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Worldbuilding Tips: Names

Finding the right names for your cast and settings can be a challenge. As a writer of fantasy, I get to make up names, but that’s not without its own difficulties.

Fortunately, I’ve amassed a number of methods over the years to make the task easier.

Names By Sound

Fantasies often feature characters from different races and cultures. One way of differentiating groups is by making the names within each group sound similar. So, you might decide that Culture A’s names frequently have b, g, and v, but no l. And Culture B’s names prominently feature l, s, and r, but no f. Race 1 could have short 1 or 2-syllable names with diphthongs. Race 2’s names always have r- or l-blends and are 2 or more syllables long.

Another thing to consider is endings. You might decide that male names in your fantasy culture end with either -er or -ol; female names with -in or -as; neuter names with -o; and so on. Or the endings differentiate race, caste, socioeconomic class, or type of place (village, town, city, river, lake, etc.). For example, all the dragon names in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels end in -th.

(Now, you might be tempted to have prefixes that indicate such things. That tends not to work so well in English. It’s easier for English readers to get confused about names if they all begin the same way.)

Endings could also open up some interesting sub-plots and backstories. Does your female lead have a name with a male ending because her father wanted a son? Think of all the assumptions people might make about her from her name (she gets hired via letter by an employer who thinks she’s a man, for instance). Does your general have a low-caste name because he’s a slave’s son who worked up to his current position? What does it say about his character that he refuses to change his name and hide his origins?

Also consider the way the individual names sound. For some characters, I just *know* that their names begin with a particular letter. It fits their personalities to have a name that begins with K or M or whatever. If they’re sunny-tempered, you might want a name to reflect that. Same if they’re grim, sarcastic, indolent, pessimistic, complaining, whatever.

Or you can have a private joke and give them a name that contrasts with their personality!

Names by Theme

This one of my favorites, and a lot of fun to do! You’ve seen it before, I’m sure: princesses named after flowers, or the members of a secret organization having gemstone code names. The thing to beware of when using this is not to go overboard. It can come across as too-cute and contrived.

Also, think outside the box. I’ve seen flower, gemstone, and color-related names a number of times. Try to pick a theme that has a lot of variety. Your race of sprites, for instance, could have air/weather/flying related names like Cloud, Flutter, Glide, Storm, Zephyr, and Hail.

One other thing I’ve done is come up with compound names, usually for places. In one of my worlds, city-states all include a nature name as part of their full names: Oakhaven, Blackstone, Ironheart, Goldmoon.

Names by Meaning

On occasion, I write a story set in the real world or closely inspired by real-world mythology and folklore. Then it makes sense to go to the origin culture for names.

When I got my pseudo-medieval, European-folklore-inspired novel out of my system (*grin*), I searched through Celtic and Germanic names, looking for names that not only sounded right, but also had meanings that matched the characters. Thus, the man with an inflexible will got a name that meant “stone”, the woman with the strong sense of duty had a name that meant “pledge”, and so on.

One last thing: These are guidelines, not rules I have to slavishly follow. Sometimes, a character or place will break the naming conventions I set up for that world. That’s fine, because exploring WHY they’re different can add some very interesting details to the story.