How I Name Them (Part 2-Characters)

Hello again! Welcome to part 2 of this naming convention series. If you’d like to read about how I chose place names, check out part 1 here.

Let’s dive straight in, shall we?

My first and most important criterion for a character name is pronounceability. It has to be easy to say, regardless of the reader’s home language. I’m not the greatest fan of this fantasy naming convention which defaults to random consonant-heavy names. It doesn’t help if everyone assimilates the name to ABC in their minds, because only the author and their mom can pronounce it.

Coming from me, this is so ironic when it comes to the character Sauvageon, who joins the cast in the second book. My alpha and beta teams were unimpressed, to say the least. They’ve officially dubbed her Sausage or Surgeon. (It’s Saw-vuh-zhoh, by the way. If you’d like to see more of these, you can find a list of FotM pronunciations here.)

But for the most part, though, the character names are pretty straightforward. For example, whether you pronounce it as Cara or Carah, it’s simple to say. To me, she’s Cara, though with the changing accent, I do start Carah-ing her when I’m around Canadians.

The second most important thing is meaning. I like names that tell a story, and match or are the opposite of the character’s personality. Finally, the third thing I consider when it comes to names is origin. The name has to fit with the country I’m trying to represent or has to illustrate where the character is originally from.

I really like the website Behind the Name for finding meaningful names. They have an incredibly extensive list of names and surnames from all around the world, and I find myself defaulting there. (Just a side note, I’m not affiliated with this site and am not being compensated for mentioning them. It’s a wonderful resource I constantly use.)

The alternative is baby naming sites, but the drawback of using them is loads of ads about pregnancy and baby stuff afterwards. Luckily Google has learned I’m a writer, so my ads are more curated these days, but there is always a risk.

Anyway, the name Cara has many different meanings in different regions. For example, the Latin means ‘beloved’, while the Turkish version means ‘dark’. These were both meanings that really spoke to me, considering she’s basically lived her life in hiding, suffering constant mental abuse dressed as love and protection. So the beloved thing is ironic, while the dark angle is pretty much on the nose. Also, dark hair, which is fun.

Then, there was a Valkyrie named Kara, and considering my Dvaran friends and the relationship between Vendla and Cara from the second book onwards, I really appreciate the Norse meaning of the name, which comes down to ‘stormy and wild’. This stormy-wild thing already features in the second book, but there’s this line in the third about Cara’s inner savage being cultivated, and it matches the Norse meaning perfectly. But I’ll stop now before I spoil things.

Anyway, her full name is Carabelle, of course. Considering the history of names in Europe, many French or German names were anglicised. I wanted the same kind of vibe in Ehrdia. Also, considering the fact that Cara is in hiding, her name would have to be something that blended in with the local tongue and culture. Cara is pretty nondescript, acceptable in both English and French, while the ‘belle’ part adds a French flavour. It’s a bit extravagant, as expected from a princess.

I also really liked the idea of a big, fancy, and loud name for a physically small lady, who spends her time chasing invisibility. Writers, man. We’re mean.

Her surname, Lenoir, is also really on the nose. It literally translates to ‘a dark-haired individual’, and I chose this name because in the class system of this world, being dark-haired is really sought after and special. I figured the royal house would flaunt this thing that set them apart, and choose a name to reflect their otherness. This is also why I gave Cara the middle name Mordene, which is a play on Mordoux. Many French royals were named for their homeland, for example, Francois (like Cara’s brother), Francis, and so on.

Okay, let’s wrap on Cara and talk about the others.

Everyone wants to know why I chose the name Pointy. It’s a bit ridiculous, I know. Honestly, when I first imagined him he wasn’t supposed to feature all that much. Of course, being the flamboyant arsehole he is, he made himself pretty crucial to the story and featured more and more in each draft until he became a viewpoint character in Book 2. The plan was to give him a cheeky nickname, which is both funny and derogatory, the kind of thing you’d expect for a known court rake. As the story progresses, though, we learn he chose it himself and with good reason. But I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers.

To make his nickname fit, I needed a name or surname that worked with the Pointy thing. A quick google search told me there is an influential and affluent Du Pont family in French culture. Anglicise Du Pont and the t becomes pronounced, and voila, it works with the nickname—Pont, pointy.

Sometimes, I’m sorry I didn’t pick something simpler for his first name, maybe Pierre or Louis. Jacques is one, consonant-heavy syllable. At the same time, I think it’s a sexy name and fits so well with his persona. So I’m split here. (Also, I’m learning I have something against consonants… O_O)

I didn’t expect to end up using his given name at all, which comes down to the lack of planning that went into the first book, but that’s a topic for another time.

Lance is a massive nod to my lifelong obsession with the Arthurian legend. Lancelot isn’t necessarily my favourite knight, but he’s by far the most well-known, so I figured people would pick up on the reference to the round table through him. So far, nobody has! At least, they haven’t told me if they have.

I got the name Varda from Tolkien. She was one of the Valar, and her name means ‘sublime’ or ‘lofty’ in Quenya. I remembered the name from way back when I tried to read the Silmarillion—I promise I’ll do that one day—and did a quick Google search before I started writing her. The name just fit, you know? And it was such a bonus that the meaning also worked so well.

Then, Vendla is an alternative version of Vendela, an old Nordic name meaning ‘wanderer’. I thought the two went well together and liked the idea of alliterating mother and daughter’s names. Especially since their personalities kind of alliterate too! I mean, they’re the same, but really not. And the wanderer meaning plays well into what Vendla has been up to in the years before the books start.

Also, the soft ‘w’ sound of her name reminds me of winds and oceans, which again capture her personality.

Their surname, Ahlström is a Swedish surname derived from the words ‘alder’ (old) and ‘ström’ (river) which is another play on their seafaring nature. Also, it sounds strong, wise, and regal, in my opinion.

When it comes to Olaf and Sven, people have actually asked me if I’m a big Disney fan, but I promise the Frozen reference was totally accidental. I googled Nordic names, and found they can be incredibly hard to pronounce for those of us from the wide world. Sven and Olaf are pretty well-known names, and most people know how to pronounce them. And that is the only reason I chose them. I actually only saw Frozen years after its release, long after I’d written Sven and Olaf, and even after seeing the film, I failed to make the connection until it was pointed out to me.

Would I change their names now that I know they’re also Frozen characters? I honestly have no idea. Maybe Bjorn would’ve worked, but the similarity doesn’t really bother me.

If you told me, though, that I have many Dragon Age names, you would be 100% spot on. Nathaniel and Sera are both characters from the games, and my books actually have many, many Dragon Age references. Each time someone says ‘well, shit’ is an ode to my favourite character, Varric Tethras.

Another thing Dragon Age inspired was the fact that some of the characters have really extravagant middle names. This is thanks to Cassandra, who has more names than any one person can remember, as we learn if we bring her to the Winter Palace.

Initially, Cara had multiple middle names, but I shortened that to only one in the final draft of A Study of Ash & Smoke. Pointy also has a middle name, Benoît, which is the French for Benedict, because I really loved Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. Then, Nathan also has some pretty wild middle names, but we only learn what they are in the third book.

Nathan Cutter is quite like Nathaniel Howe from Dragon Age. This was completely accidental, but I think the obvious differences in their personalities shine from the second book on. His surname was carefully chosen to reference his profession. Initially, I’d planned to give everyone surnames that point to their jobs, which is how Jerry landed with Scrivenor, meaning ‘scribe’. But the whole naming scheme got a bit away from me and randomised as I kept redrafting the first book.

I’d just like to mention that I chose Magnus because it sounds old-timey and grandfatherly to me. Can’t you just picture a monocle and pipe with that name? In my head, he’s Scottish, and the hard ‘r’s’ of Cutter works to showcase that.

Sera, on the other hand, isn’t at all like her Dragon Age counterpart. I think it’s safe to say they’re straight up opposites, but I just really liked the sound of the name. So, like with Cara, I had to find a way to amp it up to make it princess-sounding, and the French name Seraphine, meaning ‘bright’ or ‘serpentine’, just really works. But I’ll circle back to Sera a bit later.

As for the villains, Sanshouo literally means ‘salamander’ and his first name, Hisao, means ‘life’s story’. I liked the idea of giving him a name suggesting more than what we know of him so far. As a storyteller, these things get me all excited.

His son, or at least his only legitimate son, is called Katsuro, which means ‘son of victory’. I wanted something really regal here, and Japanese names never disappoint. Having said that, we have the same problem as with Nordic names—Japanese names are easily mangled by the western tongue. I tried my best to pick names most people would be able to pronounce.

Tendaji is Katsuro’s brother. His mother is Mzungu, and his father is the emperor. His name had to communicate his heritage, but also be easy to pronounce. It means ‘makes things happen’ in Swahili.

One of my favourite characters from A Curse of Venom and Scales is Rin, Katsuro’s sister. Her name means ‘severe’ and finding a name like that is like hitting the jackpot. It suits her perfectly. She dresses outrageously colourfully, but that doesn’t hide her nature, and I just adore the opposing elements of who she is.

Let’s move on to Frank and Malak. Now, Frank is short for Francois, as I mentioned earlier. I chose the name for a few reasons, the greatest of which is that it plays on his French heritage, and I wanted readers to know as much. It also gets anglicised to Frank, which works well with the living in Aelland thing.

Additionally, Francois is a family name and is quite common in Afrikaans communities. Of course, we don’t pronounce it as elegantly as it should be said in French. My grandfather was named Francois, as is one of my uncles, so it’s a tie-in to my personal history. Culturally, the name usually gets shortened to Frans or just Cois, but we do get the odd Frank every now and again, too.

Then, that play on words thing slips in again here. Frank is nothing but frank, and I just adore the irony. The same thing happens with Malak, which is a name of Arabic origin, meaning ‘angel’. In early drafts, Malak was pretty angelic, but the more I got to know her and Frank, the more I realised acting that way was just a front.

All of this, of course, is courtesy of a single comment from one of my editors, Cat Hellisen. They worked on the fourth draft of A Study of Ash & Smoke, and kind of wondered aloud about the intentions of the inhabitants of Collinefort. And it was like a light flicked on.

I didn’t plan Ash & Smoke. A lot of what caused Cat’s uncertainty was because I had no idea what I was doing as a writer. Back then, all I knew for certain was who was good and who was bad, and the heroes were super cookie-cutter.

I think in this regard, you can clearly tell that I read a lot of classic fantasy as a kid and that my influences come from the old generation of authors.

But in the early stages of editing, my primary editor and mentor, Nerine Dorman, suggested I read newer fantasy to freshen up my style, so I did. A really huge trend in modern speculative fiction, and honestly fiction in general, is the morally grey character. We see a lot of this trope in TV shows, for example, characters like Clarke in The 100, or Raymond Reddington in The Blacklist. And even though my brain hadn’t yet caught up with the minuscule nuances seeping into my own characters, I’d been altering some of them to become other than what I’d planned.

That one line from Cat made me realise this had been happening. And ultimately, that one line influenced everything that happens in A Trial of Sparks & Kindling and blurred everything that had been clear-cut before. Luckily, I was able to foreshadow and hint at a lot of this in the final version of Ash & Smoke, so that worked out well, but there are also many leftover titbits from before the active change happened that have been making my writing life hell. I cannot tell you how frustrating one sentence can become!

The point is, my cookie cutter heroes are no more, and I’m lucky that the names I chose before I knew who they would be plays well with their updated stories.

Okay, speaking of not clear-cut, Celestine and Henri Chastain. Chastain means ‘chestnut tree’ in French, but I only found that out later. I chose this one because I liked the sound of it.

Here’s another little factoid for you, even my alpha team forgets Chastain’s first name is actually Henri. One of them told me that she knows Celestine Chastain is a thing, but it still takes her by surprise to read that Chastain has an actual name. ‘Henri’ was also chosen on the merit of sounding French. In early drafts, he’d been dead and had never been intended to play more than a ‘mentioned in passing’ kind of role, hence the lack of effort on my part.

Celestine, however… Yeah, she’s a tough nut to crack. So maybe I should start claiming the chestnut thing was totally on purpose! What was on purpose, though, was giving her a name meaning ‘heavenly’. In the first draft she, like Malak, was an angel. But also like Malak, the more I got to know the spider lady, the more I realised there was so much more to her.

I think realising Celestine wasn’t the sweet old lady I’d initially thought she’d be was the first piece of the enormous puzzle that this series has become. When it clicked in place that maybe she was a morally grey character, so much else naturally followed. At a glance, she’s wide-open skies, sparkling with a million stars. But the more you look, the more you realise the beauty of stars hides the dark, dark truth.

I really want to write an origin story for her one day. There are so many facts about her living only in my head and I must share them with you.

Okay, as a final thought here, people often ask me if I base characters on real people. When I just started out, I did this quite a bit, but I soon learned that it isn’t always a good idea. First of all, friends and family members can get really pissed off when characters don’t act as they would IRL.

Secondly, they often feel like they have a claim to the character and get to narrate their storylines.

And then thirdly, sometimes the real person won’t care how the character evolves, but other people who know the character is based on them will judge them for the character’s actions. It’s murky waters to wade in, to say the least, and I’ve kind of shied away from the conflict.

Still, there are a few characters who are based on loved ones.

Nita, for example, is based on someone incredibly important to me, and her name, Jeanita, is the middle name of the person in question. I felt like she was the one character who could just be what she is, and the person who inspired her has never been upset about the parts of her that made it into the character’s personality—however gritty—or the parts of the character that evolved into something other than what her real counterpart would or wouldn’t do.

I love that Nita is everyone’s big sister and that so many readers have grown to love her in the way I love her inspiration. She has been an absolute joy to write.

Another character inspired by a real person is Amber, who we meet in A Trial of Sparks & Kindling. Real Amber is one of my alpha readers, closest friends, and biggest fans. I swear, everyone deserves a person like her in their lives! So, when she said she’d love reading her name in a book, I just had to make that happen for her.

As with everything else, I’d planned to make Amber a small, mentioned only once or twice kind of NPC. But then the opportunity arose to combine her and another cast member, and I jumped on it. Real Amber didn’t know I’d made this change, and had actually been waiting in line somewhere when she read her name in a book. Her loud ‘yes!’ had made everyone look, but she reckons it was totally worth it.

Both these ladies also look like the people who inspired them, in case you were wondering, though I’ve always pictured Nita as someone with Latin blood and olive skin.

Sera was also based on a close friend of mine. She used to share her looks and personality with my friend, but not her name, which is why I said earlier that I’d circle back to her.

The main reason I don’t talk about this so much is because of all the characters I’ve ever written to resemble real people, Sera is the one who evolved the most. While she still looks like my friend and has the same sense of style, she no longer acts like her, and though my friend has been really graceful about the whole thing, I don’t want people to judge her on Sera’s actions.

Like I said, murky water.

And that’s all I have for you today. Let’s meet in the comments if you’d like to ask about a character not mentioned here or discuss one of these further!



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A Study of Ash & Smoke
A Trial of Sparks & Kindling


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