by thefourpartland

Names are a critical part of a character, as they draw the eye and catch the readers interest. They provide the theme to the character, and often define his primary characteristic. The names also need to fit the setting. Using Japanese names in an Aztec setting throws the reader out, and causes them to be distracted from the thread of the story. Names should add to the character, and add to the mystique of the plot, not detract.

For me and The Four Part Land, the speech of the setting is from the Gaelic language tree. It’s referred to in the story as the ‘high language’ or the language of naming, whereas most of the daily speech is in traders tongue or the low language. This allows me to drop in names and have characters fit without having to muck about giving English translations for most things. (Side note: do provide translations where it matters to the story, no point confusing the reader with a name that means something and is never explained). It also allows me to use very basic defining characteristics, especially for minor characters. The lookout is called Eagle, an insulting commoner is called Donkey (or Ass), and a sergeant is called Soldier. Yet, when these basic English words are translated into another language (in my case, usually Welsh, sometimes Manx or Cornish), they suddenly became exotic and interesting, through the power of translation. Here’s a basic example: the word Spear becomes Thryferwch, and a character known for his ramrod straight back and focused sense of purpose. If you’re ever having trouble coming up with a character, pick a random word or two, toss it into the translator, and build a personality on what comes back. It’s a wonderful way to quickly generate small characters.

For translation, I just have a few online translators bookmarked, and run a word or two through them and see what comes out. I pick the result that I like the most, and off I go, the character has his name, or the place its descriptor.

Please note that this mostly applies to fantasy or science fiction writing. Otherwise, the names usually end up sounding like they don’t quite belong. I know the information is a bit unorganized, but I hope it helps.


  1. Valerie on 04.06.2010

    Do you worry that a reader who speaks the original language may find that silly? I know I’ve rolled my eyes on seeing characters with Spanish or French “names” that are just translated English words. Or do you count on the fact that you’re using a language most people won’t be familiar with?

  2. Administrator on 04.06.2010

    To a degree, yes. But, there are very few speakers of Welsh in the United States, which is my primary target market, and even in the U.K. it is very unlikely that an individual reader is a Welsh speaker. The language is obscure enough in the English speaking market in general that I’m willing to take the risk.

    As to Cornish or Manx, both languages are dead, having died out in either the 1800s or in the 1950s or so, and there I don’t need to worry about anyone being able to translate the names.

    However, yes, I wouldn’t recommend doing something of this sort in Spanish, French, or another language that is spoken widely across the globe.

  3. Deanna Schrayer on 04.15.2010

    Fortunately I don’t have to get too technical with my character’s names as they tend to be “simple folk”. They usually tell me their names right away, which I realize is a blessing, but if the name sounds weird I’ll look it up to make sure it matches. If it doesn’t, then I have to – ACK! Think! šŸ™‚

    But I’ve only written short fiction for the past year and am just now starting my first novel, set in a small town in northeast TN. Most of the characters are English/Dutch/Welsh in origin, which is quite simple to create, but there are a couple of characters who are Cherokee Indian, so I’m still thinking on those.

    I like your process of naming your characters – sounds fun.

  4. The Four Part Land on 04.15.2010

    It’s quite amusing to just play around and see what comes out. Sometimes I don’t like the first word I try for them, and go onto another.

    However, it can lead to amusing results. I was creating a series of small characters, and ended up naming them all ‘Game’ because the translation came back with so many options.

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