Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and books for kids of varying ages. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series — Penguin/ACE, School for Sidekicks, Magic, Madness, & Mischief and the forthcoming Spirits, Spells, & Snark — Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star — part of an NSF-funded science curriculum — and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited — funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Kelly on Twitter, Facebook, G+, ello

On the Naming of Characters

March 23, 2018 in Publishing, Writing

The naming of characters is a difficult matter…

I was asked about how I choose names for characters and I thought my answers might be of more general interest, so I’m making it into its own post.

For me the most important part of a name is mouth feel. I always say a name out loud before I use it. It has to feel in my mouth like I want to feel on the page. Usually that’s a least partially emotional. Harsh characters need harsh names. Friendly characters need approachable names. Etc.

Names need to be distinct. I do that in part on a purely mechanical basis. Every time I introduce a new character I make sure the name doesn’t sound too much like anyone already in the story and I rarely have two important characters that have the same first initial in their name. No stories with Mark, Mike, Mack, Mara, and Moira.

Shorter is usually better for me. As a personal preference I prefer one-two syllable names, and/or longer names need to be easy to shorten. Valerie to Val, for example. Even if never use the short form, I think about how that might work and who might use it. This is a place where it’s important to remember the class structure of your world.

The following over broad and purely a tool of narrative: Upper class/aristocratic characters are more like to have long names, and more likely to use the full name in some circumstances. Lower class characters will often have shorter or truncated names. Nicknames are more likely to be used at the top and bottom end of the class structure and for criminals than in the middle. For the wealthy it might be because they use a smaller total pool of names and repeat names more often. So you might get Hal for Henry V to distinguish him from the other Henrys. For lower class characters it might again be partially the reusing of names and partially because less social and physical mobility make it more likely a childhood nickname will carry forward. For criminal characters it’s as much to obfuscate real identity as to identify.

When I’m looking for names, I steal freely from history, classical literature, and fiction where that’s appropriate to the venue. I have a terrible memory for names of people I meet, but I’m quite good at names in stories. For the names adapted from fiction I am likely to change spellings, or to simply use the name as a starting point. So, something like Marak, might become Moric.

When I’m working to come up with a new name for science fiction or contemporary or historical fantasy I will often cruise baby name sites looking for names that start with what feels like the right first letter. Modern names for contemporary names. Historical names for historical fiction. For those latter I might try to find things like: what were the 50 most popular women’s names in 1928?

For secondary world fiction, I go to baby name sites for the root language of the culture I’m working in. So, if I were writing a secondary world rooted in Germany in the 1200s I’d look for German names and I’d alter them to suit mouth feel and appropriate spelling. I’d also look for Austrian, Swiss, Italian, Polish, etc, because languages bleed across borders. Names especially bleed as people move around.

I also look at both place names and last names appropriate to the setting I’m using, as names don’t stay in a steady relationship. People often get named for the place they’re from. Or they might be given a first name that used to be a last name to keep it alive and in the family.

Think about the language of the place you’re creating. How does it sound? If you don’t want to build your own language, look at others. What do they sound like? What sounds repeat. Build your names from syllables that are common in that language.

Another useful tool is to check out work by someone else that’s writing in a world that feels like the world you’re using. How do their names feel and sound? Do they have commonalities? A system? Can you build a system that works in a similar way.

Remember to think about where your character is from. Are they local to the setting? Are the from a great distance away? What’s their social class? Are they from an old family with a long history? Are they an orphan who doesn’t know their antecedents? A main character needs to stand out. One way that can be accented is by naming them in a way that violates the general rules of names for the area or of their class. If your character is from someplace far away, how do naming conventions work there? Is there a lot of cultural bleed so that people will know how to pronounce the name? Is that a problem for the character. Etc.

In the end, I always always always come back to that mouth feel. Does the name I’ve picked up from whatever source material feel right when I say it? If it does, than it will usually feel right on the page. If I’m feeling doubtful, I’ll try saying it different tones and registers. How does it sound if I’m yelling it? How does it sound when it’s spoken in the ways it’s mostly likely to be used in the story? With affection. Loathing. Fear. Etc.


Monday Meows

March 19, 2018 in Cat Things, Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

You have cheese, monkey, why was I not told about this?

Did someone say Cheese? ‘Cause that’s me!

Jeeves, man, your name is Jeeves.

Oh. I sad now. I gets no cheese.

Nobody said that. They said your name wasn’t…oh never mind.

Did someone say cheese? Monkey steed, take me to this wonder!

With thanks to Victor and Lynne for the rider.

Monday Meows

March 13, 2018 in Cat Things, Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

Dis cat storage, right?

One does NOT store a cat!*

Dis cat ready for storage. Nice, cozzzzzzzz

I now do my interpretative dance of storage.
I gots wrapping paper and everything!

I can reach you from here. ALL of you.

*With thanks to Kim and Jonny for the likeness of His Imperial Kittiness the mighty Diphthong O’Malley


Monday Meows

March 6, 2018 in Cat Things, Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

I am totally comfortable.

Of course you are.

And not even a little bit stuck. Right?

I iz never stuck!

He said from the pit he just fell into behind the buckets…

I totally meant to do that. And the thing with the slats.

Of course you did.

Why does nobody believe I can take care of myself?

That’s a rhetorical question, right?

Absolutely. Also, I totally know what rhetoricaciousness is.

Monday Meows

February 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

I’m bored. Bored, bored, bored, bored…

I’m tired. Also I know how to use blankets.

I can use blankets too!

Dude, I’m trying to see your planet from here. No luck so far.

Wait, what’s that?

Move along, this doesn’t concern you.

Okay then.


Monday Meows Replaces Friday Cat Blogging

February 20, 2018 in Cat Things, Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

Hey, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?

What we do every night, Pinkie, plot to take over the WORLD!

You’re not serious?

I am made entirely of serious!

Me too, narf!

Well, I’m going to plot to tip over this jar of honey.

Not cool, dude, I know where the jar came from.

Why am I surrounded by naysayers and idiots?

Ima guess it’s because you don’t have a really cool box like dis.

Whatevvvvver, I don’t need no stinkin’ box.

I’m fine on these bare boards.



With thanks to  for the suggestion of “Monday Meows.”

Monday Meows (Was Friday Cat Blogging)

February 13, 2018 in Cat Things, Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

Lets do the timewarp again.

It’s just a jump to the left…

And a crawl to the right…

Put your tongue on your toes…

No, it’s your tongue on your nose!

Screw dis, I sing you the songs of my people! YEOWARL!

That ain’t right.

Let’s get back to the real song.

It’s the carpet ruck that really drives them insa-a-a-ane!

Time is fleeting?

Madness takes it’s toll.

Let’s do the time warp again!

With belated thanks to for the suggestion of “Monday Meows.”

Friday Cat Blogging on Monday

February 5, 2018 in Cat Things, Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

Is he still behind me?


I pretend to be vulture and fly instead.

That’s not a vulture. This is a vulture.

Great, Wooster with knives. At least it’s not Jeeves…

I like knives! I haz them in my foots…feets…toes!

Not looking.

Gratuitous Snugglecats Shot!

With thanks to Jonny for his chairlift.

Blogging About My New Book Elsewhere

February 5, 2018 in About Kelly, Books

I wrote a guest post about my new middle grade fantasy novel, Magic, Madness, and Mischief over at the YA Authors You’ve Never Heard Of blog.

Friday *cough* Sunday Cat Blogging

January 28, 2018 in Cat Things, Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

There is something seriously wrong with this wine bottle.

Nevermind that, cats. What do you all think of my senior photo?


I’ve got my tail!

Dude, what does that have to do with the glamour shot?

I can be glamorous too! See.

That which has been seen can never be unseen.*

That’s why I try to sleep through everything.*

This is wisdom.*

Oh good, no one noticed my little bag problem.

*Guest kitties courtesy Tabby’s Catfe.

Freckles, Cecil, Deke, and Pickles and all available for adoption to good home.

Our tuxedo boys also started there.