This worldbuilding post was inspired by a similar one Rachel Poli Tweeted (Now if I can just find that link again…). I decided to look specifically at creating names for fantasy stories. While a book of first names is very handy (I own some myself), you sometimes need to look a little further for names for a secondary world.
Names From Dictionaries
I know what you’re thinking. But I’m serious – dictionaries of ancient/dead languages can be wonderful for finding names that have the feel of a different culture behind them without just making up a few syllables. For the world of Airtha-Eyrassa I’m using quite a number of different dictionaries, from Anglo-Saxon/Old English to Akkadian.
I find that I do change the spelling sometimes, as I do not really want the book filled with names containing too many diacritics.
Many of these dictionaries are available on the internet for free (or next to free). You can also look on university sites for free resources.
I’m a Christian, so taking names from the Bible – especially the less well-known names – is kind of an obvious way to go for some of the countries’ characters. Nevertheless, religious texts can also be a great resource for names (it’s especially handy when the meaning of the name is also given).
Have you constructed a language or two for your secondary world? You can use some of the words to create names for your characters, just like you can do for place names. (On a side note, names in other languages can sound very cool and interesting and even more intriguing that if it’s in English [or whatever language you’re writing in]. I remember when I was doing some research fieldwork in the Free State [a province in South Africa] and asked one of the women what the “Nchu” part in “Thaba Nchu” meant, as I know that “Thaba” is mountain. I think they thought me even stranger when I said I only asked because I like the sound and thought “Black Mountain” is an awesome name. That said, you don’t have to go all the way to Vaneenfonteintottweebuffelsmeteenskootmorsdoodgeskietfontein[You’ve got to love Afrikaans] to make it sound or look otherworldly on the page.)
You can also look at the same place having two names in different languages – think Imladris and Rivendell. Just don’t go overboard so that your reader doesn’t know where they are in the world you’ve created!
Remember the Culture of the Place
Ask yourself who lives in the place you are writing about. What are their culture? Do they use family names? In my culture we love using family names (although it is becoming less so in some families). That means that you can have people with the same name and a nickname or other description. The name can also be shortened when naming the child (like Jakobus becoming Jaco or Johannes becoming Johan). And do they get the name from the maternal or paternal side? Have a look at Icelandic surnames as well.
Someone may also have names from different cultures depending on the culture/language of the parents. So, for instance, you might give your child an English name if you marry someone who is English while you are Afrikaans. (Or you can be like me and have a name that has an English spelling and an Afrikaans pronunciation 😀 [No, I don’t freak out when it’s not pronounced correctly…]) In our family’s case my older sister received the family names while I was named after one of my mother’s friends. Also, you can take the history of the family in account – like I have a French surname because I am a descendant of the Huguenots, but part of the family became Afrikaans (So you keep the name with the spelling, even though your language and culture changes). A name can let the character blend in or stand out.
In Airtha-Eyrassa there is one culture where your social standing is directly linked to your name. You are not allowed to have a name that is above your social standing/class, which is a way to keep people “in their place”, but also an easy way to let the reader know the class of the character and when that character has broken away from their class to move “up” in the society.
Make it up as you go along
Of course, just putting syllables together until you find something which sounds right for the character is also a way to go about it. For my stories I often work backwards from the name to the meaning and then adding those words to the constructed languages.
Scrivener has a very handy and helpful name generator which lists names by origin and by meaning. There are also various name generators available on the internet.
How do you go about choosing names?