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B&N Week 73: The Name Game

| May 15, 2012 | 6 Comments

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Heh. It’s Tuesday, and it’s time for some more Bolts & Nuts! Today, we’re going to play the Name Game, but we’re going to leave the Peanuts out of this. We ready? Let’s get started.

Names are one of the most important things you’re going to come up with. Actually, the name of your character is going to be as important as the story you’re telling. Never mind genre, never mind medium, never mind format. I don’t care if you’re talking about vampires, cops, old women, sexy vamps, or the eight tentacled [but three-eyed] thing from another dimension—names are important, because without them, we don’t have anything to identify with, or have a frame of reference for.

We’re going to talk about people, and while these conventions can be used for all media, these tips and tricks that I’ll be giving are particularly useful for comics. Just something to keep in mind. (Duh, Steven.) Yeah, yeah, I know. The unwritten, obvious thing here is that everything I say will also be applicable to places and things, as well. Just putting it out there for you.

Names! Names are extremely important, because a person’s name can give you insight [or at least connotations] into their character. [Yes, I’m talking about the character of a character.] Let’s take a simple name to begin with. Butch. See what I did right there? I made you think of a jerk, possibly something of a self-absorbed ladies man, possibly tall and handsome, if not a little overweight. Someone who’s a bully, and who would do violence just for its own sake, let alone to show he’s “the man.”

I did all of that with one word.

Names are powerful, and can be iconic. I’m going to talk about superheroes first, really, and then trickle down from there. Supers are an obvious place to start, because I have yet to run into a writer who doesn’t have at least one super tucked away somewhere. It’s usually one- or two-dozen, but I’m willing to forgo the dozen for the one.

Believe you me, when talking about supers, I’m one of those who believes that the bulk of the good names have been taken. It’s a belief carried over from my childhood, and to some extent, it is still true. But there are new heroes being made all the time, without too much recycling of names, even if there are a lot of recycled powers and sets of characteristics. The Marvel and DC universes alone contain hundreds of great hero and villain names, and in our rush to emulate, we try to get close without going overboard.

Let’s look at Cyclops for a moment. If you wanted to create a character that had this name, you’d want to make sure the power set is different from the Marvel version. They may sue. [Hell, they may sue anyway, but by changing the power set, you have a better chance of being able to keep the name.] Your Cyclops may really only have one eye, and can see the distant past or limited future with it, while being very frail. It’s the opposite of Marvel’s character, which is important when you get that cease and desist letter.

And face it, there’s no way you’re going to be able to get certain names published, no matter how hard you try. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Wolverine. Cash cows all, and their respective companies vigorously defend their trademarks. Nope, a small name-change isn’t going to help, either, unless you’re doing a parody. Then everyone and everything is fair game.

A good rule of thumb when you’re talking supers is to either describe their powers or what they stand for. This used to be easier said than done. I like to say that you have to look at things [such as the world] on a slant, in order to get an original take on their characteristics. I’m going to take one of my friend’s favorites, the Flash.

He’s a hero that can run fast, yes? People say things like “Done in a flash,” or, “Be back in a flash.” So, it’s meant to mean that the person is going to be back or do something fast. (Steven….) Patience. I have a point. Take cameras with a flash. The light goes on and off really fast, right? I’m going to even go out on a limb and say that that’s where the meaning came from. The original cameras had to use powder to cause a flash, to give more light for an instant while they took the picture. Seems reasonable for one of the meanings of flash to be fast, right? (Sure…sigh.) So then, someone had a [pardon the pun] bright idea to take established characters and put a new spin on them. Thus was born the Tangent universe, and instead of running fast, the Flash became a being made of light. Yes, I geeked out when I read that, basically for the ideas that were sprouted, and not really the new take on old characters.

Remember, this was a time when you had characters that were named after their powers or what they stood for, or animals. Lots of animals. Still, it’s something a bit in line of what they stand for, but still, animals. Spidey’s classic foes are generally animal based. Go and take a look. I’ll wait.

During the so-called “grim and gritty” days, the trend was to have names that meant little to nothing with a character’s powers or what they stand for. Yes, Rogue needs a name change, because it’s no longer relevant to her, but Gambit? What does Remy’s name have to do with his powers or what he stands for? This is a classic example of a good name being put to bad use. [Unfortunately, we’ll never have a costume discussion here, since I’m no artist. But still, this is one of the worst costumes I can think of for a widely liked character.] Don’t do this.

(Steven, you’ve said a lot, but you haven’t really said anything yet.)

Sure I have. You haven’t been paying attention.

Your character has a cool power set, or stands for something unusual? Give them a name that fits. Break out the thesaurus, and go through those synonyms! It won’t hurt. Here’s a short example: I had a character that foretold the future. I didn’t want anything too fru-fru or frilly with the name. There had already been a couple of Destiny’s, and I wasn’t in the mood for anything on the beaten path. So, I broke out the thesaurus, and saw haruspex. It clicked, and that became the character’s name. Haruspex. You can do the same.

Supers, both heroes and villains, are a little hard when it comes to names. That’s just the nature of the beast. Remember, most of you reading this already have at least one superhero in your stable, even if you choose not to think of them as one. (My guy doesn’t wear a costume. He’s a detective, and he has a magical snuff box that he pulls whatever he needs out of. And glasses. Don’t forget the glasses.) Uh huh.

Okay, keep the name short, for both hero and villain. (…I never thought of it that way.) I know. Short names, if at all possible, with no more than two words. And the article “the” doesn’t count. Kraven the Hunter is three words, but the article is almost subliminal. So, it doesn’t count as a word in the character’s name. The Hulk is only one word, as is the Lizard, the Vulture, so on and so forth. But keep the names short. The shorter, the better, because they’re easier to remember.

Now, I have a small pet-peeve. My pet peeve is the use of the word “captain” in a superhero’s name. Most of the time, it’s just not going to fit. [And yes, I’m also talking about villains.] Captain America fits. He was in the Army, and that’s his rank. He stands for America as an ideal. I can see that, and get behind it. Captain Cold? (…) Yup. Thought so.

So, the basic advice when it comes to supers is this: use the thesaurus after you’ve gotten your power set and characteristics down. Interview the character if you need to. You’ll be able to come up with a workable name from there. And no, they’re not all going to be winners. It happens. For my team of heroes, the Regulators, I have Psi-Wren, Quickshotte, Conduit, Aurelius, and Martial. Tell me which one will eventually be getting a name change, and why.

When it comes to real names, that’s different. You can’t just go to the thesaurus and get a cool sounding name and throw a Captain in front of it. It just doesn’t work that way. Real names, both for supers and regular people, should have resonance about them, depending on what you want to do with the name and how often it’s going to be used. And I mean full names. How often are their full names going to be used? It makes a difference when you’re naming characters.

You still need to keep the name short and sweet. Honestly, I’d go with as few syllables as possible. Peter Parker. Steve Rogers. Tony Stark. Short names, not a lot of syllables, equals characters that are easier to remember and keep track of.

Remember Butch? If possible, you want to give connotations to a character’s name. You don’t need to, believe me. But you want readers to remember them? Give it a try. Strong names should have strong characters behind them.

Finding names for characters is one of the hardest things you’ll do. While I don’t agonize over names, I have a few tricks that I use [and have been taught] when it comes to naming characters. I basically have three classes of names: names that I’ve run across that I liked, having characters coming almost fully formed because of it; names that I go back to time and again; and throwaway names.

I like the name Alex. For some reason, it strikes a chord with me, and I’ve found myself using it a lot. I made a conscious effort to get away from Alex and “A” names because of it. It’s just one of those things, like the name is searching for a home. It’s a name that I’ve gone back to time and again in the past.

You can also use real people that you know. One of my former co-workers is named Shayl. I absolutely LOVE her name, and used it in a story I was working on [with her full knowledge]. I have another story whose every name will be someone I personally know [except for one]. Friends and family are a great source of names, if you wish to use them.

A word about that: yes, you can get sued and lose. Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, was sued because he named his character Tony Twist after a hockey player. That player sued and won. If you’re going to do this, either have permission, or don’t say where you got the name from. I remember reading a letter column [remember those?] in the Fantastic Four. A guy wrote in, saying his name is actually Reed Richards, and he buys a comic every now and again to “check in” on what the “other Reed” was up to. So, if your friend is named Ben Smith, and your character is named Ben Smith [and is a douche], you can either say that the name fits the character, or you can tell your friend you’re honoring them by naming a character after them. [Most of your friends and family will be honored. Famous people? Not so much.]

When I worked in car insurance, I had a list of unusual names that struck me as needing to be in comics. They were either strong, or melodious, or just nice in their spelling. Hell, I was going to name my youngest child Blysse [Bliss] if she were a girl, and Bryce if I had a son. However, it wasn’t my turn to name the child, and we ended up with a female Bailey. But you get the point.

Throwaway names are just that. Names you’re not going to care about for background characters. Rich, Ralph, Stevie, Brad—characters that you probably won’t be revisiting.

I get my names from a few sources. I was recently turned onto a trick, which I immediately put to good use. The spam that you get in your inbox? Sometimes there are great names hidden in there. Yeah, surprised me, too. I had never thought of it.

I usually use a baby name book. Look over all the spellings for something you might like, or adapt. It’s not hard, and you can get a used one cheaply. I also have a book of magical names.

A tip about using the baby name book: think of first names as last names, too. They work. My character Hardshell has the real name of Bryce Hunter. [Yes, I like the name Bryce a lot, too.] I thought about using Hunter as someone’s first name, but it just fit my character, so I used it for his last name, instead.

And when it comes to last names, don’t be afraid to go after those usual names. Best, Worst, and such. I had a Staff Sergeant Best when I was in the Marine Corps; when I worked in car insurance, there was a supervisor who’s last name was Worst. His brother changed his last name to Best, so he went from Worst to Best. [Yes, that was a joke that he tells.] Don’t be afraid of them, just use them sparingly. Trust me, you’re going to be creating a LOT of characters over the years.

Another great place for names is a little morbid, but I like visiting cemeteries for their quiet as well as the names they contained. (I dunno, Steven. This one seems out there, even for you.) [What? Are you afraid they’re gonna get up and bite you?] (You never know when Zombipocalypse Now will happen.) [I can’t argue that.]

An obvious place for names is the phone book. Low tech, I know. (Better than the damned cemetery!) I got William Novak from the phone book, as a last name. That’s Conduit. A not-so-obvious place are movie credits.

Let me tell you something about movie credits. You want quality names, names you don’t hear to often anymore, like Erskine [pronounced ersh-kin]? You go to the black and white movies of the 40s and 50s. You don’t have five minutes of scrolling credits at the end of the movie like you do now, trying to tease a name out of hundreds, most of which are boring and uninspired. This is my personal favorite, actually. You can do it with today’s movies and shows, but you may be hard pressed to get anything useful from it.

You can also go to your library of books, like those reference tomes you have, for decent names. Names are EVERYwhere. You just have to open your eyes when you look for them. Video game credits, name tags at the supermarket, billboards, and damn near anywhere online.

Two more quick points. Anagrams can work, they just may take some time to work out. There are websites that do it for you so you don’t have to, but just think of it as a viable alternative.

Alliteration. It’s useful, but not seen too much outside of Marvel. It has its place, just don’t overuse it. Overuse is lazy. There aren’t many Stan Lee’s around anymore, having to write a few books and edit an entire line of comics. Stan had reason to use alliteration. Generally speaking, you do not.

That’s really about it when it comes to names. Just make sure they’re not too contrived. Gone are the days of Dr. Otto Octavius being Doctor Octopus. Strong names for strong character’s.

A quick note about aliens and places, in order to round this out. Never let it be said that I don’t cover all the bases.

Aliens should have different naming conventions than humans. Multiple consonants together work, as do apostrophes. Ri’kthian is an example of that. Yes, I just made that up on the spot. Vrmtork. But I’ll tell you something, the more reading and research you do outside of comics, or to back up your writing with facts, the easier names in general and alien names in particular will come. Think of the unusual, put together random consonants, add an apostrophe in there, and you’re on your way.

Places are a little different, though. Planets are easy: you just follow the alien advice, unless you’re talking about human explorers. Human explorers on uninhabited alien worlds can do anything with a name. No problem there. But aliens coming from their home planet, just do the alien naming technique I outlined before. Simple.

But human places, places here on earth, they’re difficult. Creating nations or haunted places in backwoods country can be hard. You want to create that air of mystery? You need to have a name that resonates with that. Arkham Asylum. See what I did just there? Gotham City. Yep, just did it again. Now, compare those two to Keystone City, and the latter just doesn’t resonate as well, does it? Like I said earlier, not every one of them are going to be winners. Simple fact, that. Just study some place names and see what you come up with when creating your own places.

Now, we come to another pet peeve of mine. Unless you’re talking about small towns or small countries, I don’t like using made up names for major metropolitan centers. Really, where are Gotham, Keystone, and Metropolis on a map? What states are they in? The more fictional your city in relation to the real world, the more fictional your world is going to seem. (But Gotham doesn’t seem fictional…) And we’ve all been reading about Gotham for decades. I’m talking about creating something out of whole cloth for today’s reader. There are differences.

Now, I’m NOT saying to go and place everything in New York. Personally, I think that’s why Marvel works so well, because it’s in a setting that everyone knows and recognizes, but that works for Marvel. Do you have any idea of how many stories and universes are centered in and around NY? I’m not complaining, but others do. And yes, I understand that it doesn’t work as well when you try to set up a superhero’s universe in Denver, or even LA, for that matter. If you must create a present-day city, I just ask that you try not to make it a major metro hub. You’ll be fighting an already losing battle.

And that’s it. No, I’m not going to ask anyone to post any names here. Just try to think of ways you could get cool names that would work well in your story, and go for it. Keep a list. Hell, make a spreadsheet out of it, and when you use a name, don’t delete it, just annotate where you used it. This keeps it on your radar for possible later use, while also letting you know that you’ve already used it at least once. (Smart!) Thanks. I have good ideas sometimes.

Next week, we’ll talk about making you a better writer.

See you then!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (6)

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  1. “For my team of heroes, the Regulators, I have Psi-Wren, Quickshotte, Conduit, Aurelius, and Martial. Tell me which one will eventually be getting a name change, and why.”

    Quickshotte gets my vote, if only because it has that “the name I wanted for my City of Heroes character was already taken so I changed the spelling” vibe. I know you used to play, Steven, so you know what I’m talking about. It there was one Quickshot in town, you just knew that sooner or later you’d come across:

    – Quickshotte
    – Quickshote
    – Quickshot.
    – .Quickshot
    – Quickshot’
    – ‘Quickshot
    – QUICKSH0T (with a zero)
    – QUlCKSHOT (with a lowercase “L”)
    – QUlCKSH0T (with both)
    – QU1CK5H0T (the dreaded leet version)

    …and of course, my personal most hated:

    – xXx Quickshot xXx

    I always wondered how the police dispatch could tell all these people apart on the radio.

    – Dispatch, this is car 51. Suspect has been apprehended by Quickshot and is now in custody.
    – Roger that, 51. Is that Quickshot with a period at the end or an apostrophe?
    – It’s the one with a lowercase L, no period. I repeat: no period.

    • Tyler James says:

      Ha. Good one, Yannick.

      I also like online “random name generators” for coming up with good names. Some of them let you set ethnicity parameters or generate names based on how common (or uncommon) the names are.

      Definitely found some good ones that way.

  2. I’ve spent more time trying to name characters then I did naming my own children. Not joking. Sounds horrible but it’s the truth. (we named our newest little girl Franki after my paternal grandfather)

    I’ve found that baby name websites offer a lot of inspiration as do name generators. If I really love a character, I give him/her the middle name of someone I really care about. Sometimes I look around the room and put things together, just like in the movies. (Colonel Picklefork is doing fine, by the way, and Chip Saucer, eh, notsomuch)

    My latest endeavor has me up against a wall. We are doing a Something Wicked tribute and I can not come up with a title. Everything I try is already used. Not having a title is killing my flow so any suggestions would be appreciated.

  3. Another good resource: Wikipedia has lists for the most common surnames per country. It’s great to get that local flavor.

  4. My old sketch comedy Teacher always said, “Give every character a name”.
    Its easy to just go with, MAN 1 or MAN IN BUSINESS SUIT, but when your acting, a character name can greatly effect your performance… So maybe, in theory, this can carry to comics as well?

    With Stevens example of ‘Butch’. Not only is that building a image in the readers head, but also the artists. The artist sort of supplies us with the ‘actors’, so a good name could definitely affect how the artist sees the character. So maybe THUG 1 could be Butch, and THUG 2 can be TAZZ. MAN IN BUISNESS SUIT is MR. WITMOOR. Not sure how much that would add, but its an idea.

    This also made me think of old Beat’em up video games, where they always named every enemy. They all looked the same, maybe with a colour swap, but they all had an individual name. It gave it some great flavour. I remember mocking guys while playing Maximum Carnage on my Genesis. “Take that Billy! Oh you want some Jack!”

  5. Steve Colle says:

    I had created an international super-hero team in the ’90’s named INTERFORCE, basically after Interpol, where they were all law enforcement or military associated characters with powers. Three of the persons were named Rhine, Velocidad, and Douc Langur. Rhine was a female water elemental from the Rhine River, Velocidad was a male super-speedster derived from the Spanish word for “speed”, and Douc Langur was female and is a type of monkey from Laos with very distinctive markings all over it’s body, like a white beard, reddish “gauntlets” and shin guard areas, and white feet and hands. Very nice visual design for an acrobatic-type character. The name of the group was later changed to G.U.ARD: Global Union. Though I never did finish the book, I loved the names.

    Another source for me was the WRITER’S DIGEST Character Naming Sourcebook. The name KAY, for example, would show the culture, any other spellings for the name, and a description of what it meant (which is “Fire”).

    Thanks for the list, Steven. It’s pretty complete, I’d say.

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