10 rules for better fantasy names

I’ve been playing D&D for two decades. I’ve seen a lot of fantasy names in that time. Some – many – are fantastic. Some – a few – are awful.

I don’t often write listicles, but this one was almost therapeutic. If you like it, or you have a friend who always comes up with terrible names, why not share it round passive-aggressively and see if it sinks in?

(In all seriousness: this is all very subjective. Feel free to disagree in the comments.)

  1. Remember that names are evocative. For example, a short, plosive name can sound simple and down-to-earth; a name with long vowel sounds can sound regal or magical. Draw inspiration from anywhere. Take another name or word and tweak it slightly. Charles Dickens and J K Rowling both uses charactonyms extensively: Scrooge was a pun on screw, Victorian slang for a miser, while Slytherin plays on the words sly and slithering. Or steal from other languages. For example, Tolkien drew on Welsh, Finnish, and Old English when writing The Lord of the Rings.       
  2. Follow the conventions of the world. This one is really important to me. In most campaign settings, the names of dwarves, elves, orcs, and halflings will probably have a distinct feel. And there other idiosyncracies. In Eberron, royal families add ir’ in front of their surname, and those born of dragonmarked houses add d’. These details help to create consistency, which in turn help to build a living, breathing world. Don’t trample your DM’s world-building by giving your character a name that is completely incongruous. (On that note: personally, I love silly names, but save them for one-shots. Joke names tend not to be very funny after two or three sessions.)    
  3. Try to spell the name as phonetically as possible. Sometimes this can be hard: the name is easy enough to say (see below) but you’re not sure about the spelling. (English has 44 phonemes and 26 letters, so there’s plenty of scope for confusion.) If you’re stuck, try asking other people how they would spell the name. Alternatively, give your spelling to other people and see how they pronounce it. It’s not always possible to get it completely right, but you can at least have a stab at getting it right.
  4. Your name should be easy to say. It might be amusing as a one-off to have a character whose name is unpronounceable, but for a recurring character, it’s just annoying. It’s a name, not an Internet password. In particular, think carefully about whether you really need a ‘Q’, an ‘X’, diacritics (accents, umlauts, circumflexes) or a glottal stop (usually marked with an apostrophe). Back away from consonant clusters, too: in English, it’s relatively rare to have more than three together, and they can easily become awkward or unpleasant to say (although you do see impressive consonant clusters in words like sixths and glimpsed).
  5. Three syllables is plenty. In most real-life languages, given names are one, two, or three syllables. There are a few cultural exceptions, but this is generally true otherwise. Think carefully about whether you really need a name longer than this. If you think your dragon needs to be called something ridiculous like Whadahellaryucallinmethisforax, bear in mind that the most famous dragon in fantasy is called Smaug – one syllable – and the most powerful dragon in the Forgotten Realms is called Klauth – ditto. (Judging by this entry on Wikipedia, less than ten percent of English words have five or more syllables.)
  6. In many cultures, feminine names end in ‘-a’ or ‘-ee’ sounds. I don’t know exactly why this is, but it’s surprisingly international. If you want your character to have a particularly masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral vibe, then it’s worth bearing in mind. I’m not saying this is a rule – there are exceptions, of course, like Joshua and Evelyn – but it’s interesting.
  7. Try to make sure party members’ names don’t start with the same letter. I believe this tip came via Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. It’s a good one. Yes, some letters can be pronounced differently (eg, the ‘G’ in Gemma and Gordon), but, come on, there are 25 other letters to choose from.  
  8. If you have a surname, think about where it comes from. Most English surnames are either derived from parents’ names (eg, Jackson, Jefferson, Wilson), places (eg, Washington, Lincoln, Bush, Ford), occupations (eg, Carter, Taylor, Tyler), or some attribute of a person’s character or appearance (eg, Grant – an old word for tall – and Truman). Of course, in a fantasy world, there might be other conventions. Bonus tip: you don’t need a surname. In all likelihood, you won’t use it much (see below).   
  9. Consider what your character will be known as. Even characters with relatively short names can have them abbreviated further or modified somehow. Daenerys Targaryen became Dany. Samwise became Sam. Sméagol became Gollum. Similarly, they might have a title or descriptor, like ‘the Hound’ or ‘Littlefinger’.
  10. Simple names are fine. Speaking of Game of Thrones, what’s wrong with ‘Jon Snow’? Star Wars has ‘Luke Skywalker’, ‘Han Solo’, and ‘Yoda’. Harry Potter has, well, Harry Potter. Don’t try so hard. If the most interesting thing about your character is their name, there might be other things to think about.

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