Adam Bassett began his Worldbuilding Magazine article “Naming people: Creating New Naming Customs” with:
“Names have value. Aside from an identity, an individual’s name offers something greater: a glimpse of the person’s culture, history, and ancestry.”
I could not agree more. Please follow the link above and find that whole article. In it, Bassett approaches naming characters in terms of naming practices. In our culture that tends to be first name, maybe a middle name, and a last name or family name.
Within American culture, of course, are remnants (at least) of the many cultures that have come together here. My own name, Philip, says that my parents just decided to call me that because they wanted to name me Peter but that’s what my older brother (then almost five years old) called his penis, so they needed to spend the next three years breaking him of that before my younger brother Pete was born. My middle name is George, after my father, which was a half-assed nod to a supposed Greek tradition (at least, so said my paternal grandfather) that said the first born son should be named for his paternal grandfather and have his father’s name as a middle name. But my maternal grandmother was dating a guy named Mike in 1959 when my older brother was born and my parents liked him so gave my brother an Americanized version of my grandfather’s first name then Michael in the middle, and it was as if the world had come to an end for papou. Then I came along and got my father’s name as my middle name, which assuaged no one. In any case, my family name, Athans, was changed by my grandfather about a hundred years ago because no one could (or would, at least) pronounce Athanesiades (I think that’s the right spelling). My wife and I named our son George (my father’s name) Donald (my wife’s father’s name) mostly because they had both died before my son was born.
So then the question Adam Bassett asks, and that I’m asking now, too, is what do your characters’ names say about the world around them? What do those names say about different cultures within that world? Or as Bassett wrote:
By naming individuals based on different histories and traditions, you are able to echo their cultures. Or, inversely, if you come up with a fun way of naming people within a culture, find out why it works that way! It’s easy to come up with a random series of letters that sound neat, or fall into whatever is comfortable. However, when you name people in your world with these ideas in mind, you can create formulas for it and plenty of worldbuilding to explain why those exist.
In my online course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy (which starts up again on Thursday January 9, 2020) I express the opinion that sometimes, at least, “a random series of letters that sound neat” may be the way to go:
…in more exotic settings it may actually be best to simply string letters together that sound interesting. But even then, be cautious of your readers’ ability to track new words. If character and place names are more than three syllables long, you might want to rethink—if they’re more than four syllables, please do. Also be as clear as you can in regards to pronunciation. This might seem like no big deal—until someone gets the audio book rights and a poor beleaguered narrator has to figure out your goblin names, none of which include vowels because you thought it would be clever to decide that goblins hadn’t invented vowels yet.
Yeah… guilty as charged.
And that reference is to the Dungeons & Dragons novel The Savage Caves, which I wrote for Wizards of the Coast (as T.H. Lain) and featured goblins with names like Tzrg and Nlnz. My bad.
In “5 Tips for Creating Believable Fictional Languages,” Amber Massey makes the point, not unlike Adam Bassett, that:
Fictional languages are more believable when they’re rooted in something our culture or society has heard before. Linguists and authors often draw inspiration from real languages in order to invent something new. In Lord of the Rings, Sindarin was inspired by Welsh, and Quenya was based on Finnish. In A Clockwork Orange, Nadsat was inspired by Russian slang.
And in the end, the best advice I can really give you on the subject of naming fantasy characters also comes from my online course and that’s to:
Google everything! Got a great name for your hero… for any and every character in your story? Google them! If they’re also characters in Game of Thrones, even if that name has been around for millennia before George R.R. Martin was born, pass on it. If it shows up in your fantasy novel, a significant number of readers will assume you knifed it from GoT. Sometimes, clever names could even get you into (admittedly highly unlikely) legal trouble if they’re someone else’s trademark, but you’re probably not going to set your space opera story aboard the starship Coca-Cola. At least, I hope not! This won’t be necessary if your characters have names like Jon (even though there’s a Jon in Game of Thrones) or Luke (Star Wars) but Tyrian, Cersei, Vader, and Yoda? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.
Do I even have to add: Harry Potter?
I didn’t think so.
More on naming, as well as magic, technology, governments, religions, and cultures…
My four-week Writers Digest University course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy, starts this Thursday, January 9.