This article on naming characters in fantasy is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the cultural, historical, or world-building aspects of fantasy with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Hannah Emery
This week’s expert is Hannah Emery, who has a PhD in sociology from UC Berkeley. She wrote her dissertation on the social construction of identity, looking at how parents choose names for their children. She’s taught courses on sociology, identity, and family. Though a sociologist by training, she has pivoted to community-building work for families in my local area and working to connect kids and families with nature. She also works as a baby name consultant.
Hannah was one of the first expert contributors to the Fact in Fantasy blog series; guest posts on writing realistic magic academies and developing fantasy cultures remain some of the most popular articles.
How to Name Characters in Fantasy
Quick: what are the things you need to settle before you start writing your novel?
Some sense of setting, sure. Probably some ideas about the plot. And a main character or two, plus some supporting characters. And their supporting characters. And the bartender who appears in three widely-separated-but-critical scenes. And the heroine’s long-lost sibling.
You know what those characters will have in common? They’ll all need names.
Most of us have named someone in our adult life: a pet, a car, maybe even a child or two. Naming characters is different – the base assumptions, the considerations, the ‘rules’ – but not as different as you’d think, either. Some of the guidelines are the same no matter what. Whether you’re naming your new baby, your new puppy, or your new protagonist, you’ll need to think about how distinctive you want the name to be, what assumptions the name will give to people who hear it, and what cultural rules underlie the choice you’re making.
Considerations for Naming Characters
When choosing names for characters specifically, there are a few guidelines it’s usually wise to keep in mind:
- Try to make characters’ names distinctive from one another, and be consistent in how you talk about the same character. Remember, your readers don’t know your characters as well as you do. If you have two scheming minor characters named Jacel d’Honneur and Jaquiel l’Onorie, don’t expect readers to keep them straight. If you use different forms of address for the same character (like calling them Vanya in some scenes and Ivan in others), you’re adding extra mental load for your readers. Of course, real cultures do stuff like this all the time (more on that below) but real cultures do lots of things that aren’t necessarily wise to imitate in fantasy worlds. Yes, George RR Martin has a world full of characters named after each other – Robert Baratheon, Robb Stark, and Robert Arryn being one set of examples – but George RR Martin has also been writing professionally for fifty years. For your first novel (or your fifth), you might be safer to keep it simple.
- While thinking about lexical meanings (like the fact that Isaac means “laughter”) can be a really fun way to choose character names, you want to be a bit careful with choosing straight-up word names. If your hero’s named Hero and your villain’s named Villain, readers will likely assume that a) you’re writing a comic book or b) you’re going for high literary allegory, or extreme satire.
- Whether you’re writing secondary-world fiction or stories set in our world, if you use a name that’s recognizably tied to a real-world culture, readers will make assumptions about the character it’s attached to. If the villain is the only character in the piece with a non-Western/non-Anglo name, that’s likely to stick out, and maybe not in the way you were hoping for.
- On the flip side, just like with any aspect of worldbuilding, remember that anything invented in your story will not be intuitive to your readers, and the more bells and whistles you add, the more work your reader has to do to keep up. So if your protagonist’s named X’Q1eL, and that means she’s clearly a member of the nursemaid caste, her in-universe peers might wonder how in the world someone like her got to the royal court – but your readers won’t.
On that note, let’s dig into the worldbuilding aspects of naming a little. There are two elements here, and they’re tangled together because of the unique place names straddle in society: cultural expectations, and language rules.
Cultural Effects on Character Names
Even if you’re not dedicated to Ursula LeGuin-level anthropological worldbuilding, if you want solid, realistic-sounding names for the characters in your story, you’d be wise to do a little bit of thinking about where names come from in your characters’ home cultures.
A few questions to get you started:
- How many names does an individual have, and what order do they go in? In the modern West, most government documents assume three-ish (personal/‘first’, family/‘last’, a middle and maybe a suffix) but in some places, it’s not uncommon to have only one name. In others, your full name might include a personal name, the personal names of one or more ancestors, a “clan name,” and a name that indicates your family’s ancestral village. Some people use different names in different contexts, especially if their birth name’s challenging for members of the dominant culture to spell or pronounce. And, of course, whether your family or personal name comes first says a lot about what parts of your identity your culture thinks are most important.
- What assumptions will others make about someone based on their name? Most cultures in the real world use different names for women and men, but if sex isn’t a relevant identity in your setting (like in Ann Leckie’s Radch trilogy), your culture probably wouldn’t distinguish names that way. Other identity aspects that are often marked on someone’s given name in the real world: ethnic background, religion, caste/social status, and sometimes a guess at age/generation.
- Who chooses personal names in your culture? In the contemporary West, that privilege almost always goes to a child’s parents, but that’s not a given everywhere. Is it grandparents who make the choice in your character’s society? A clan or religious leader? Is the choice left up to chance, maybe made through divination or a particular experience the mother has on the day of the child’s birth?
- Relatedly – where do names come from? Is everyone named after an ancestor? Are there taboos about naming after living people? (Some branches of Judaism include both of these practices.) Are most people’s names just words or phrases used in everyday language (very common in some Asian languages, and not uncommon in English – Rose, Hunter, etc.), or are they names of mythological/religious figures (Joseph, Krishna) whose lexical meanings are very much in the background?
- How many names are in general use in your culture? According to the Social Security Administration, in 2018 about 3.5 million American families chose from approximately 32,000 different names for their children. The #1 names, Emma and Noah, were given to about 1% of babies. By contrast, in most of medieval Europe, the overwhelming majority of the population had one of about thirty names.
- What would people in your society think about the idea of a “fashionable” name (the elusive goal of many modern parents)? Historically in most places around the world, children were named for relatives, or something astrologically favorable, or after their birthday saint. Style didn’t enter into it until very recently (often the last 100-150 years).
- How would your characters answer the question “what does your name mean?”
As far as straight-up linguistics goes, you don’t need to develop a full grammar and dictionary for your fantasy language to name your characters, but thinking a bit about the relationship between names and language might save you a headache later on. The basics:
- Names are words in your characters’ language, so they give you some basic information about the way that language sounds. If you’re looking to develop a consistent-sounding set of names, you might be wise to start with figuring out your language’s basic phonetic rules (there are some excellent guides for this out there: Google ‘conlang’).
- That said, because of migration and cultural cross-pollination, names are also some of the most common words to move across cultures. Most of us wouldn’t blink at meeting a modern Western family whose children’s names have different linguistic backgrounds, like Benjamin (Hebrew), Sophia (Greek), and Mason (English).
- To bring those two points together, the same name can sound very different in different parts of the same diaspora. The classic example of this in the real world is names from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures; Isaac and Yitzhak are essentially the same name in different languages, as are Miriam, Maryam, and Maria.
Like any other part of worldbuilding, the amount of effort you put into naming characters is up to you. But if you’re looking to flesh out some details, names give you a great excuse to consider everything from family relationships (whose ‘family name’ or names do the children get?) to social positions (what’s a ‘low-class’ or ‘high-class’ name in your society?) to mythology and the things your culture values the most (just for a start, boys’ and girls’ names tend to have very different lexical meanings). They’re one of the very few completely invented cultural items that almost all humans receive, usually early on, and that most keep for their whole life (just thinking about the exceptions to each of those situations can create story ideas!).
Names are culture filtered through language. You can’t get much more key to worldbuilding than that.
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