09 April 2017

Naming Names in Epic Fiction

As a kid, I never liked my name. It was too easy for other kids to deliberately mispronounce just to tease me. So once I started writing stories, I thought up several cool pen names to replace the name my parents had foisted upon me. However, I gave up pseudonyms eventually because I decided I needed to use my real name so family and friends would believe I actually wrote the books.

The subject of names continues to impact my life, especially my writing life, because as writers know, names are important. After all, Adam was tasked with naming the flora and fauna of the Garden of Eden, and with each pronouncement, it became real. Each time we cast a label on something, we could be said to name it. And naming creates powerful associations. Our characters’ names are no different, never more so than in fantasy. 

In contemporary fiction, however, names are easy (supposedly) because they are familiar words friends and neighbors might bear. I used to read through baby-name books to find just the right name for a character. Surnames were tougher. I looked in phone books.

Perhaps not every character fiddles with his or her name. Thank goodness they seldom complain. I imagine, however, that characters do what real people do, and fiddling with and changing and using just the right name is as important to them as it is to a lot of us. Sometimes a name is actually a crucial element of a character's psyche, motivation, or raison-d'être.

For example, in my contemporary novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, the heroine, Íris (note the accent mark), is from Iceland and the correct Icelandic pronunciation of her name matters to her. As it turns out, her name is about all she has that is truly hers, so she firmly corrects anyone who speaks her name with the English pronunciation; her friends know how to say it and by that quirk she marks them as friends. “My name is Íris. Like the letter E,” she scolds the male protagonist early on. It is literally a defining moment for her: 'Get my name right, or we’ll have nothing to do with each other.' Her name is a major motif throughout the book.

In another example, the young man in THE DREAM LAND science fiction trilogy who in the last book takes over the story from our hero is named "Chucker". It's a nickname used by his mother since he was a little boy, and since he is now searching for her on another world, it has meaning to him. Visiting Earth on his travels, he meets up with a detective who agrees to help him.

“What do they call you in school? Is it Chuck or Charlie?”
“Chucker is what they call me—but I hate that name. Mom was crazy naming me that. Chuck R. Tucker. The ‘R’ stands for René. Sissy name, ain’t it? That was her dad’s name. Her name was Tucker, and after she got married it was McElroy. Then she changed it back to Tucker. My dad’s name is Chuck. That’s what Grandma said. So everybody calls me Chucker Tucker—ya know, like Chuck R. Tucker? Hate it.”

(For more instruction on naming the characters in THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, click to this blog post.)

And in the ultimate example, Alex Parris is in love with everything about the Trojan War in AFTER ILIUM. In fact, when he meets an older woman named Elena on a cruise ship bound for Turkey, where he will tour the ruins of Ilium, he cannot help but imagine himself as young Paris carrying off his prized Helen to the storied walls of Ilium. That name association is the start of a whole lot of trouble for Alex. Bearing the wrong name is as bad as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In my Japanese romance novel AIKO we again place a name at the center of the story. Of course it has to be a Japanese name. "Aiko" literally means "love" and "child" (愛子) - not an unusual name in Japan but one with other associations to English-language readers. Aiko's mother's family name also has meaning. Nakamori means "in the middle of the forest" if you translate the kanji symbols to their basic meaning. And, yes, our protagonist does search for her in the forest of northern Japan.

Names are important in another recent novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF. The young heroine's birth name means wolf in her native language. After struggling on her own after her mother dies in the harsh landscape of Greenland, she treks to the nearest village. In time she adopts a new name, a Christian name, Anna, but she continues to carry the "wolf" associations with her no matter what name she uses. The associations with "Wolf" are an important feature of the character - a character based on a real person whose real name was "Wolf".
So let me suggest, when you select a character’s name - whether it’s some common Anglo-Saxon name, a Biblical name, or something Chinese, Indian, or whatever - keep in mind the associations the name may have. Think about how the character carries his/her name. How picky is your character about the name? Also, what nicknames may ensue: Elizabeth is a noble name but it boils down to Lizzy. How does the character react to other people using or misusing their names? Will people see Stephen and pronounce it Stefan? Names become another element, another layer, of a character’s identity.

Because what is a name but a marker of identity? It's proof of existence, and for a fictional persona brought magically to life in the pages of a story, existence is everything.

Your homework for next time is to come up with names for the following stock characters in an epic fantasy:
  • The brave, burly hero who is good with swords
  • An old woman who mixes potions in her cave
  • Two little boys who like to play pranks on villagers
  • A beautiful prized mount (which may not necessarily be a horse)
  • The charming princess who may or may not have magic powers


(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. OK, I'm game ...
    The brave, burly hero who is good with swords: Beric.
    An old woman who mixes potions in her cave: Massadre.
    Two little boys who like to play pranks on villagers: Elvin and Evan.
    A beautiful prized mount (which may not necessarily be a horse): Bella.
    The charming princess who may or may not have magic powers: Elise.

    1. Congratulations! You pass.
      (Although Evan, Bella, and Elise do smack of Earthly personages.)