Naming Characters

Suzanne Johnson posted today on Roni Loren's writing blog, Fiction Groupie1.

Suzanne is discussing picking names for your characters. This is a topic relevant to EVERYONE and a particular challenge to fantasy authors who so often create cultures from the ground up and can't name their protagonist Joe despite how awesome people named Joe are.


Despite tradition, I am not writing this to disagree with Suzanne. I agree with most everything she says2. No, I am writing this because I DO agree with (most of) her and there is a process I use for naming conventions that I thought I would share. I also have a warning, and we're going to start with that first.

We're in a current Live imitating Art imitating Life loop. We're moving away from the more classic Judeo-Christian names. Unfortunately the rediscovery of some Old World classics that were smothered by Biblical names has reintroduced some names that were lame even back then. So if you're naming your daughter Madison, KNOCK IT OFF! It means "Son of Maud" so think on that a little before you try to preemptively make your kid cool with an uncommon name.

Okay, now to the positivity. Names are a big deal. They can really draw a reader into your character, establish him/her in the same was as pages of prose, and add a degree of atmosphere to your setting. This last bit is what I find most important about names. They establish setting. I don't just pick names that sound cool. I pick names that communicate culture. You won't find a hodgepodge of names in my books, cherry picked from any resource that I find supder-kewl-dude-omg unless the country is a melting pot, a la the US. Instead, I will choose a regional theme and apply it to the entire setting. I find Behind the Name3 incredibly helpful in this regard.

So for example, I chose Scandinavia to be the cultural influence for the kingdom of Reliarach (in my novel, THE TRIAD SOCIETY and its sequels). Most names come from Sweden, but I'll look in Norway, Finland, and Denmark too. So lower class people and a number of places I took from Germany, and for the rural folks that migrated to the city looking for work, I used Polish and Russian names. Not casting aspersions on the Polish or Russian readers out there, just wanted something similar but clearly distinct to my originating Swedish names.

I also like using those names because they're foreign to US readers to make them sound fantastical, but still rooted in something recognizable so they don't struggled to identify them. Fantasy authors frequently violate this rule. They make names so complex and unpronounceable that the first thing the reader does is come up with a nickname. They read the first one or two syllables and skip the rest. You're wasting your time and theirs making the super big Bobomastidonaramanustra. They call him Bob from there on out.

So go! Be more consistent in your naming conventions. Remember, that you lay the first blocks of your setting with the name you pick.

And stop trying to make your kids cool with their names. You don't have to name them all Joe, but it works for boys and girls and peopled named Joe are awesome. Remember that.

1 If you are blogging and include a ton of links like I just did, be sure to add a "target" to your html code. A target dictates where a link opens. In this case we want links to open in a new tab/page so that the user can continue to read our blog without having to navigate back and forth. To accomplish this, we do the following: [a href="URL address" target="_blank">URL name[/a]. Replace [ ] with < > and you're good to go.

2 Despite its numerous Hs, Cthulhu is not hard to pronounce. It's also a dangerous point to make as taking such an iconic figure from fantasy/horror will bait the nerds to argue your nominal point rather than focusing on the larger point being made. And come on, Cthulhu? Really? Out of all the fantasy names out there, that's the one you pick as being hard to pronounce?

3 While I rarely use it, there's also a Behind the Name for surnames!

A Quick Tutorial

It's Memorial Day here in the US, a time to honor those that have served in uniform. We have parades. We grill. We post on Facebook that we honor their memory. What I'm finding, however, is that people don't know how to properly refer to America's armed forces. I see a lot of "in memory of our soldiers" and what have you. Here's a quick list so you don't make this mistake in your writing:

Army = Soldier
Air Force = Airman
Marine Corps = Marine
Navy = Seaman/Sailor

So when that person posted saying he was remembering soldiers, he was only remembering army personnel, which must be a bummer to all the others. (Marines in particular bristle at this mistake because Marines are Marines and they're always Marines.)

A trend that started during our invasion of Iraq is to support the troops! We have replaced armed forces with troops, which is also incorrect. A troop is a grouping of forces (originally at company size, so troops might refer to a battalion or two).

If you want to refer to the armed forces as a whole, call them such. Servicemen/Servicewomen is also acceptable. Or distinguish based on their individual calling if you don't have a mixed group.

If you're genuine about wanting to honor their memory, this little courtesy will help show you mean it.

My people, they have but one bunghole

Extra extra extra tired today. Thus I talk to anyone and everyone to keep myself awake. This does not lead to quality work, but does lead to some fun creativity. Follow this thought process:

I'm talking to my friend Michelle. She says she needs to go eat lunch before she passes out. I keep talking because if I don't I'LL pass out. Eventually I hit a lull and tell her to go eat a burrito


Burrito makes me think of burro.


Burro is a fun word. It makes me think of a really long trilled R. Burrrrrrrrro


Trilled Rs make me think of Roberto. Flicking that R right at the beginning.


Roberto morphs into Boberto


I am changing the name of the main character in WHAT'S BEHIND THE CROOKED DOOR? from Brian to Rob just so I can have a character call him Boberto.

This name is awesome. Envy Boberto. He gets all the chicks.

The Importance of a Name

THE TRIAD SOCIETY is a pre-steam punk fantasy. What does that mean? That means steam technology is in its early advances. I don't have airships or the like. I have steam-infused water and other similar "inventions!" Reliarach is the first kingdom on the Crescent Sea to develop such technology, the other six kingdoms being in the technological dark ages (a pun!). The king of Reliarach is Urban.


The entire story is set in a city where this new technology and its resultant socio-economic impact is tearing everything apart. And I named the king Urban. I wanted to name the king Urban as soon as I decided that I would include a king in the story. Only after the fact did I think it was a cute nod toward the atmosphere I was developing. And after that, I never thought on it again.

Not until now. A beta reader commented that the name was like beating him over the head with the message. OH NO! I hate that. I do not like to be beat about the head or have my ears boxed or any other physical violence from messages. That leads to AYFKM moments!

So now I have to ponder and ponder hard. Is this one person's reaction or should I change the name. I really like King Urban, but at the same time, I will not beat my readers about the head with a name. Twould be akin to beating them with a fish, and no one likes that.

In which I post a second time about semi- and/or unrelated topics

My wife went to Philadelphia this summer to see a men's regional Barbershop competition. (My wife is a competitive Barbershopper.) While there, she bought me some barbecue chicken seasoning. The odor was pretty strong and I was unsure if I would like it. DEAR LORD THIS STUFF IS GOOD! I only bring that up because I'm on my lunch break right now and I'm eating some barbecue chicken. I thought you all should know how delicious my chicken is and how awesome my wife is. I can't remember the name of the market she bought it at. Some place in the city, perhaps Union Station or the like. It's a vendor cart full of spices and the barbecue chicken is delicious.

My wife who loves me calls me Joe (among other personal endearments). So do most of my friends and everyone I work with. When I write, I go by Joseph L. Selby or a derivative thereof. (I picked jlselby for twitter as a means of saving character space for replies). Most people online call me Joseph because that's how they see my name. Recently, both online and at work, I've noticed an increase of people calling me Selby. Not Mr. Selby, which would be formal but acceptable, but just Selby. Now for colleagues, this may normally be appropriate. For strangers, I can't imagine referring to someone by their last name only and thinking I was doing so politely.

For me personally, whether I know someone or not, I hate being called by my last name. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I don't hate my last name. But I am one of many Selbys. I have a large family and they all have the same last name. (Granted, Joe is a common name, but I am Joe Selby and the only one of my name in my family.) So, please don't call me Selby. Especially if you don't know me. Who the hell thinks that's acceptable?

Recently, someone called me JL and that just tickled me to no end. It was on twitter, so it makes sense that they may not know my name if they only ever see me there. And of course there is the need to conserve character space. I intenionally chose jlselby for this blog URL hoping someone would do it again. It's a name I never imagined being called and I smile with amusement every time I think about it. Not that I would permanently adopt that as a professional name. That would take funny to weird, which I reserve for the second date.

Something I got called the other day that I haven't been called in years is Josey. This was my nickname for a long time. No, not Josie (the female name a la Josie and the Pussycates), but Josey (the male name a la the Outlaw Josey Wales). I was sixteen when I was first given that nickname by one of my managers at Burger King. I had a tendency to get in trouble a lot when I was younger (I know, a big surprise, right?) and the Outlaw Josey Selby took hold and held on until I was 25 or so. I never minded it. I love Clint Eastwood westerns (with the exception of Joe Kidd which is a lame movie) and being named after such a seminal movie was all right by me.

Now it's Joe or Joseph, either are acceptable.

I watched Invictus for the first time last night, a Clint Eastwood-directed movie (see how I tied that all together? natch ;). There were (a lot of) trailers before I actually got to movie itself. Among them was the 35-years/35-movies box set from Warner Brothers. This piqued my interest until I counted just how many Clint Eastwood movies I already own and realized it wouldn't be worth the money. They had clips from the interviews with Clint that are included in the special features. I thought I'd share a few (althought not direct quotes, as close as I can get).

The first one that caught me was a discussion on how he made movies like The Outlaw Josey Wales, which were a turn from the kind of westerns that were made at the time. He said he never thought to make movies that other people liked. He made the kind of movies he wanted to see and it turned out that other people wanted to see them too.

For a fantasist who writes with little/no magic and little/no fantastical creatures, this kind of thing is huge. I write the kind of books I want to read! Maybe other people will want to read them too.

The other one was his first offer. He had been rejected so many times over and over and over again that he jumped at the chance when someone finally made him an offer.

WHAT? Someone rejected Clint Eastwood? They rejected Josey Wales? They rejected William Munny? No one rejects William Munny. They get shot by William Munny then they go talk about how exciting it was with all the other people that just got shot by William Munny. There is no rejection of William Munny!

Clint Eastwood got rejected. A LOT. This is exciting. Thirty-five years from now I can talk about how much I got rejected and someone can make a blog post asking how anyone could reject Bastin the Bold or Otwald d'Kilrachen.

I don't know kid, but they did. Keep your chin up. ;)