N is for Names
Antilles lifted his son from her arms and held the heat of that small body against his heart. His son. His perfect son. He listened and heard the name singing in his soul, the name that made his own, his father’s, and every name since the Beginning Time complete and whole. He said, “Behold, thee has given me Eudorus, my firstborn, and heir to all my legacy.”
“Eudorus,” she said.
“Aye.” Antilles nuzzled at the new-named and felt his nose punched. “But thee shall give him the name by which others shall know him, if thee should so desire.”
She smiled, reaching up to touch him, to touch them both. “Lugh,” she said.
An Earth-name. He tested it, found it strong and right, and nodded. —The Army of Mab
* * *
When I was in the fourth grade, my Language Arts teacher was Mrs. Dyson-Bunsen, or Mizz DeeBee for short. If you don’t know, Language Arts was kind of like kiddie-English, consisting of spelling and vocabulary quizzes, a textbook of “age-appropriate” literature with questions after every chapter, and the ever-present threat of book reports. Mizz DeeBee did all this, but also incorporated a curriculum on creative writing that lasted the entire school year. It’s no exaggeration to say I might not be writing today if not for her work then (so direct hate-mail accordingly).
As part of her lesson plan, Mizz DeeBee spent an entire month talking about names. I know, right? An entire month talking about just one thing? Who does that?
She covered everything: choosing a contemporary name based on the character’s personality, taking names from nature, forming compound names or fantasy names, taking names from numerology or astrology, using foreign variations or mixing up letters for truly unique names. Every single day, a different perspective on names.
Well, I’m not going to do that. I can’t possibly improve on Mizz DeeBee’s lessons, so rather than fall short, let’s talk instead about some different kinds of naming customs in worldbuilding.
True names. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that names often carry an innate power in fantasy settings (but I’m going to anyway). It’s a trope I’ve used myself. In my Arcadia series, casual names are used by virtually everyone lest their true names should fall into the wrong hands (ears?) and be used against them. In Olivia, the power of a person’s name was so great, it was taboo to speak it after that person’s death, for fear of calling them back as a vengeful spirit. These are both concepts found in numerous cultures throughout history right up to the present. At its core, this idea typifies the belief that a name is somehow bound to a person’s true essence. Knowledge of the name is therefore an intimate knowledge that can either bestow tremendous inner strength or do devastating harm.
‘Companion’ names. A variation of the true name but without the supernatural influence, this is a special name used only among family or close friends. I can think of no better illustration than Tolkien’s Aragorn…also known as Strider, also known as Elessar Telcontar, Envinyatar, Estel, Thorongil and Elfstone.
Heritage names. These are names derived in whole or in part from the name of another family member, usually an elder or ancestor. In certain cultures where spirits are thought to reincarnate within the family line, it is the custom to name a newborn after the last family member to die to honor the deceased’s return. In other cultures, the first girl born takes her mother’s maiden name as a first name to honor the maternal line. Heritage names can certainly be confusing when you get a large number of people honoring the same relative (there are over two dozen Micheals between my father, brother, cousins, uncles and nephews), but they can be simplified. I know of several people who gave their children names that all began with the same letter—In my Arcadia books, I had the former lord of the Valley name his sons this way, giving the all names that began with A. Shared suffixes or prefixes isn’t very common now, but it used to be a popular way of demonstrating a familial connection, particularly before the use of surnames—I used this technique in Heat, when Uraktus names his son Kanetus.
Multiple names. Here I’m talking about more than just using a surname or middle name. I mean those cultures that pile on names like a kid piles toppings on his first make-your-own-sundae bar. In ancient Rome, for example, a man would have his given name, his clan name and another name referring to a characteristic like his family occupation or social status, but additionally he might have several names in honor of various noteworthy ancestors or a variety of names drawn from any remarkable accomplishments. In European royal families, one’s titles and holdings can be considered part of one’s name. How long does that translate to? Well, rumor has it that if the Queen of England is ever late to a function, the person announcing her can just recite her titles until she arrives.
Destiny names. My baby name books are simply filled with order of birth names, day of the week names and ‘circumstance’ names like Abiona (born during a journey) or Ige (born feet-first). In India, it is a common practice to invite divine favor by naming a baby after a god or goddess; many of us in the West have names shared by saints, angels and other religious figures as well. Puritans had notoriously lofty ideas when naming their offspring; in addition to virtue names like Chastity and Temperance, you can find such folks as Job-raked-out-the-ashes, Search-the-scriptures, and my personal favorite, Damned-is-he-who-knows-not-the-Lord. Of course, sometimes it’s not about invoking fate as much as evading it. In certain tribes following a difficult birth, a child may be given a name that literally means, “Worthless one,” so that the evil spirits will move on in search of a better-loved baby to torment.
Now that you know what to name your characters, you might want to think about when and how. Here on Earth, names still have a way of being tied to the concept of a soul. In some places, a sickly infant won’t be named at all, so that if it dies, it can come back again; the soul is only ‘bound’ to the individual when named. In direct contrast, other weak infants are quickly given names, which can then be used to set their soul at rest when they die so they don’t turn into vengeful wraiths. Even today, many Christian parents ‘seal’ a baby’s name with a christening, a ritual that claims the child on behalf of their faith and grants it divine protection.
Some final words of advice: Whatever you do, treat your world’s naming rituals with respect. Names should never be silly or crude if you want the character to be taken seriously. Think twice before giving a character a ‘badass’ name like Beretta or Wolf; there’s a fine line between cool and campy. Do try to give your non-human names a consistent sound, but don’t overuse letters. And lastly, avoid names that are impossible to pronounce, especially for main characters. Your aliens may be able to say Jl’xxf’nar perfectly through their triple tubular mouth orifices, but your human readers are only going to struggle with it for so long before they set the book on fire and mail the ashes to your house.