Naming Conventions to Create Memorable Characters for Your Fictional World or Story
Surnames as Meaningful Signs
A surname can provide insightful information into the identification, skills, and origins of characters and their ancestors. For readers, a character's last name can act as a signifier.
Naming conventions can:
- Assist with the development of an ancestry tree, especially if your fictional world has a system of record-keeping.
- Deliver information about your characters to your readers.
- Tie in with the political and governmental systems.
- Trace genetic changes in the evolution of your fictional races.
Rather than choosing any old name, using a developed naming system such as a generational naming system or a mononym, a writer invests a character's name with meaning, turning it into a sign.
The History of an Individual's Name
Prior to 1,000 AC, surnames would change almost as frequently as each generation. This irregular naming system, along with missing or non-existent records of births, marriages and deaths, makes genealogy difficult for many people to research before the Christian crusades.
Most of our ancestors did not have a constant surname before 1,000 AC. Only a person's first name was usually constant. A person born during this period relied upon their first or birth name to introduce themselves. Inherited naming systems began to spread through Europe towards the middle to late Medieval, while some countries like Turkey, did not adopt the inherited naming system until after the first world war.
Not all countries identify with the same order, format or number of names in a full name. It is not unusual for a surname to come before a given name or to have two hyphenated surnames. In some cultures, a surname reflects a person's gender. In this case, a daughter may have a slightly different last name than her father and brothers.
Mononyms and Inherited Naming Systems
Mononyms for Characters
A mononym is a single name used for personal identification. Royalty, political and religious leaders have used mononyms to identify themselves. While the person may still have a polynym, the mononym immediately identifies the individual.
- Akihito (Emperor of Japan).
Mononyms are still in common use in some Asian countries such as Tibet, Afghanistan, Indonesia and southern parts of India. Entertainers in the modern world also use mononyms. Some entertainers legally change their name, like "Cher" or the artist once known as "Prince", while others adopt a mononym as a pseudonym.
4 Common Naming Systems
Before establishing an inherited surname system, there were four standard naming systems used in Western society to describe and identify a person. They used:
- A person's location.
- A nickname that identified a key characteristic of a person's physical appearance or personality trait.
- An ornamental name.
- A person's occupation.
Even if your fictional world is not using an inherited naming system, creating a surname based on one of the four common naming systems used before the establishment of an inherited surname, can add meaning and provide a character with a noteworthy identification.
Identification Based Upon Location
To identify themselves further, a person might also give the place where they born or had taken up permanent residence. If I had lived in these times, I may have introduced myself as Tina of Brisbane.
Ruling houses or kingdoms under which a person was provided protection were also used as a method of identification. This was particularly important if a person traveled outside of that territory to another house or kingdom. Suppose I had lived in England during the rule of Æthelstan who was King of the Anglo-Saxons (925 to 939 AC). Had I taken up a permanent residence under the protection of his kingdom, under this naming system I might be known as Tina of the House of Wessex.
In early Latin Arthurian text the legend of Camelot only refers to King Arthur's name as 'Arthur', or 'Arturus', a mononym. But in some romantic texts especially those written around the 12th and 13th centuries, he is also referred to as 'King Arthur of Camelot'. The inherited surname 'Pendragon' is a more recent rendering of a Welsh title meaning 'head dragon' or 'chief dragon'. The first known use of this title in literature appears in Alfred Tennyson's poem 'Lancelot and Elaine'.
During my text roleplay day, one of my most favorite and sort after characters was Melrose of the Rings, a clan leader. Of the Rings, both identified the clan she belonged to but also gave her location of origin, being the Castle of the Rings.
The Use of a Nickname
A person's physical appearance or personality trait was also used to provide a person with a surname. It can tell us quite a bit about the original ancestor where inherited naming conventions began. This methodology is perhaps the broadest category of the origins of surnames and provides us with insight into the humor of medieval people.
Characteristics like short and tall were common descriptions that were used to provide a surname. But other more unfortunate surnames 'Smellie' and 'Bullock', the latter used to reference a bully, were also adopted as inherited surnames. The Hungarian word 'Talpas' means "sole of foot," and was often used to reference and gain the attention of people who had big feet.
In fantasy writing and world building, the use of a nickname as a surname is popular. JRR Tolkienused nicknames as surnames for some of his characters such as those belonging to the race of Hobbits in his famous fictional world, Eà. These names were inherited names like 'Bigfoot', 'Took' and Farmer 'Maggot'.
A classical example of the use of a nickname as a surname can be seen in The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, where the cold, chilly and calculating character, 'Milady de Winter' plays the part of a beautiful, but evil spy.
Ornamental Names Used as Surnames
Ornamental surnames are simply made up names. They became much more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries when some countries who had not yet adopted the use of a surname for hereditary purposes, required their citizens to take on a surname for taxation and census purposes.
Other examples of ornamental surnames include 'Safire' (saphire) or 'Morgenstern' (morning star). Many Hebrew surnames are of an ornamental nature as are many Swedish surnames. In some cases, ornamental names are a combination of names such as 'Jamieson' (son of James).
Ornamental surnames may also be topographic in nature. Curiosity sent me on a path of discovery to find out how the surname 'Dubinsky' came about, without having to pay for a membership to online genealogy website. My research using information garnished from my in-laws found that 'Dubinsky' is a Slovak name for someone who lived by an oak tree.
Can you think of any of your favorite characters from books or fictional worlds that have been named using an Ornamental Naming Convention? In the comments section below, leave the naming convention, character name, author and fictional world or book.
Those of noble blood were the first to change their names to a more permanent rendering. By 1,500 AC permanent last names were much more common place across Europe and an inherited surname system was established in many countries including England. A large portion of the Western civilization have an ancestor’s occupation to thank for their surname.
One of the most common occupational names in the Western world is 'Smith'. The origin of Smith dates back to the Anglo Saxon times before inherited surnames were common. It comes from the occupation of Smithing, or someone who works with metal. 'Schmidt', 'Schmid', 'Schmitt' and 'Schmitz 'are all German surnames that were given to people who worked with metal. Other variations include 'Kovars' (Hungarian), 'Ferraro' (Italian), 'Kowal' (Polish).
Around the 10th Century, actors would often play the same role for their entire lives. They literally lived their role. When occupational surnames became popular, actors often inherited their character’s name or title such as King, Lord or Death.
Do you use Occupational Surnames in your own fictional writing, or do you have some favorite characters in fictional world building, role-playing or books that use this naming convention? Leave the naming convention, character name, author and fictional world or book below in the comments section.
Other Characteristics of Surnames
Adding an 's' to the end of a surname that was derived from an occupation was a common attribute in Wales and in some parts of England. The addition of the 's' at the end of a name can indicate two variations to the occupational surname. It may have been given to a son of a person with that occupation, or it could indicate that they were a servant of a person with that occupation.
In the surname Vickers, the 's' could indicate that the person was a servant to a Vicker or a son. If the former is true in the case of my maiden name Wells, which is another common surname in Western civilization, it would mean that my ancestors may have been the servants of well diggers.
One more characteristic that is essential when researching the heritage of surnames is to always look for variations and errors in documentation. Surnames are often changed when a person migrates to another country either deliberately to give it a more socially acceptable name or due to errors made by clerks.
My grandmother's family on my father's side emigrated from South Africa in the early 1900s. Her family were of German and Dutch descent. Their last name was Kaiser and it has origins to Prussian (German), Austrian and Roman feudal times. The actual origins of the name comes from a title given to the Prussian Emperor and our family has always joked about being of royal blood. Due to the political climate at the beginning of the 20th Century, my ancestors changed their surname to King to avoid German concentration camps in Australia.
How was your inherited surname created? Have you ever created a family tree and found some interesting names? All these characteristics that I have presented can be applied to the creation of surnames in fictional world building and fictional writing. If you're a world builder, creating family trees for your characters using these conventions and other characteristics can help you to develop a greater depth to your fictional world and social conventions.
Names in Fantasy and Science Fiction
Authors of fantasy and science fiction worlds or literature often create their own languages for a given culture or will draw upon older languages such as Latin, Native American or Aboriginal dialects for their inspiration. From these languages many wonderful fantasy names can arise.
There are also many name generators used for role-play games and at fantasy sites that are easily accessible online. While some of these generators are lacking in originality, depending on how they have been programmed, name generators can sometimes create some very unusual unique names.
When world building and creating characters for your world, give consideration to the culture of your races and whether surnames and inherited ancestral names are required. Perhaps in an earlier age only a single name is necessary until your civilization becomes more advanced and an inherited naming convention spreads from country to country.
Fictional Character Naming
What type of naming convention do you use for your characters?
Fictional and Fantasy Name Generators
- Seventh Sanctum: Names
A site of generators to randomly produce concepts, characters, and descriptions for stories, role-playing games, and art, as well as have fun or combat creative block.
- Fantasy Name Generator
One of the perks of creating fantasy stories -- whether by writing a story or game or by role-playing -- is you get to make up the names. Some people relish the task while others are frustrated by it. Fantasy Name Generator is a tool that can help y
- TheForge: Fantasy Name Generator
A list of some of the best Name Generators available on the world wide web.