reader will be able to pick out where in the world they are from.

Grace
Guest
Grace

I totally agree about having different sounding names and words to differentiate between cultures – just like the real world.

Mike Reeves-McMillan
Guest
Mike Reeves-McMillan

I use a fourth method. My characters are named using nouns and adjectives. Depending on their religion, they either have nature-based names like Berry and Stone, or abstract names like Hope and Vigilant.

Because our culture has swiped names from many other cultures, we forget that in most cultures names have meanings. Many of mine are translations of the meanings of commonly-used names, in fact (Vigilant is a rough translation of Gregory).

One thing that really annoys me with fantasy names, though I’m probably alone in this: when the theological setup is the usual paganism-lite, and Judaism and Christianity specifically don’t exist, but half the characters have names straight out of the Bible. If you want familiar names so that people can remember them and don’t stumble over them (which is reasonable), there are plenty of Germanic, Celtic, Latin and Greek names to draw on without evoking a cultural phenomenon that’s specifically absent from your worldbuilding.

Of course, simply evoking Germanic, Celtic etc. has its conceptual problems too from a worldbuilding perspective. What I’ve seen done effectively is basing the names on familiar ones, but giving them a slight twist, so it’s clear that this isn’t our world but the readers can still remember the names.

Grace
Guest
Grace

Very good points! And the meaning of names is another whole angle that I didn’t even bring up here – that could be a whole post in itself.

Helen
Guest
Helen

I personally use normal, everyday words that I flip backwards and maybe change a few letters. Oidar,Enalpria, Onaclov and Muilonil are some of my favorites… from Radio, Airplane, Volcano and Linoleum respectively. Just try some words and flip them around and see what you end up with!

Grace
Guest
Grace

Another good trick!

Jennifer McGinnis
Guest
Jennifer McGinnis

I’ve only gone through this once as I’m on my first novel, but the fantasy characters are reminiscent of East African peoples, so I went to google translate to find names for this in Swahili. Like a flying horse is a flying farasi (farasi = horse in Swahili). I also went online to look up African names and picked or slightly changed ones that sounded right for each character. I used a name generator to come up with names for the Watu Haki (fair folk in Swahili, my elvish-like people) and changed the names that came up to match the sound I was looking for. I made them all two-part names with apostrophes in them, to distinguish them from my plain human characters, but left the African flavor in them. For creatures and items, I either used the exact Swahili words or changed them around a bit to be more easily readable or sound the way I wanted them to. It’s been great fun doing this! And if my novel ever reaches East African readers, they will hopefully appreciate being able to see what I did.

Grace
Guest
Grace

I use words and names from other languages all the time in my fantasy writing – if my fantasy culture reflects that real-world culture. Great example!

Marva Dasef
Guest
Marva Dasef

I have a couple of middle-eastern set fantasies. No problem with the mythic creatures like djinn. However, I thought of something descriptive of the characters, then went to the Baby Names site and asked for Arabic interpretations of those descriptions. Thus, my heroine is Setara (star), my genie is Basit (enlarging since he changes apparent size), Shairan (evil genie), etc.

Grace
Guest
Grace

Great idea, and great names!

Darrell Pursiful
Guest
Darrell Pursiful

I am a great fan of the Medieval Names Archive (http://www.s-gabriel.org/names/). You can go into as much or little depth as you care to in constructing culture-specific names, and the introductory articles are great raw data to use in figuring out the basic “rules” for naming people or things.

Antonio del Drago
Admin
Antonio del Drago

What a terrific resource. I’m surprised that I never came across this before.

Thanks for sharing!

Darrell Pursiful
Guest
Darrell Pursiful

It has helped me out many a time! I work at making my contemporary fantasy stories look and feel like an “American melting pot,” so it’s important to me to have a variety of authentic names, all of which sound “correct” for their bearers (Cornish for spriggans, Gaelic for sídhe, Akan or Kru or Wolof, etc. for beings from West African mythology, and so forth). If only it had a few more non-Western resources!

Grace
Guest
Grace

Thanks for sharing this resource!

Antonio del Drago
Admin
Antonio del Drago

Sometimes I like to look through baby naming guides for new parents. If you dig deep enough you’ll find some great, but rarely used names that work well for fantasy characters.

When it comes to naming fantasy creatures, I prefer to go with variations of mythological names. That way you bring the power of archetypes into the equation, which has the potential to evoke an immediate reaction from the reader.

Grace
Guest
Grace

Oh yes, I’m a long-time fan of baby name books. Back when I worked at a book store, I once bought a whole stack of them; my co-workers asked me if there was something they should know that I hadn’t told them yet. I replied “yes. I’m a writer.” 😉

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