The Speculative Fiction Writer’s Dilemma: Inventing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Names

Writers of fiction have a difficult job. We must invent an entertaining story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. As if that isn’t enough, we must populate that story with interesting characters. To top it off, all those characters must be named. You can’t simply call the characters in a novel Hero, Love Interest, Sidekick, Comic, Villain, Distraction, Redshirt 1, Redshirt 2, Antagonist, Sage, or any other generic archetypal label, even if that’s what they are. Imagine how boring—how unimaginative—a story would be using only labels and not names.

fantasyCitySmallNow, for writers whose stories take place in the real world, whether contemporary or historical, names are pretty easy. Finding just the right moniker for each character in your story may require a little research, but there are online sources to look up common names from most any era or language. Find some that you like, then test them out to determine how they flow within the narrative. For example, “Dinkell” may not be a good choice for a tall, muscular, heroic guy. Likewise, “Cruella” just doesn’t sound like a sweet, innocent choir director. They just don’t fit a typical hero and his love interest. A better choice may be Roy and Belinda. See how easy it is!

Writers of science fiction and fantasy have a much more difficult time with names. In the first place, by its very nature, speculative fiction frequently requires inventing languages, cultures, people, and places that are not in the “real” world. Character names appropriate to the invented fantastical place and time are not plucked from thin air—they are slaved over, hatched, brainstormed, doodled, and frequently inspired by the oddest sources. And just when the fantasy/sci-fi writer thinks they have invented the perfect name for their main character—BAM! It turns out that very name was used in some role-playing video game, or sounds too much like an infamous Star Trek villain, or came straight from Middle Earth.

SSpaceStation_640o it’s back to scraping the bottom of the well of infinite ideas to come up with something else. Something different. Fresh. How many ways can a writer bend, stretch, scrunch, twist, and mutilate a sequence of letters to fashion a name? You can always leave out vowels—just substitute an apostrophe! Throw in plenty of x’s and z’s and q’s because for some reason they seem exotic. The resulting alphabet soup is certainly unique. And certainly unpronounceable, just like Mr. Spock’s last name.

On a recent trip to the well of inspiration, I made a slight detour and ended up scanning through TV channels where ads for pharmaceuticals dominated the airwaves. It struck me that names of prescription drugs sound like places and people from science fiction and fantasy. Think about it. Predaxa. Xarelto. Arixtra. Lunesta. Exelon. Stelara. Zyvox. Those are lovely names for heroes, villains, any kind of character in a speculative story. Prozac, though, is not a character name. That’s definitely a planet. A planet with very laid-back inhabitants.

How do the drug companies come up with those names? I have no idea. But I did find a name generator online. So, the next time you need to invent names, try this website. The drug name generator. Even if it doesn’t help spark a little inspiration, it’s good for a giggle. There’s even a version for fantasy names that just might generate a real guffaw.

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