In Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, magic is accomplished when wizards learn the true names of things. Discover the true name of fire, and it is yours to command. In fairy tales, if you learn Rumplestilskin's name, the evil sprite is banished. Speak of the Devil, though, and he shall appear.
Names have power, especially in fiction. Use the right names, and the characters and places you write about assume added depth and resonance. Use the wrong ones, and your story at best will be forgettable, at worst, laughable.
While choosing the right names is never easy for writers of any stripe, authors of science fiction, fantasy (and to a lesser degree, horror) have an especially tough time of it. Mainstream writers can use the names of friends, relatives and co-workers. They can set their stories in their hometown and use the names of its diner, high school, laundromat, altered only slightly, if at all. But where can writers of speculative fiction go to find names for the characters and places which make up their more exotic dreamscapes?
You can start the same place many expectant parents do -- baby name books. Sure, they're full of ordinary names, but they also contain not-so-ordinary ones. A glance through one of my favorites, Beyond Jennifer and Jason by Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, turned up the following: Adria, Amyas, Diantha, Doria, Garson, Kai, Merce, Sekka, Tamar and Zaraawar. All suitable for a science fiction or fantasy story.
There are other naming resources geared specifically for writers. The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon contains, as the cover copy says, "20,000 first and last names and their meanings from around the world." The name lists are separated into categories such as Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, German, etc. I often choose character names by scanning the corresponding meanings. Want your fantasy warrior's name to mean brave? Try Cathasach. Want your villain's name to mean dark? How does Duvessa sound? Horror author Yvonne Navarro has complied a volume called The Reverse Name Dictionary which makes this process even easier.
Another resource that I sometimes use to come up with names is the phone book. Uncommon surnames, when used as first names, often have an archaic or fantastical feel to them. Choosing at random for this article, I found Hython, Krabill, Maddala, Norrod, Uffner ... I could go on and on.
Of course, these names don't work only for individual characters. They could just as easily be the names of alien races, or countries in a fantasy land.
Foreign language dictionaries can be of great help. If I'm writing a medieval fantasy and I don't feel like using the tired term wizard for my magic workers, I might turn to my Latin dictionary and find magus and veneficus. Neither floats my boat, so I start free-associating. What do magicians do? They perform tricks. I look up trick and one of the words I find next to it is artificium. With a little tweak, that becomes Artificer. And now I have a term that not only sounds good, it's more original.
A thesaurus works well for this too. For example, in my novel, The Harmony Society, I wrote a sequence which took place in a nightmarish hospital. I went to my Roget's, looked up hospital, and eventually came across the old-fashioned term fever house. Fever House -- what better name could there be for a place of madness and death?
And then there are those happy accidents when names just come to you. While I was in the process of plotting The Harmony Society, I was listening to the car radio and heard the singer refer to "Brother Nothing." Hot damn, what a great name! I thought enviously. But the next time the refrain came around, I realized I had misheard. Brother Nothing wasn't a name; the singer was actually saying, "Brother, nothing you can do will stop me," or somesuch. Thanks to the perversity of my own subconscious, I had a name for my novel's main antagonist.
Lest you become too self-conscious about choosing names, I'll let you in on a secret. Even such inevitable-seeming names such as Sherlock Holmes and Luke Skywalker seem that way only after the fact. It's a bit of folklore that children will grow to fit their names. It might not be true for real people, but it certainly is for fictional ones. As long as your characters' names aren't strings of unpronounceable consonants or inspired by Saturday morning cartoons -- "Look out, Commander Galaxy! Here come the Sinistars!" -- you should be all right.
Besides, I thought Luke Skywalker sounded pretty stupid the first time I heard it. And I hear the kid's gone on to do all right for himself.
This article was first published in the Nov. 1997 edition of Word Museum