As promised in an earlier post, here are a few items to consider when naming your fantasy characters.
Before you start:
It is important to start from a position of knowledge (rather than ignorance) about the fantasy world your character inhabits. This means you’re going to have to engage in some world building (something I’ll discuss more in later posts). The point is, that your character is a product of the world in which she lives. In order to be consistent with her environment (world) her name should reflect this fact.
The character’s race (human, elf, dwarf, dragon, orc, fey, etc.) and any racially identifiable culture should play a big part in naming them. If however, they were named (and probably raised) by someone outside their race or culture, they should bare a name that reflects the namer’s racial culture (unless of course they possess knowledge about the character’s race).
The values held by each race are different. The traits each places value on will vary depending upon their importance to that race. For instance: underground dwelling dwarves who depend on mining to survive may value strength, engineering smarts, precious metals and jewels, and superior tool manufacturing. The names these people give their children could reflect these attributes. They might name their children something like Anvil, Hammer, Ruby or Steel. These values-names might be in the form of a nickname or epithet [Gimel the Hammer], the character’s actual given name [Steel or Steele] or a part of the given name [Anvilrune, Hammerstein, Steeleye]. Of course this also could apply to family or “last” names (see below) of characters [Nugget Silverpick, Emerald Copperbottom].
Does the character’s race speak a racial language (Elvish, Dwarfish, Entish, etc…) as opposed to a “common tongue”. If you decide to give your various races their own native tongue, you don’t need to create the entire language. In fact I don’t recommend you use these fantasy languages much at all. For the sake of naming your characters, you only need to decide if they are named in their native tongue, and if so, what those names (words) would be, and lastly which version they go by. Most names have a meaning in the language from which they were spawned. In a fantasy setting, as the author, you decide how to construct the language and names. You decided what their name means (go ahead, I give you permission :)). Two notes of caution: be consistent and keep a list of whatever foreign and/or fantasy words and names you use in your story, and don’t make your fantasy words or names difficult to pronounce.
Does the character come from a society that commonly uses traditional and/or religious names from their family, history or holy scriptures. It’s common in some cultures to give a child the name of their father or grandfather, mother or grandmother, etc. The names of heroes and holy men are also commonly used in one form or another in almost every culture.
Remember, no matter how badly you’d like to give your character a bad-ass name, it’s really up to the person that named them. The personality and cultural sensitivities of the person who named your character will decide the kind of name(s) he/she will give your character. If that person isn’t important to your story (or your character’s arc) then name them whatever you choose, but realize that the name you give your character reflects the name-giver’s character too and if you should decide to introduce the namer at some later date, their character should be consistent with a person who would give such a name. In other words, a straight-edge square who wears horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector is unlikely to name their child, Rainbow Harmonica Woodstock.
Another facet of living in a society that needs a way to differentiate it’s individuals is the “last” and “middle” name. Not all people have a middle name, but aside from celebrities, people also have a family name (sometimes referred to as a “last name”). The family name bestowed upon a child is generally that of the father, but could just as easily be the mother’s family name, especially in a matriarchal society. Again, this is entirely up to what you the writer decide is the tradition of your fantasy society. If the society is small enough given (“first”) names might be enough. Just remember the larger the group population the more they will need additional means to identify individuals.
A name might also signify the character’s importance in their community/society. This could be a name they were given at birth because they were expected to fill a high office upon maturity (like a tribal chief…), or it could be a name taken once the character has matured and taken an important position (like the pope and some kings…).
Though I’ve listed personality as the last consideration, it should not be the least of your concerns. Your character’s name should most of all reflect their personality and their part in your story. Their name should be such a natural extension of the way your character acts/reacts that your readers could not imagine them with any other name. As I stated before in my earlier post, the character’s name will become a shorthand symbol for everything the character comes to mean to the reader. Be sure it’s up to the task. They should see the name on the page and immediately have a mental picture of the character (and his actions).
Remember, no amount of language/race/culture/world building can replace a name that is “just right”. If you come up with a name that fits your character “perfectly” — and no one can know that better than you the writer — then by all means go with that name. The lead character in my fantasy novel With a Jester of Kindness has a name unlike anyone else in the book, but that is one of the reasons I chose that name.