Worldbuilding Basics – Names

I used to have such a hard time coming up with new names for characters, locations, and the like; it seemed like a haphazard process of jumbling sounds together, hoping to stumble across something that was the right balance of other-worldly, yet familiar, as well as compelling and original. I have more recently discovered several tricks and methods which take a lot of guesswork out of the process, and I wanted to share them to both help any other author who is struggling like I did and simply because I find the subject fascinating. I’ll start with the more simple tricks first and then go into a more in-depth theory on naming later.

Trick 1: Google Translate

This is by far the most useful piece of advice that I have to offer, and it is to get on Google translate and translate some defining characteristic of a character or location into a number of different languages and see if you come up with anything you like. If nothings stands out, try a synonym of your starting word, or pick a different characteristic or something you feel could be associated with your character, like a certain animal or object.

I was hesitant about using this technique at first, thinking that my audience would easily figure out what I was doing and that it would somehow cheapen my stories, but then I started coming across very familiar names and realized how much this technique was already being used by very successful authors and going largely unnoticed. For example, who knew that Aslan meant “Lion” in Turkish?! I’ve been seriously wondering if there’s some hidden significance to the Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe since I figured that out. If there are any other Skyrim players out there, I’ve also discovered that Farkas and Vilkas both mean “Wolf” in Hungarian and Lithuanian, which is also contextually significant.

Rowling seemed to utilize this tactic the most, deriving spells from Latin words (accio = summon, crucia = torture, levo = lift, etc.), and finding names such as Draco and Dumbledore (“Dragon” and “Bumblebee”) in the Latin and Old English languages. I can’t be sure, but it seems like Voldemort could be a combination of “Vold” (“Violence” in Danish) and “Mort” (“Death” in French), or mean “Flight of Death” (“Vol de mort” in French). This is a great example of an alternative to using direct translations; I often use the translated words as inspiration and combine bits and pieces of them, making it more difficult for readers to identify the word’s origins while still adding undertones of meaning and significance to the name.

Even Tolkien used this tactic in a way when “translating” names from the common tongue of Middle Earth, but the approach was not so direct, and I will get into the details of that later.

Trick 2: Compound Words

This is a trick that I think we often overlook due to its simplicity, oblivious to its potential. Consider: Skywalker, Puddleglum, Proudfoot, Primrose, Lovegood, Wormwood, Wormtongue, Trufflehunter, Brandybuck, Death Star, Deathwater, Weathertop, etc. The individual words forming the compound relate to the character, location, or object in most cases, but we hardly think of their individual meanings when we read them. I’ve never thought of Luke walking through the sky until just now.

Not all words are going to come together smoothly, obviously, but if Rowling can get away with “Longbottom,” I guess anything is possible.

Trick 3: Unexpected Words

This is another overlooked, simple trick to finding good names. Rose, Bill, Heather, and Miles are all fairly common names, but they all have other meanings as well. Nothing is stopping us from turning other words into names, too. Some examples of this are Took and Maggot from Lord of the Rings, Maul, Solo, and Grievous in Star Wars, and Stark, Sand, and Frey in Game of Thrones. It also works well to alter the spelling of a word, as is the case with Peeta and Krum.

Words can be altered even further by adding prefixes (Lestrange, Umbridge, Peregrin, Celeborn, Maugrim), suffixes (Butterbur, Sackville, Parkinson), or by using the word as inspiration and contorting it beyond recognition.

Culture, Language, and Meaning

Now. If you’re like me and learning all of that just provoked more questions than answers, I’m going to continue into a more complex method of approaching names in any sort of fantastical setting.

Presuming a story is written in English, the first question we have to answer is “why.” Either English is the language of the people group featured, or the story has been translated from another language. The first scenario begs the question why names should be anything other than names commonly used in English speaking cultures (there could be some variation, of course, but nothing that would sound completely foreign). Such an approach doesn’t lend well to the creation of the other-worldly setting we are typically trying to create, and I think most of us would rather operate under the assumption that our characters’ names come from a different language so that we can be a little more creative. Presuming that the language in question is similar to most Latin-based languages in western culture, we have quite a bit of creative liberty, and most of the tips listed above will work well enough to compile a list of interesting names for a vaguely foreign, fanciful world. This was my approach in Eilinland, and I think the vast majority of sci-fi and fantasy novels would fall under the same category.

There are a few relatively simple steps to take, though, that make the process even more deliberate and the results more convincing. In Middle Earth, each people group has a distinct sound to its names owing to the conlangs that they come from and their accompanying phonology. You don’t need to go as far as developing languages to get a similar effect, though. By creating a sound inventory and a set of rules for syllabic structure, you can add distinct flavor to all of the names within a culture.

There are a lot of conventions as far as sound inventory, so creating one from scratch which makes sense isn’t as easy as it might seem. Thankfully, phonetic charts for existing languages can be easily found and copied online, like this one, just by searching the phonology of any given language. This interactive IPA chart can be a helpful tool in deciphering them.

Different languages will have different rules as far as syllabic structure goes, too. A great real-world example of how this can create a very unique sound can be found in the Hawaiian language where syllables can only feature one consonant, and if it is present, it has to occur at the beginning, making for very rhythmic, fluid-sounding words.

Tolkien also used another tactic in naming his characters which I find extremely fascinating. The “Common Tongue” of Middle Earth, Westron, is the language that a lot of the non-elvish or dwarvish peoples spoke and was supposedly the language that the stories were translated from. Although Tolkien could have kept the original Westron names in the “translated” text, Banazîr Galbasi, Karningul, and Labin-neg carry much less significance to an English-speaking audience than Samwise Gamgee, Rivendell, and Bag End. Like in most languages, the original names held a meaning, so Tolkien “translated” those meanings and found a fitting English equivalent. Kali translates from Westron to “Merry” and is the first step in transferring the meaning of the name Kalimac Brandagamba into the more relatable Mariadoc Brandybuck.

For my current project, I have one slightly developed conlang used by an elitist subculture and a presumed common tongue used by everyone else, which presents the opportunity to use names as more than labels. The terms that characters choose to use when referring to a location, or syllabic structures in someone’s name which are foreign to their opponent’s language, become political statements, making for a more authentic, multi-faceted world, the effects of which can be felt even if not explicitly recognized.

 

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Thanks for reading!

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