What if Aragorn was called Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy? And Bilbo was named Sauron? The trilogy would have made quite a different read. Let’s take a quick look at how to come up with memorable, yet relevant names for the characters in your fantasy novels.

What Not To Do

I’ll never forget the time I was reading through the Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was in my teens, and it gave me a great escape from the angst of the time.

So I came across a character named Sauron. Interesting, l thought. Sauron is evil, a baaad man. Sort of like my teachers. Anyway, Sauron wasn’t mentioned again for a while. Then a familiar name appeared. Saruman. I gave that name the same mental association as Sauron, and I read on, believing that Saruman was indeed Sauron.

Well this happened throughout the novel as I repeatedly confused the two characters. It wasn’t until book three or so that I realized they were two different characters.

The lesson? Don’t use the same letter for the first name of your major characters. You’ll save your readers a world of grief. It’s also good to vary the lengths of your character names, to further avoid boring and confusing your readers.

What To Do

A character’s name should hint at that character’s personality. The names of good guys usually roll smoothly off the tongue, and are generally more than one syllable, because longer names denote intelligence and upper class. Gandalf, Aragorn, Bilbo. Those names have an almost heroic sound. Gandalf is “Grand Elf.” Aragorn is “Arrogant”–a character trait many associate with the upper class is arrogance. Bilbo Baggins, meanwhile, makes you imagine a humorous sort of man, someone who you’re not meant to take entirely seriously. It’s not a coincidence that many of the hobbits have humorous-sounding names.

Conversely, the names of the bad guys are usually short and harsh-sounding. Short, harsh names evoke images of low class, and slow thinkers. The Bashers and Biffs of the world. Sauron is “Sour One.” Grima Wormtongue is “Grimy,” and has a wormy tongue. Orc, a harsh-sounding, single-syllable word, is an appropriate name for the mindless creatures that make up the armies of the dark lord.

Following the above rules will help you develop character names that are truly memorable.

One thing. You’ll notice a lot of Tolkien’s names have origins in Old English. Take care when choosing Old English and Latin names for your characters, because those names are so overused in today’s world as to be almost cliché. Try Norwegian or Old Icelandic names for a nice, original touch.

Discussion Question

Do you remember the names of any characters from recent novels you’ve read? If so, what character traits do those names bring to mind, and what made those names truly memorable for you?

  1. This is very interesting and thanks for the valuable tips. When i try and write short stories for my nieces and nephews i am always at a loss with character names. It never crossed my mind to use Norwegian or Old Icelandic names i have always stuck with English.

  2. Great post and lots to think about when using certain names for characters in a novel. Old English and Latin names for story or novel characters are indeed overused and I would agree that using other norwegian or Icelandic names is a good idea.

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