When I create a new world for an RPG campaign or fiction, I always spend most of my time with names, be it for characters, place or historical events. For me, it’s central to the process of world building, and depending on the rules of my world and its civilisations, it can help ground my fantasy enough for readers to find their way and grasp the basic concepts.
There isn’t really a big secret with naming, but I’m very particular about it.
I dislike throwing out random words and unintelligible syllables together, and then claim the name comes from some ancient and long forgotten tongue. Some of you might like this approach, and it’s very common in fantasy and Science Fiction to have these naming schemes. On the upside, they make things easier, but for me, it leaves holes in my world, which might lead to inconsistencies if I decide to further use these ancient and lost civilisations.
For me, names not only identify things and people but like any other word in my prose, it helps me connect with the reader and pull him into my weird world. If we use the above situation, I’ll get a much more defined reaction from the reader if I call the ancient treasure “Dawnbreaker” than telling them its name is “Wagnathama” in the ancient “Wagalam” tribe’s tongue.
The first name is in the common tongue, and it’ll instantly grab their attention and make them wonder where it comes from. The other two make no sense whatsoever and will often leave them with very little to go on, unless the tribe and their language are already part of the established lore any reader would know.
On another note, one of the things I’ve noticed over the years is how reticent writers are to repeat names. There are never two Steve characters and if a character meets two Aureon guys over the course of the adventure, there is a definite reason for their naming.
Let me just say this: repeating names is ok. There is nothing wrong with that. Sure, it all depends on the world you’re working in and the civilisation doing the naming. If you say that this one group of people have unique names across their history, the name being a combination of several life factors, then there’s a reason for the lack of duplication. But if we’re talking about our world, for those of you using our weird little planet as your point of origin—I do this a lot with Science Fiction, Science Fantasy and Fantasy—then two people having the same name is not only possible but also fairly likely.
When I lived in Ireland I worked with two guys named Shane, and I knew a fair number of women named Mary. Hell, if you’re setting your story in Ireland and there aren’t at least seventeen Mary characters in the room, it might break the immersion for some.
Yes, that was a joke, but Mary is a fairly common name in Ireland.
If you set the story in our world, a good guideline is this: the larger your cast and the smaller the community, the higher the chances of a repeat name.
In addition to the above, when it comes to our world, my approach is to think of names that would be common enough for me to hear or call out on the street. Brian Johnson is, for me, as perfectly good a name for a mystical warrior as Brian Starkiller is, and in fact, the latter would be very strange for our world unless it was a stage name.
That is, unless your story takes place in another time period. The further you are in the future or the past, the greater freedom you have when naming your characters and the different elements around them. Take one of the story concepts I wrote during the first few guides, the one for the mansion of murder in a sci-fi setting. The main character’s name is Melvin Backbreaker, a name no one in our world has, and one that in the current century would be very odd. But since it’s in the future, such a name becomes slightly more believable.
And I say slightly because it was essentially a joke name, but it stuck.
As a side to this point of naming, particularly in our world, we have to discuss languages. Many writers see foreign languages as a way to add clues or puns to their story, and I’m fine with that. I have done the same in my fiction and depending with an obscure enough word, you can be very clever.
But if this were your approach, then I would advise caution, particularly if the name is a pun or a clever turn of phrase, as you risk spoiling a key plot or character point with the naming. Then again, you can also use this to plant false leads, which is always great.
Depending on the genre, with Urban Fantasy being the prime case, it’s not unusual for writers to give their characters names with a relation to their abilities, role or destiny. I would crack down on this and tell you to avoid doing it, if I didn’t do so myself.
When I wrote my first novel, before I even decided what the story or world would be like, I already had the protagonist’s name, which when I finally decided for Urban Fantasy, turned into one of these power-pun names. No one has seen this novel beyond my beta readers, so I can easily change it (see the point below for more on this), but I don’t want to. The name has special meaning to me, and so I’ll accept the shame of the pun name.
And with that, I come to the last point I wanted to make for this guide: permanence. While you’re working on your story, you’re free to change the names of characters, places and events as you see fit. It’s your world after all. But once you publish something, any name you used is now set in stone and changing those means offering explanations to the readers.
Let’s take Summersalt as an example. Yesterday I wrote of Tony Mozza, a character whose name I decided on while writing the backstory. Before that, I had never mentioned him in any way, even though I knew for months what this character was all about, so I was free to change it up as I pleased. But there is another character, Tracer, which I named in September of 2015. As much as I would like to change her name, to avoid drawing comparison to the Overwatch character, since I published something where I mention her name and say she’s one of Leona’s subordinates, I can’t change it, not unless something happens in a story to allow me to do so.
I could argue all day that no one is reading so it’s not like anyone will notice, but if there’s even a single reader, then any unexplained change like that will create an inconsistency for them and they are free and very well within their right as consumers to call me out on it.
Trust me, you never want your audience to call you out on mistakes or inconsistencies.
As I said, naming is really up to the writer and the approach they take. I have my style and the above are the rules I try to follow in my fiction and the steps I take to ensure consistency not only within the world I’ve created but also in the mind of my readers.
As always, I hope this guide helps you in any way. I will follow up this article next week with some naming examples for every point I discussed here, not only with character names but also with places, events and more. I will attempt to not only create my own examples but also draw some from popular fiction.