A Random Name Generator in Disguise

One of the things I occasionally get asked is how I make up names for my characters. To which the answer, if you’re talking about secondary world fantasy like The Godless World, is: mostly I just make them up, playing around with sounds and letters in my head until something vaguely plausible (and roughly consistent with the other names I’ve already used) volunteers itself.

Generally speaking, I reckon it’s worth sticking with the idea of inventing your own names, even when the creative juices are flowing sluggishly, just because names are – or should be – a pretty important element of a story. They’re more than just badges: they can convey mood and character and cultural affiliation; they can create expectations in the reader’s mind that you can then confirm or subvert; they can carry symbolic and metaphorical weight.

Sometimes, though, I guess a little bit of external inspiration might help, and there’s a ridiculously large amount of it available.

You can just go the direct route and press a few buttons on a purpose-designed fantasy name generator (though with this, and all other methods I’ll mention, I’d suggest still tweaking any results to take proper ‘ownership’ of the names and make sure they fit your setting and story and intent).

Or if you’re looting real world cultures for a fantasy milieu, you can mine the rich and varied strata of baby name lists. They come in all flavours, whether you’re looking for Celtic influenced names, or Native American.

Or you could make the quest for names a rewarding and educational process in itself and immerse yourself in some weighty historical tomes. Personally, I’d recommend trying some Byzantine history, since it covers in excess of a thousand years and a whole load of different cultures, from Roman and Greek through Turkish and Armenian and Arabic. There’re some very fine names buried in there, let me tell you.

Or, and here we get to the thing that made me think about all this in the first place, you could put your faith in a weirder approach. I noticed a while back that the anti-spam comment filtering process on this, and presumably all other Blogger blogs, had subtly changed (unless it was always like this and I’d never noticed). When the software shows you some wobbly letters and asks you to repeat them back to it, those letters have started displaying a strange and appealing coherence. They are no longer random; instead, they’re clearly psuedo-words. Or, more relevantly, wannabe names.

Just by hitting the refresh button repeatedly, I harvested (amongst a few clearly unuseable tongue-twisters) the following list of what looks to me a lot like name seeds for fantasy characters: phathea, miculap, porev, potlycos, sches, speres, cysedi, incia. Now these are weird fantasy names, admittedly, but there’s potential there. I particularly like Porev, Sches and Cysedi as starting points for some name play, myself.

Not what the designers had in mind, obviously, but I’ve no doubt the cockles of their heart are warmed by the thought that they might unintentionally offer aid to the desperate and despairing fantasy writer in his or her hour of name-blocked need.

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