Names, Places, and Superheroes

So, I’ve got this superhero novel idea floating around in my head, and it’s a bit of a new territory for me. I’m an avid consumer of most types of superhero media, but I’ve never tried to write it before. It is different to both the contemporary and high fantasy I have written before, and the far future sci-fi. One particular issue I’m having is with NAMES.

This issue splits into two problems. The first is that so many of the good superhero names are taken, and there are so many superheroes that it would be easy to accidentally call a character something that’s already taken, and not realise it. I’m not sure how reliable my GoogleFu is on this matter, so I wanted to ask: do you know of any good resources for superhero names? Not so much name generators as lists of existing trademarked superhero names so that I can check anything I come up with.

The other thing is that I’d like to set my story in a city, but the only one I know well enough to feel confident writing about is not really metropolitan in character at all. So, in the grand tradition, I want to make up a city. But I want it to be a British one. A British city that sounds metropolitan. It’s quite easy to make up a British place name – pick a landmark or feature and add ford, chester, castor, castle, bridge, borough, ton or whathaveyou on the end. And there, you have a suitable sounding brand new… village name. Or maybe a sort of Ye Olde sounding cathedral city type object. Not really a sprawling metropolis.

So, it’s difficult. I thought I had a good one this morning, but now I’m not so sure. So here’s my second question: what makes for a good name for a metropolis? Here is a random sampling of names, both fictional and real: what’s working for them?

London
New York
Lud
Manchester
Liverpool
Tokyo
Sydney
Gotham
and, of course, Metropolis.

Answers on a postcard…

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About Serenity Womble

I'm a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories, as well as many, many unfinished novels. I review things of a generally speculative nature. This is my blog for writing and reviewing.
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7 Responses to Names, Places, and Superheroes

  1. loummorgan says:

    The naming bit’s a bastard, isn’t it? 😉

    It’s not exhaustive, but this is the kind of thing Wikipedia is quite good at: after all, the geek shall inherit the earth. There have been so many superheroes over the years (some of whom haven’t survived an entire run…) that I think you just have to go with your gut. If you’ve Googled, Wiki-d and asked around, surely that counts as due diligence and gives you space to go with what feels right?

    As for the city… one of my favourites is “Meanwhile City” from Franklyn. It makes perfect sense. The “City of Ember” is just right too: it’s that last little spark which could turn into something bigger.

    Looking at your list, “Metropolis” is great because it’s the archetypal city, the Everyman of cities. “New York” started out as “New Amsterdam” – and that just doesn’t work, does it? There’s something in the flow of syllables, in the sound of the words… but more importantly, they work because of what they represent.

    My suggestion? Build your city. *Really* build it, and leave the name for now. What do the buildings look like? Is it sprawling or compact? Is it shiny and new, like Tokyo, or falling apart like Detroit? What’s the transport like? How does it run: does it have a Mayor, a Lord Mayor, a Council…? Is it by the sea, on a river? What’s beyond the city limits… and so on. Once you know how it works, from beneath the ground up, you’ll know how the name should sound, what it needs to evoke–and then it should be easy.

    Well, *easier*, anyway.

    • 😀 Yeah, I checked Wikipedia, but then two people more versed in comics than me pointed out that more than just the direct name can be trademarked: e.g. the caped crusader, the dark knight. They like my name, but have a funny feeling it’s been used. But then, the good names always sound a little familiar anyway, don’t they? ARGH.

      Meanwhile City is pretty good – it’s good for the sort of film Franklin is. But I’m looking for something less explicitly metaphorical, more real.

      I know what you mean about the importance of building one’s city, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. Those are interesting and important questions, some of which I have an answer for, some of which I would prefer to emerge organically – that’s how I write. I don’t think settling those questions I’m leaving open for now would give me a city name. I can tell you that I’m looking for more of a metropolis than a slum, a place with shining skyscrapers and very poor areas both, a large city with a history, probably not directly on the sea, but on a river. None of these things help me answer the question of why ‘Tokyo’ is a good name for a shining metropolis except that it happens to be one. You know?

      I need something less literal than ‘Metropolis’ or ‘Gotham’, but it can’t be like ‘New York’ exactly, because it’s not in the ‘new’ world. But ‘Metropolis’ is good – you’re right, I think that there’s something about the flow of the words. I think the trouble is that most things with typically British endings sound like something that Farmer Giles has a farm near. Despite the fact that London, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, and the like, don’t sound that way at all.

    • And, I forgot to say, but: thanks for replying – good to hear other people’s thoughts!

      • loummorgan says:

        You’re welcome: it’s interesting to see your writing process going 🙂

        What I was trying – and, I think, uberfailing, to say in terms of city names is that I suspect they only work because we already know what the name represents.

        I’ve been trying to think of a couple of cities I know literally nothing about by way of illustration: take Minneapolis, for instance. Only thing I know about it is that the Sainted Gaiman lives somewhere vaguely round there, and that it has a couple of comic shops. Given that, the name doesn’t really do anything for me, because all I get is a blank. New York: I get Manhattan. Tokyo: shiny futureworld!

        That’s why I say it might be worth working out how you want your city to feel, what you want it to evoke… because, at least for me, that’s half the battle–although, of course, that’s just me. 🙂 Good luck!

      • Ah, I see! I know what you mean, and I think in some cases it may be true, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. Minneapolis is drawing on a similar root as Metropolis, for me. There’s a direct connection in that it sounds similar and therefore directly identifies with being a metropolis, but it also draws on ‘polis’ which has strong connotations of a heavily populated area, and the sense of cosmopolitanism (to the foreign – in this case, British – ear) brought by the Native American origins of the ‘Minnea’. It suggests to me both a world class city and a large metropolitan area. Similarly with Tokyo – it *is* a shining metropolis, but I think it also sounds like one, and in a way that ‘Berlin’, for instance, doesn’t for me. Possibly it’s just that Tokyo sounds more cosmopolitan because the sound combinations that form it are very different to the sort of formulations we have in English, lending it connotations it doesn’t have in Japan where such sounds are more familiar – I don’t know.

        Most of the ‘x-chesters’ and ‘something-fords’ I can think of sound neither cosmopolitan, nor large, though. And they certainly don’t sound like thriving cosmopolitan 21st century centres of commerce. Maybe it’s because British towns sound like places with history first, in part because they have a longer history that most American cities, and in part because, being British, I am more familiar with their history, and the roots of the words in anglo-saxon, roman, norman etc. And yet, I don’t think ‘Manchester’ sounds like a big city just because it is a big city. I think it’s a good name for a big city. You just need to tap into *why* some names sound better than others – what connotations are they drawing on that aren’t linked to just *being* a big city. Some things are *good* names for what they are, and some things you have to get accustomed to. It’s like calling your hero ‘Neville’. You can do it, and maybe you can give ‘Neville’ some new connotations that way, but I can see why J K Rowling gave that character the name she did. It has certain associations she wanted to draw on that allowed her reader to get to be where she wanted them to be quickly. It didn’t throw them at all. I *could* call the city whatever I want and let it’s character speak for itself, but I’d rather give it a name that fits and evokes something appropriate in the first place. So, I wanted my city to sound both British and metropolitan without relying on its history, because it doesn’t have one that the readers are going to know about before they enter the book. It was a challenge, so I was trying to think about what it is about the *good* existing names for metrpolisis that made them *sound* good.

        Sorry if I failed to convey in the original post that I already new what my city felt like and what I wanted it to evoke. I’d meant to cover that when I said I wanted it to be both British and metropolitan – that’s why I was trying to say that going and thinking about what my city is like first wasn’t really going to help with this. For me what the place is like comes with the story – I wouldn’t be at the point of thinking of names if I was still struggling with having enough of a setting to get a feel for the place; but I can see that if you work differently that might not be imediately obvious.

        I think I have a name now, though, after a bit of thought – so that’s good!

  2. George says:

    For superhero names that have been used in comics, you can check http://www.comicbookdb.com (at least, when it’s working). It does have the disadvantage however of having EVERYTHING listed, even for characters that are only used once and may not necessarily be contested if your work ever came into conflict.

    • That’s really useful, though – thanks! Sounds like just what I was looking for. Once I’ve found a name I then at least have a place to start on finding out whether it’s likely to be contested or not.

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