Creating Names - The Art of World Building
Jul 012021

Creating names for people, places, and things can be a challenging but necessary part of world building. This chapter will discuss techniques for inventing names, how language invention can inform our choices, and options regarding the different parts of names.

People Names

In order to explore naming, we should first understand which parts of one we’re discussing. Differing terms are used for the parts, such as given name, surname, first name, last name, and more.

How Many Names?

Up until about the 12th century on Earth, not everyone had a first and last name, known as “given name” and “surname,” which means having both is optional for our invented world. People in some countries have two or more surnames (and which can come before the given name). Hereditary last names are also not universal. Knowing the reasons for these variations will help us decide where on our world we could do similar things. We have flexibility.

The order of these names can vary, but in Western countries, the given name is typically the first name and the surname is the last. In Eastern countries, this order is often reversed. In Spanish-speaking countries, the given name is followed by the father’s surname and then the mother’s. This mostly matters to us if we’re presenting both names to our audience. It’s a simple way to distinguish one culture from another.

On Earth, some religions have saints, and those names have sometimes been adopted by others. One result is many people with the first name John, for example, resulting in a need for surnames to distinguish between them. One point here is that if we have famous knights or wizards in our world, their name can be highly sought.

Given Names

The “given name” is bestowed (hence the term) upon the person, usually by their parents, but it can be decided by other relatives, particularly if the parents are absent or incapacitated. Or the cultural choice can be different, like grandparents doing it. Or an older sibling. We might decide that the state does it, especially in an authoritarian regime or a futuristic one where people are given a number instead. Consider the government type that this person was born into for whether people have freedom to name a child or not.

The name is typically given at birth but could be changed later if an important event or religious ceremony occurs. This could be as simple as the child’s first, eighteenth, or twenty-first birthday. We can decide a boy becomes a man on losing his virginity and then he gets another given name; the same can be done with a girl, or when she bears a first child. They’ll be known by something else in the meantime, or perhaps their initial name is replaced by another in a coming-of-age milestone of our choosing. If a character obtains magical power at puberty, for example, perhaps they get a wizarding name then, whether they or their instructor choose it. Names are sometimes changed when immigrating to another country, possibly to fit in. Ethnicity might be downplayed this way if the character has reason to fear hostility.

How might world builders use such information? Explaining via narration is the least attractive option. Dialogue might be better, such as one character noticing another’s ethnicity but that their name doesn’t quite match and then remarking on this, possibly snidely: “Your name won’t hide what you are!”

On Earth, the given name distinguishes one person from another in a family or clan (because they’ll all have the same surname/last name). Sometimes there is more than one given name, which means that one of them, referred to as the forename, is spoken first if both are used. Either one could have more prominence and be the main name for this person, but it’s often the first one.

As for why a name is chosen, the reasons vary and are often combined. The simplest reason is that parents like the name. This may not apply to world builders, but wanting a name that’s clear of negative associations can also rule out some choices; a relative of mine gave his daughter the name of a despised woman I once knew and for years, I thought of this every time I heard the girl’s name. Names can be chosen in hopes that the child will have the character trait, such as Hope or Faith. On our invented world, we could decide a word like Kier means “heroic” in an old language and give this name to a character. We’re only likely to mention such things on occasion.

Occupations can be another source of names, which is especially true of surnames, such as Smith. Objects can be chosen, as can places, the time of birth, or physical characteristics. Sometimes a surname becomes a given name, like Harrison.

Many names have a meaning that we may be unaware of because the name is based on old disused words. One issue is that names based on something can come across as literal unless we explain them, and it seems less like a name. For example, few of us know that David means beloved, so we’d have to explain that or call the character “Beloved,” which might seem odd. As a result, this information is interesting but potentially not useful. If you’re like most people, you may not know your own name’s meaning. Your parents might not have either. Or they looked it up out of curiosity and then forgot what it means a month later.

It is possible to voluntarily choose a new name, in which case the phrase “given name” makes less sense unless we think of this as giving ourselves a new name.


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