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The Art of Fantasy Names March 1, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Fantasy, On Writing.
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What would you name this creature?

I haven’t done any posts on fantasy writing tips for a while – but I have a few lined up, beginning with how to name things in your fantasy world.

I’m the first to admit that I absolutely suck at coming up with original and intriguing names.  I don’t just mean names for characters, but also names of locations (eg towns, kingdoms, forests, mountains, rivers etc), objects (ordinary, mystical or otherwise), flora and fauna, magical spells, religions – the list goes on and on.  When you are creating a fantasy world from scratch, everything needs to have a name.

However, coming up with the right name is harder than it appears (at least for me, anyway).  When you create an original character, you have to give them a name.  I’ve done so with all the characters for my fantasy novel, but I’m not happy with a lot of them.  Many of the names were made up years ago for one reason or other, and have been forgotten, remembered, changed and modified dozens of times.  I’ve decided to just stick with the temporary names until I complete the first draft, or else I’d never finish.

Here are some thoughts on the topic.

Picking a name that sticks and matches

It’s important to pick a name that readers will remember.  This is probably moreso in the fantasy world than in a story that reflects real life.  It doesn’t have to be completely unique, but it needs to be a name that matches the thing you are naming.  For a character, a name can give away clues about a wide variety of things, such as their personality, physical attributes, age and place of birth, ethnicity, social background etc.  For a location, it can reveal the type of place your characters live in or are going to – at the end of the day, it’s all about the connotations that come with the name, the feeling the name evokes in the reader.

For instance, you wouldn’t call a beautiful girl “Smaug” or a mighty male warrior “Jenny” (I can’t even come up with decent examples).

Memorable novels tend to have memorable names.  The easiest to bring up are JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien, because just about everyone knows their works and their characters.  When you say the name “Hogwarts”, everyone knows you are talking about Rowling’s books.  Similarly, when you refer to names like “Gandalf”, “Gollum” or “The Shire”, the image of Tolkien’s Middle Earth springs up in your mind.

The thing is, names don’t always have to be unique.  They just need to match whatever you are naming.  Look at Rowling’s use of simple names, such as “Harry Potter” or “Ron Weasley”, compared to more unique names like “Albus Dumbledore” and “Severus Snape”.  Both types of names are memorable, but can connote different things.  Readers may be able to relate more to common names like Harry and Ron.  It might also indicate the differences in age and culture (the former more “muggle” and the latter more magical).  Of course, a lot of how memorable a name is has to do with the characters themselves, but it doesn’t hurt having a good name that matches.  Just imagine switching the names of those characters around and you’ll realise that it doesn’t work.

Another thing to be wary of is using a name so closely linked to character, place or object that would make the use seem too blatant, even if it does match.  For example, the “Muscled Warrior” for a muscly warrior, or say the “Tall Mountain” for a tall mountain (two more bad examples).  There are less obvious ones too, like names that you see too often, such as “Fox” (for sleek people with red hair) or “Wolf” (for savage loners).  “Hawk” and “Raven” are also common ones.  Not to say you shouldn’t use them, but just be aware of difficulties such names may cause.

Pick a name that sounds right and you can pronounce

I always read out the name that I created out loud to see if it sounds right.  If it doesn’t then I scrap the name.  The name doesn’t necessarily have to be aurally pleasant.  It just needs to sound right.

Take Tolkien and Rowling again.  Names like “Saruman” and “Voldemort” just roll off the tongue.  There are exceptions (especially for really well made characters), but again, it doesn’t harm your story to have a good sounding name.  I always thought “Tyler Durden” (Fight Club) was a cool name.

Also, it’s critical that you pick names you can actually pronounce. Whenever I see a name littered with apostrophes or contain more than five syllables I started to get confused.  Not to say you can’t use them, but make sure there’s a good reason for doing it.  Never make a name too complicated just because you can. If you can’t even pronounce the name properly (or you leave too much room for individual interpretation of the pronounciation), it will make it difficult for the name to stick.

Pick a name that is consistent

When creating a world, it’s important to remain consistent.  The same should go for names you use in that world.  If every character in your Kingdom has ordinary names like “James”, “Michael” and “Jane”, it would be weird if you suddenly tossed in a “Makunouchi” or “Sawamura”.  If you do, there needs to be a good reason, like they were from another place where everyone has Japanese-sounding names.  If they are from the same place, they should have the same broad type of name with linguistic similarities.  Again, not to say there are not exceptions.  One technique I like to use is to put myself in the shoes of someone living in that particular place and ask myself if I would give my child that name.

The same rule goes for locations and objects.  The best thing is to use your common sense and logic.  If the name doesn’t match or sound right, chances are it doesn’t belong.

Also, try and remain consistent with the real world wherever possible.  So if a creature looks and acts like a horse, then call it a horse.  Don’t try to be too cute.  There is no purpose for calling it something else.

Creating semi-original names

Coming up with completely original names can cause massive losses of brain cells.  One technique that appears to be commonly employed, especially for fantasy authors, is to look up existing names and modify them (check out the links below).  Sometimes, just changing a letter here or a syllable there can make a name sound unique, and yet be able to relate to readers.  A favourite is to use names from biblical texts, 0ld Celtic names or other ancient dialects, but using existing names in today’s world can work just as well.

Google it

One of the most annoying things is to think you have come up with the coolest, most original name all by yourself, and then find out that it’s not original at all.  Therefore, whenever I think I have come up with a good name, I’d Google to check if the name already exists and where it has been used.  Often I would find that my cool creation is the name of some company in a foreign country.  It won’t stop me from using the name, but if it turns out to be something that is used more commonly than I would like, then I would consider changing the name.

Name Generators

There are shortcuts to coming up with names.  One of them is to modify existing names as discussed above.  A more extreme way is to use Name Generators.  Why use your brain when you can use a computer program?

There is a plethora of such generators around on the web that come up with different names for you.  I too am guilty of using a couple of these.  After all, there is a Name Generator built into the writing program I am using, NewNovelist 2 (which I did a comprehensive review of).  But instead of using the generated names outright, I tend to mix and match the combinations a bit and also change a few letters or syllables here and there so I don’t feel as bad for being unoriginal.

Here are some good online Name Generators (in no particular order).  I recommend checking out at least a few if you are stuck for names.  Each has a slightly different system to generating the name.

  • Fantasy Name Generator by Samuel Stoddard – a very advanced generator which gives you options of serious names, fun names and specialised names.
  • Behind the Name’s Random Name Generator – awesome website that can generate names from dozens of languages, including historical and biblical ones, as well as specialised names such as Witch and even Transformer!
  • The Everchanging Book of Names – a program you have to download (for free) and is extremely useful (I plan to use this to come up with better names myself), and can name not only characters but also things such as fabrics and horses.
  • Historical Name Generator: 16th Century Irish and Scottish Gaelic Names – for those that like old-sounding Gaelic names.
  • Chris Pound’s Language Machines – another fantastic name generator for not only characters but creatures and spells, and are specifically categorised.
  • Cult of Squid’s Random Name Generator – pick a template (cultural, geographical, and others) then use it to generate names of peole, places and ideas – very useful, especially if you want a good name for a geographical location that sounds cool.
  • Yafnag (Yet Another Fantasy Name Generator) – self-explanatory.  The good thing with this one is you can generate lots of names at once to pick from and you can pick the desired lengths of names.
  • Random Name Generator – this uses data from the US census to generate random names, and you can even pick the level of obscurity!  Good for those that want to come up with names that reflect the real world (though sometimes it makes you wonder…).
  • Seventh Sanctum – not just fantasy names, but a whole load of different types of generators – eg martial arts moves, weapons, swords, magic.  Really worth a visit.  I will be when fixing up my first draft.
  • The Elvish Name Generator – for those that like Elvish names.  Also has a separate Hobbit Name Generator.  Enter real names and it generates your Elvish or Hobbit name.
  • Fairy Name Generator – similar to the above one for Elvish and Hobbit names.
  • The Pagan Name Generator – for lovers of Pagan names.

Resources and further reading

If you would like to read more about creating names from someone who actually knows what they are talking about, a good starting point is the article “What’s in a Name” by Moira Allen.  There is also an interesting article in the Washington Post by author Elinor Lipman entitled “The Writing Life” which discusses the importance of picking the right name.

Here are some other resources you may find helpful:

  • Behind the Name – the eptymology and history of first names – a website with loads of information about the source and meanings of names from dozens of cultures and in mythology.  For people who want to get a little more in-depth knowledge about the names they are choosing.
  • Baby Names – more of a general website but can be beneficial in coming up with more ordinary names and finding out which baby names are and have been popular.  The Baby Name Network is a similar site with similar features.
  • Celtic Name Meanings – thousands of Celtic names and what they mean.
  • Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names Online – a tool which helps you find geographic names around the world.
  • Medieval Names Archive – a website with tons of information about medieval names that will take a while to navigate, but could be worth it if your fantasy world is medieval in nature.

Writing Programs and a comprehensive review of NewNovelist 2 February 1, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing.
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Why use a writing program?

What should be made clear from the outset is that a writing program will not help you write your novel.  You still have to do all the hard work yourself.  But it can help make life a little easier.

Most established writers frown upon software or programs that purport to assist writers with their writing, whether it’s a novel or a screenplay.  But for newbies to novel/sceenplay writing (like me), such programs can be exteremly helpful.  It can assist new writers who are unfamiliar with the craft to organise their ideas and characters, to build their story in a systematic and more efficient manner. 

It’s certainly not for everyone.  People who already have their own preferred styles of approaching writing may find it distracting.  I’ve also heard people say that most of the functions in these writing programs can be found in Microsoft Word – you just need to learn how to use it.

The writing program I’m using to write my novel is called NewNovelist (version 2).  I came across it by accident, in one of those Facebook ads on the side of the page that I normally don’t look at twice.  You can still get 10% off if you purchase it using the code bk456.  Read more about the program at the NewNovelist  website.  (NB: If you google ‘writing program’ or ‘writing software’, NewNovelist is the program that will come up most frequently)

NewNovelist 2

I have never used specialist writing software before, so there’s not much I can compare NewNovelist to.  I’ve only heard that NewNovelist 2 is a huge upgrade on the first version of the program.

Why did I get it?

So why did I get a writing program?  Well, I’ve said this a few times already, but I had been working on my fantasy novel on and off for 7 years.  The writing was extremely sporadic – I’d work on it when I felt like it and only on scenes I felt like writing.  Nothing was chronological or consistent.  I wrote some on the computer, occasionally on loose sheets of paper, and mostly in notebooks.  It was all over the place.  Some plot points would contradict each other.  Other times I would forget character or place names.  It just became very hard to organise.  It’s not the main reason but it was one of the reasons why the novel never really got off the ground.

So when I saw NewNovelist by chance, I took it as a sign.  The advertisements made the product seem good enough.  So I gave it a shot.  Without the 10% discount, it costs US$54.99 by download or US$59.99 for download + a CD copy.  I went with the download option.  The download was very fast and the installation was smooth.

I discuss some of the program’s features and problems below.  However, so far I have been pleased with it.  Would I be writing my novel without it?  Probably.  But at that point in time, New Novelist was exactly what I needed to give myself that extra push, that little nudge to get me started.  I haven’t stopped writing since.


Wizard phase

The first main feature of New Novelist is that it starts with a writing wizard that guides you through the introductory stages of your novel.  This entails 4 steps:

1. Choosing a name (mine is still ‘Untitled’)

2. Deciding a story concept (describing your story in a couple of sentences)

‘3. Choosing the story category (Plot, Epic or Character)

4. Choosing the story type (many to choose from, depending on your category)

Depending on your choices in steps 3 and 4, the wizard will give you pre-determined pointers on how your story should progress.  This is really for writers who are just beginning, and probably don’t have an idea of which direction they want to go in.  Personally, this was a little useless for me as I already had a specific idea of how my story was going to run and the key plot points were pretty much decided.  For the record I chose ‘Plot’ for my story category and ‘Chase’ for my story type.

Unique side panels

After the wizard stage, the program takes you into the main page.  It looks like a typical Microsoft Word page, but with less toolbar functions at the top.  But it has two very special features which makes it unique – two panels on either side that allow you to explore various aspects of your story.

The left panel is labelled ‘Chapter’ and has underneath it the phases your novel should go through.  Under each phase, there are pointers on what you should write about, how long that phase should be in the context of the novel length, and real life examples from other well-known novels.  You start off with the generic ones that are given to you because of the story type you have chosen.  I found the tips a little helpful, but if you have your own idea of what the novel should be like, you can just ignore it.  However, the good thing is that you can add extra phases any way you like, and you can write in short summaries of what takes place in that phase yourself.  I found this function to be a lot more useful.

The right panel is labelled ‘Resources’, and I think this is what makes NewNovelist useful for me.  Under this panel, there are several sub-categories: Characters, Places, Objects and Research & Ideas.  This will allow you to flesh out your characters (appearance, personality, etc – you can even put in a picture), the places and objects in their world.  The program can even generate thousands of sample names, places and objects for you if you can’t think of any yourself.  The ‘Research & Ideas’ category is exactly that – you can write little notes on whatever you want and even put in your bookmarks to keep a track of your online resources.

With these two panels on the side, you can tap into your notes whenever you want, even if it’s just to give you a reminder of what a character, place or object is supposed to look like.

Other features

At the bottom of the screen, there are 3 additional buttons: Help, Publish and Words.  There’s also supposed to be an extra function where the program will read out loud back to you what you’ve written – but it does not work for Windows Vista (which I have), so I can’t comment on it.

The ‘Help’ button has a few sub-categories, but there are really only 2 worth mentioning.  The first is ‘Writing the Opening Line of My Novel’, which gives generates a few opening lines for the procrastinators to get started.  The second is ‘Tips on Writing’, which has a few short chapters on writing tips, such as Surprises, Timing Structure etc.  This is a nice little thing to have, but the information is limited and static.  You’d be much better off finding more detailed information in books or online.

When you are finally done with the novel, you can click on the ‘Publish’ button to transform the novel into a PDF file.  NewNovelist files are unique – you cannot simply import them into Microsoft Word or other programs (but you can still do the old ‘cut and paste’). 

The third button, ‘Words’, is more or less a dictionary/thesaurus.  Again, while useful to have, I found that I could find much better and more extensive dictionaries/thesuaruses online.

Pros and Cons

NewNovelist 2 is a good program.  For me, it was just what I needed to organise all my thoughts and ideas and years of messy notes into one central source I can tap into with ease.  The right ‘Resources’ panel is what makes it worthwhile to own.  I’ve got biographies for almost 50 characters, descriptions for almost 40 locations and around 20 objects at my disposal.  The ‘Research and Ideas’ tab is also great – I’ve got all my useful writing resources stacked up in there, and more than a dozen notes from anything on geography to history to timelines for my novel.  The left ‘Chapters’ panel has also been quite helpful in preparing concise summaries for each chapter.  It really does make my writing a whole lot easier.

The program wizard that gets you started is good and bad.  For writers who aren’t really clear on what they want to do or are unsure of how the structure of a novel works, it can be very beneficial to pick a novel type/category and then have handy hints on how to tackle it.  It’s also good for writers to have lots of ideas and want to write lots of different styles of books.  However, the wizard tends to pigeon-hole novels into specific categories, and that doesn’t always work.  Novels can easily cross several genres and don’t necessarily belong in a particular category.  Writers who want to explore different styles and structures might find the wizard somewhat frustrating.

NewNovelist has gotten me on track with my novel, so I can’t complain about it.  But there are a few nagging problems with it that the makers of the software can hopefully fix by the 3rd version.

First, and the most obvious problem is the lack of a word count function.  I’m not even asking for a continuous word count – just something to tell you how many words you have in total.  So to count my words, I need to cut and paste from each chapter into Microsoft Word.  It’s annoying but it’s not fatal.

Second, the two panels on either side cannot remain open while you write in the middle.  This means I can’t read my chapter summary or my character attributes and write at the same time.  I’ve got to go into the panel, read it, then go back and write (or alternatively cut and paste it).  Again, annoying, but not a dealbreaker.

Third, the notes you can make in the ‘Research and Ideas’ tab – the space you get to write is awfully small.  You essentially need to scroll down after every couple of lines.  It would have been much better if you could enlarge or decrease the sizes of the various panels.

Fourth, the long loading time.  My laptop is not slow, but it takes ages to load up the novel.  It takes so long that I worry the machine is stuffed (because it usually says ‘Not Responding’ at the top) – you just need to be patient and wait, I suppose.

Fifth, if you accidentally press the ‘Close’ button (for the program), it only asks you if you want to save or not.  You don’t get to cancel and go back into the program.  I’ve done this a few times and it’s always irritating because it takes so long to load the program back up again.

Sixth, the writing resources.  It’s helpful for the novice but it’s not extensive enough.  They should either expand it considerably or provide links to more extensive resources online.

Lastly, there are a few nagging bugs here and there.  I just discovered last night that you can’t type more than a certain number of characters in a particular chapter.  If it gets too long, it stops you from typing – you just have to open up a new chapter and write in that.  Also, you always need to press ‘Done’ any time you update a Chapter or Character, Place or Object.  If you forget to do it and jump out of the panel, all is lost.  It’s your own fault but you can’t help but wish that it wasn’t like that.  And finally, sometimes the ‘Done’ button doesn’t even work – this usually happens if you type too much in the space or if you create too many sub-categories.

I hope I don’t sound too negative.  NewNovelist 2 has its problems, but it is its benefits that make it a good program to own for new aspiring novel writers.

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