Sixty second writing tips: coining the right name

Some time after The Lord of The Rings was published, J. R. R. Tolkien fielded a letter from Sam Gamgee. A real Sam Gamgee.

It wasn’t surprising. Tolkien – a philologist –  mined English convention for his Shire and Hobbit names. Another was Peregrin Took – the first name is known, though Steve Peregrin Took wasn’t born with it – his real name was Stephen Ross Porter.

A few authors deliberately use real names. I’m thinking George McDonald Fraser, whose Flashman stories were riddled with real historical figures doing real things. Fun stuff.

Occasionally authors add a real name for other purposes, like the time Michael Crichton included a critic as one of his incidental bad-guys.

My tips? I think that…

1. If you’re writing fantasy, it’s important to have names that sound ‘real’ together – not random collections of syllables kludged up on the spot. Make lists before you start.

2. If the story is set in the present, it has to be a name that won’t leave anybody with the same name offended. One book I read included an unlikeable US Secretary of State named (wait for it…) “Trachea”. Little risk of lawsuit there. Lawsuit? Sure. Your bad guy turns out to have the same name as a genuine individual you weren’t aware of. It’s happened.

3. Coined names that reflect characteristics can work if done judiciously. J K Rowling is a master of it.

Do these tips work for you? Have you ever had trouble creating names for characters? And how have you got around it?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this weekend: ‘write it now’ – pantsing vs structure; and fun with comets.

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6 comments on “Sixty second writing tips: coining the right name

  1. My daughter and I play a game called “name that character” I won the last round with – Zambora Lacroix, a close second to her Nikki St. Pierre. :)

  2. stuartart says:

    Excellent tips Matthew. In my kids series of books I chose names that reflected the traits of the characters – not brilliantly original, but fun. They include: Curio, Hubris, Duce, Premi, Fidella, Vernado, Kynan and many more. :)

  3. S. Thomas Summers says:

    How does Hercules McGraw sound? Interesting post.

    S.Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the Anerican Civil War

  4. Nice tips! Thanks for sharing!

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