As promised in an earlier post, here are a few items to consider when naming your science fiction characters. (Some part of this will be a repeat of what I covered in naming fantasy characters, so if you read that post, please bear with me.)
Before you start:
It is important to start from a position of knowledge (rather than ignorance) about the science fiction world (galaxy, universe, etc.) your character inhabits. This means you’re going to have to engage in some world building (something I’ll discuss more in later posts). The point is, that your character is a product of the world in which she lives. In order to be consistent with her environment (world, galaxy…), her name should reflect this fact.
Like fantasy characters, the race and racial culture of a sci-fi character can play a big part in naming them. Also characters raised by aliens will likely have names from the alien culture. In science fiction, race is often a matter of what planet, solar system, or quadrant of the galaxy you were born on, more than what part of any planet. The scale can be enormous! Therefore, the differences between races can be quite vast. They don’t have to be all that different, but logically, sentients from different planets would be quite different, not just in how they look, but how they move, speak, and interact with their environment. Just look at the biological diversity on our little planet of Earth. Now, multiply that by thousands of variables. You get the idea.
The point I’m making is the differences between alien races will not stop with the surface appearances. Even if an alien race looked much like us, their racial culture would be nothing like our own, sharing little if anything in common with our experience. Even thinking patterns, logic, philosophy and emotions are likely to be very different. Keep this in mind when designing your alien race(s), but remember that your readers have only their limited experience as humans living on Earth their entire lives; whatever differences exist must be relatable to them using this primitive method of communications called writing.
Remember too that an alien race could be entirely artificial or augmented by technology (mechanical, electronic, biological/genetics, etc.). Their experience and knowledge base could be inherited from their creators or could (with “artificially” extended lifetimes) be so advanced that their creators knowledge is now as quaint as ancient cave drawings are to us. All this will contribute to their means of communication and individual identification.
Is the character’s race, culture or civilization highly ordered? Then perhaps names might include numbers or some other series signifier. This is likely if your character is an android, cyborg, robot or member of a similarly “mechanized” race (R2D2, C3P0, 7 of 9). This could also be true of societies which take logic and order very seriously. Keep in mind that such races don’t have to use these devices. They may be quite human in their predilection for naming offspring. If the individuals of the society are virtually identical, the need for some method of identifying them may be high. This may be less important if they belong to a “hive” civilization where they share a collective consciousness or all members can perform functions interchangeably.
Does the character’s culture commonly use traditional or religious names from their family, history or holy scriptures. Just look at your own circle of friends. It’s very likely that one or more of them is named after a family member like a father or grandmother, or after a biblical personality, like Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Caleb, etc.
A name might also signify the character’s importance in their community/society. This could be a name they were given at birth because they were expected to fill a high office upon maturity (Emperor…), or it could be a name taken once the character has matured and taken an important position (High Inquisitor…).
Remember, no matter how badly you’d like to give your character a bad-ass name, it’s really up to the person that named them. The personality and cultural sensitivities of the person who named your character will decide the kind of name(s) he/she will give your character. If that person isn’t important to your story (or your character’s arc) then name them whatever you choose, but realize that the name you give your character reflects the name-giver’s character too and if you should decide to introduce the namer at some later date, their character should be consistent with a person who would give such a name. In other words, a straight-edge square who wears horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector is unlikely to name their child, Rainbow Harmonica Woodstock.
Does the character’s people speak an alien tongue? (Just as a note, reserve alien languages for when you have humans or other race interacting with your aliens. Even in such circumstances keep your use to a minimum. A few new words from an alien language can add some interesting flavor, but too many and the reader will stop reading with a bad taste in their mouth. Also, make sure any alien words and names are easily pronounced by the Earthlings reading your story.)
Is your character’s race telepathic? If so, is it a natural psychic ability or is it the result of advanced technology? The society your character belongs to, if telepathic, may be less dependant upon individual names or names that can be pronounced with the tongue, depending on the level of telepathy enjoyed by the people. Think about your own family and work environment. How easy is it for you to ask someone to do something without saying their name? Now how easy would it be if you could transmit clear thoughts and images directly to others?
Also consider giving your character a nickname, which may be the only thing they are known by in your story. Their nickname or actual name can be revealed later in the story or in subsequent stories. This is especially true for a character from a speechless, all telepathic society. Such an individual would likely be given a name/nickname by one of the other characters in order to communicate with them.
Though I’ve listed personality as the last consideration, it should not be the least of your concerns. Your character’s name should most of all reflect their personality and their part in your story. Their name should be such a natural fit to the way your character acts/reacts that your readers could not imagine them with any other name. As I stated before in an earlier post, the character’s name will become a short hand symbol for everything the character comes to mean to the reader. Be sure it’s up to the task. They should see the name on the page and immediately have a mental picture of the character (and his actions).
Remember, no amount of language/race/world building can replace a name that is “just right”. If you come up with a name that fits your character “perfectly” — and no one can know that better than you the writer — then by all means go with that name. The lead character in my fantasy novel With a Jester of Kindness has a name unlike anyone else in the book, but that is one of the reasons I chose that name.