Names are an essential part of every novel. And depending on the scope of your story, you will need dozens, if not hundreds of names throughout your story. Whether its characters, cities, language, or creatures, you’ll need to come up with names for every single one of them.
The big question is, how do I come up with unique names? As I’ve searched for ways to come up with unique names for my stories I’ve found seven ways that have helped me create a unique world. Each of them can be useful on their own, but you can easily combine two or three of them to come up with some truly wonderful names.
To help you organize your names, I recommend using a simple Excel/Google Sheet list like this one. Make columns for different categories, make your own or copy my example. I find that when I focus on a certain type of name the ideas come a little easier. More about that later.
7 Ways to Name Elements of Your World
Pull a word out of the air.
Creativity begets creativity. Write down a random word/name, assign it to a category. Then come up with spelling variations of the word.
Example: Teleren, Telaran, Tilaron, Tollaran, Tollan, Telren
Change letters of real words
Pick a word that starts with a letter you like and add/remove and rearrange letters. Certain letters give names a specific feel to them. K and G feel very dwarven and harsh, while F and L flow a lot more.
Example: From tree you can get traa or trae, traen, trenan. Lion can become Leon, Lilon, Lin, Lynn, Liddonar.
Baby name lists!
There are some truly creative people out there, for good, or for bad. Here are a couple good ones I’ve looked over. The Bump, Baby Names, Mom Junction
Examples: Cora, Avery, Mason, Aria, Axel
Choose a number of letters and brainstorm from there.
Creativity loves constraints. If someone asked you to come up with ten new names right now, you might get stumped and default to names you’ve heard before, (maybe not) but if you had to come up with ten three letter names it would be much easier. Often when people ask us to come up with ideas, the first thing we do is ask for more information. We want constraints put on the assignment so we know how to give them what they are looking for. The same can be said for brainstorming. Create your own limitations and run with those.
Example: Don, Len, Jac, Tes, Sal, Tel, Tre, Tem
Use descriptive language.
Pick an attribute of the character or place you want to name and build from there.
Example: Black Beard, Fairy Godmother, Captain Hook, The Dark Swamp, Misty Mountains, Peaks of Dread, City of Light.
When I first heard of Pinterest, I thought it super for women. While yes the main demographic is women, it is for everyone! If you’re really stuck and have exhausted your own creativity. Go on Pinterest and browse the hundreds of names other people have generated.
Here’s a board to get you started. Naming Characters
Explore the world on Google Maps
Find a culture that exists in the world and use names from those countries. I had the chance to live in Ghana for two years and I only visited a mere fraction of the places there. Ghana is filled with unique names perfect for a fantasy story. With millions of cities across the world there’s a good chance your readers have never heard of them before.
Example: Teshi, Asamankese, Mateheko, Ashaaman, Accra, Temp and Koforidua.
Keep track of your name ideas with a simple Google Sheet like this one.
If you aren’t great with Google Sheets, let me know and I’d be happy to help set something like this up.
Sometimes, no matter how much brainstorming you do, you can’t seem to find the right name for a character or city in your world. Or maybe you are just a Pantser who wants to figure it out as you go. Keep in mind coming up with names mid-story can really put a halt to the writing. Instead of coming to a screeching stop hoping the right name will come to you, a strategy you can use is input a placeholder word in brackets that you will never use in your story.
Example: They crested the top of the hill and stopped. They had imagined the city many times on their way here, but nothing could have prepared them for this. The walls of (elephant) soared dozens of paces high, broken only by the evenly spaced spires shooting towards the heavens.
When you’re done with the story, or ready to edit, use Ctrl+F to find every instance of the placeholder word and replace it. You can use the same word every time you’re stuck, or use different words for each category.
One Last Thing
Avoid names that are too similar with characters that are on the same tier in your story. Don’t have a secondary character named Adilynn, and another secondary character named Aolynn. I found that Robert Jordan, with his hundreds of characters, had quite a few tertiary characters that had very similar names. They appeared often enough to be important, but not frequently enough to stay perfectly memorable, which led to some confusion.
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