I was thinking about fantasy naming conventions this morning because I just finished a second-world fantasy that didn’t have one. One group of people had a certain style of name. (Mostly the writer stuck a random letter Y into various words.) Otherwise, names were vaguely familiar and ranged all over the linguistic map. This was an isolated society with little to no contact with other groups of humans, and some names included:
- Persephone – a name of Roman/Greek origin
- Maeve – a Celtic name
- Suri – a version of an ancient name from the people of Apple, meaning “she who voices your iPhone”
- Malcolm – probably Scottish
The book was entertaining, and the lack of a naming convention sent the reader a signal. That signal was; this is a book that wants to have tricks, sword fights, magical battles, chase scenes and snappy banter and it really doesn’t care about the world those things are set within.
My insight today was that this is not a failing of a writer, because the writer doesn’t care. It’s a signal, the way the cover illustration is a signal. It’s a choice. And as with the cover, the wrong choice, or a mistake, sends the wrong signal.
As a basis of comparison, I couldn’t help but think about Katherine Addison’s book The Goblin Emperor, where a naive young heir comes to power (through a fluke, almost) in a stratified, hierarchical and rigid society. Names mattered in Maia’s world. They mattered so much that the writer had to include an appendix that explained the conventions and he honorifics. For some readers, that rigid naming convention was an impediment. One thing, though, no one was confused about the type of world they were in. I sure wasn’t. I knew early on that no character who inhabited Maia’s world was going to deliver a Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer quip, or say, “Swipe Left,” to a suggestion.
In a completely different flavor, Ada Palmer’s TERRA IGNOTA tetralogy uses names to a very specific purpose as well. It’s a world in which almost any name can and does exist, but who has those names is what’s important. Once again, even during those long stretches where you’re clinging onto this philosophical roller-coaster of a story by your fingernails, you understand what kind of a world you’re in.
I think you have to decide early in your work whether you think names matter. It has to be a decision. If you want to write a fun, splashy, actiony adventure with snappy modern banter and plenty of popular culture references set again a generalized sword-and-sorcery background, go for it! Just please don’t pretend that you invested hours of work in conceiving an organic, layered, detailed world, because you didn’t. If you are going to spend days on the geography of your world, on the weapon-making, on the political system(s), the religious systems, the geology and so on, you have to spend time on the names. And the names should not upend what you’ve told us about the rest of your world.
If the tiny mountain-bound kingdom of Metalmorium has a queen named Platinuma, whose counselor is called Ferris and whose man-at-arms is Cupric, and some guy named Skippy bounds onto the stage, you’d better have a reason, that’s all I’m saying.
As a reader, here’s why I react to these generalized names. You’ve given me a world with no gunpowder-and-projectile weapons, no harnessed electricity and so on. And I want to believe you, but if you can have someone named Skippy, why can’t you have pulse weapons? If the ruling family of your slightly-Roman city-state has names like Aestur, Callox, Aluria and Josephine, why don’t they have harquebuses at least? And who the hell is Josephine?
America is a great place to live but it’s not a good place to learn about naming conventions, because we are a nation of immigrants and we’ve got names from all over. And that’s something you need to consider in your world. An isolated society probably won’t have a lot of different-sounding names. A society that lives in a robust trading center, or has major ports, should see real diversity in names.
To look at the functions names serve culturally, you could look at some specific earth-based naming conventions. Here are some easy ones. Look at Icelandic names. Iceland is opening up to more people but it is a small county and was genetically homogeneous for a long time. Read up on how the surname suffixes of -dottir or -sson work. Check out Spanish names, where among the aristocratic classes the family names of both parents were brought in. Think about your own last name. Did it come from your father? Imagine our world, only with your last name including the names of your father and mother. Would we be a different society if Alex Jones was Alex Brown- Jones? How would we be different? What if a last name included the state you were born in? What kind of a world would Alex North Dakota Brown-Jones live in? How would you fit that on a driver’s license?
Look at societies where the surname or family name comes first. Does that tell you something about the values of that society? Can you use that to depict a value in your world?
Do characters in your world have only one name? What does that signify?
And after all that, you decide that you really do want Skippy the Awesome-thewed Barbarian Warrior to bound into the throne room and fight for Queen Platinuma against the evil wizard Tin-Tin, then you go. Have a great time. Just be sure you’re doing it deliberately.