NANP: The Nuance In The Name

Today’s guest author for Names: A New Perspective is Ciara Ballintyne. I haven’t had a chance to read any of her work so far, since her first novel is still awaiting publication, but I enjoy reading her blog for insight into her writing process and her discussions. Her Deathhawk trilogy sounds great to me and look forward to reading it. Here’s what Ciara had to say on the topic of names.

The Nuance In The Name

by Ciara Ballintyne

A name’s just a name – isn’t it? How much importance can it really have in the scheme of things?

More than you might think. The ideal name should:

  • Not confuse the reader;
  • Not be completely unpronounceable;
  • Reflect something of the character; and
  • Suit the time period and culture.

That’s quite a few things to consider!


Names can be confusing to readers if they sound too similar, or start with the same letter. You might find it amusing to call twin characters Kirsty and Kristy, but unless it doesn’t matter if the reader confuses them, it’s probably unwise.  Also, if you have a dozen characters whose names all start with T, sooner or later the reader is going to lose track of some of them. As soon as the reader starts to feel confused, their motivation to keep reading wanes, and they are more likely to put down the book – and never come back.

This might sound basic, but it can be harder than you think to avoid. Many authors have a preference for a particular letter and will fall into this trap without noticing. Mine is A – don’t ask me why, but I could list you a dozen characters from a multitude of my works whose names all start with A. Once a character is named, too, it can be hard to bear the thought of changing it, so these tendencies need to be caught early.

Pronunciation and Readability

This is more an issue with speculative fiction than other genres, but can also be an issue if the author chooses to use real but obscure names that may be unfamiliar and hard to pronounce. Definitely a name should never consist entirely of vowels or consonants – the eyes go cross-eyed at the very thought.

In speculative fiction, the names are often completely fabricated. Names can be long, difficult to pronounce, and have strange or non-intuitive letter combinations. Authors should resist these impulses, or at least only indulge them occasionally. If the reader finds themselves skimming over a name every time it appears, they may find it difficult to invest in that character.


I believe a name should reflect something of the character. A strong character shouldn’t have a weak name, and a weak character shouldn’t have a strong name – unless the impression the author is trying to give is different to the actuality, such as where they are fooling the reader. For example, where the identity of the villain is unknown, the real villain might have an unassuming name, while a character who fills the role of red herring might have a villainous name.

The protagonist should nearly always have a heroic or strong name if they are intended to be taken seriously. Consider Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter – the name is laughable, and the boy himself is, for a large part of the series, pitiable and not particularly strong, reliable or inspiring. Would we have believed in Harry quite so much if his name had been Neville Longbottom? On the other hand, Terry Pratchett uses names to more comic effect in the Discworld series. ‘Rincewind’ isn’t a particularly strong name, and once we get to know our protagonist – skinny, weedy, with a scraggly beard, near useless magic, and a hat spelling out ‘Wizzard’ – the name just seems to fit.

Strong names tend to contain (and start with) hard consonants, whereas those starting with soft , consonants tend to make a character sound softer. In Supernatural, we have brothers Dean and Sam. From the outset, Dean has been the harder character, more convinced of his decisions, less willing to second-guess himself, while Sam has been more uncertain, questioning his morals, his way of life, and generally more in tune with his empathy. I don’t know if the name choice was conscious to reflect those differences, but the name choices are apt.

Time Period and Culture

This is less relevant in speculative fiction where many names are invented, but for other genres can be critical. The names of characters must fit with their culture, so a Mexican named ‘Bob’ might not be right. If he’s a second-generation Mexican living in the United States, it might be OK. If he’s a second-generation Mexican living in the United States in 1750… again, maybe not.  Choosing names that were popular in the time period the novel is set is one way of avoiding this problem.

How Do I Choose Names?

I don’t have a well-defined process for choosing names. I generally pick a letter I haven’t already used (especially A!) and then sound out some combinations until I get something that sounds right. Once it sounds right, it has to look right, so I work out a suitable spelling that isn’t too complicated. I try to keep names to one or two syllables where possible, and as phonetic as is reasonable.

The ‘sounds right’ is the most unscientific part of that. I can’t tell you why or when something sounds right. It just does. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Aldenon (from my WIP Deathhawk’s Betrayal) – his name sounds elegant, aristocratic, and refined, which is a fair reflection of the man;
  • Jeharv (from Deathhawk’s Betrayal) – sounds kind of menacing or villainous, right? Since the man heads up an elite order of assassins, I should hope so! At least, he doesn’t sound like someone you’d necessary invite home for tea and cookies;
  • Rawellen (from A Magical Melody) – sounds a bit hoity-toity, yeah? So is the woman, arrogant, self-confident, beautiful, elegant;
  • Avram (from A Magical Melody) – A little unusual, but kind of plain, not as exotic or exciting as some other names I’ve listed, and that’s just the impression you get of the man; a little on the plain to ugly side, unassuming, but maybe a little odd.

I have a love-hate relationship with names. Sometimes they come easy, and sometimes a character is just hard to name. You can see from the above why.

Tell me – what does the name ‘Astarl’ say to you? I find the name amorphous and difficult to attribute qualities to, and I wonder what you think. Is it a man or a woman? What sort of qualities might they have?


Ciara Ballintyne on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest is author Jocelyn Koehler on 10th January. The full schedule can be found in the link up top.


Posted on January 7, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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