The Why of Names

One of the things about good worldbuilding is that at each point, you need to stop yourself and think, like an observational comedian, "why do we do things that way? What's that about?" But unlike an observational comedian, you also need to find out the answer - to become aware of your cultural and historical roots, and think about how things could have been different.

Which leads me to a Pet Peeve about poorly-thought-through fantasy settings.

You're reading away, and the religious background of the setting is, of course, paganism-lite (because of Gary Gygax, probably, though I suppose he got it from Robert E. Howard or someone). That's just what unthinking genre-fantasy authors do, it's the default. 

Judaism and Christianity have never existed in the setting. And here's a character, and what's her name?


I mean, think for just a moment.

Bad Fantasy Name Syndrome

Approach number 2 to naming fantasy characters, if you don't just use familiar Western names without any regard to their origins, is to make them up.

Most people are not good at this.

I read a series once which, though enjoyable overall, had a number of flaws. One of them was that the hero's girlfriend, his horse, and his brother (or maybe it was his sword) had very similar names to each other, and it was hard to keep them straight.

And then there are names full of apostrophes. Now, some people really have names with apostrophes in them, mostly Pacific Islanders. The apostrophe has an actual function, which is to separate repeated vowels and make it clear that they are repeated, with a little pause between, not just allowed to become one long vowel.

An apostrophe can also indicate a glottal stop, as in the Cockney dialect. Glo'al stop, Guvnor? It's an actual sound, although a subtle one.

And then there's the Bad Fantasy Naming use of apostrophes, which is usually just as decoration and serves no purpose whatsoever, except as a warning to the discerning reader.

Naming the Gryphon Clerks

So when I came to write the Gryphon Clerks, I needed a sensible naming schema that didn't just give me Bill, George and Tl'ca'varuna, possibly in the same family.

Here's what I did.

There are two main religions in the Gryphon Clerks setting (in real life, there are often two or more religions in a geographical location, but this is a lot less common in fantasy). The Asterists are, mostly, more upper- and middle-class and follow the rather abstract star religion of the old Elvish Empire. (It's a very mild Tolkien joke.) The Earthists are, generally, commoners, and kind of paganish in a way that is slightly more accurate to historical paganism in our world than the usual genre-fantasy polytheism.

They have different naming schemes, but both of them are based on words from ordinary language. They're not made-up combinations of sounds - I do that a bit with some place-names, but I'm no Tolkien, I don't want to spend half my life making up a bunch of languages before I can start telling stories.

The Earthists are named after natural phenomena and objects - Brook, Breeze, Leaf, Rain, Berry, Bird. (They're never named after specific plants or animals, though, because those names are reserved for shamans who have got those plants or animals as totems through an ordeal.) Their clan names describe where their clan worships - Sandybeach, Lichenrock, Ashgrove. Men and women can have the same names.

Asterist women are named after desirable abstract qualities: Victory, Patience, Prudence, Kindness. Asterist men have similar names, but where women's names are nouns, men's names are adjectives (I made this decision partway through when I noticed that I'd generally followed that practice): Vigilant, Determined, Honest, Faithful, Magnanimous.

The other distinction in Asterist names is between members of the Silver and Gold classes - that is, the middle class and the ruling class. Silvers typically have names of affiliation (they aren't really surnames in our sense) taken from their trade or occupation or that of their recent ancestors: Farmer, Carter, Carpenter, Miller.

Golds take their names from their family's estate. Tranquil of High Spur, for example, is a member of the family that owns the High Spur estate. The head of the family gets to drop the "of", and if you're ruler of a territory you can, if you choose, call yourself after the territory when you're being official.

And if you're Copper class and an Asterist, for example a servant, you might take a name like "Hope at Merrybourne" to indicate that you belong to the Merrybourne estate, but not as a member of the family.

I won't go into dwarf and gnome naming except to say that a dwarf gets his or her parents' names and a birth number until craft graduation and then takes a name related to the craft - usually a tool, material or technique - and gnomes are called by names related to their family's function in a similar way. Hence Mr Bucket, whose family are cleaners.

The main point is not the details of how all this works, but to point out that I spent some time thinking about how names would work. My goals were:

  • Keep the lack of realism restricted to the fantasy elements. My feeling is that when you're writing fantasy, all the mundane stuff should be reasonably believable and the suspension of disbelief should only be required for the magic parts.
  • Make the names easy to spell and remember, for my sake as much as anybody's.
  • Communicate something about the characters by their names, rather than just using them as arbitrary labels.

I think I've achieved that.

Spread the word

Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe without commenting