Creating Surnames


In contrast to the given name, the surname is inherited from either the family or a clan, but not all surnames are inherited. They are often chosen or changed, either by the individual or someone else, such as a servant’s lord, or even government officials. Many who immigrated to the United States were simply given new surnames upon arrival. Sometimes those new names had something to do with their original name, such as a misspelling or Americanization of it, while other previous surnames were simply ditched by officials.

The original meaning of a surname is often lost in time. This is especially true if the spelling has been altered. In our work, we’re more interested in giving characters names that mean something to not only them and other characters, but to the audience.

Any of our characters might have earned a name or simply inherited it.

Using Places

Surnames are often used to distinguish between two people in the same settlement who have the same given name. This means that in a small town or village, surnames might not be used. Galen is simply Galen. If he travels, he might be asked where he’s from, resulting in others calling him Galen of Norin, which in time might become Galen Norin. This could become his surname if he’s moved into a culture where others have one and there might be more than one Galen. One’s place of birth need not be the surname, as later residences can apply instead.

If there’s a prominent land feature, this can also be used, as can names of castles or other prominent buildings. The name of an actual hill can be used, so that Galen, who lives near Ardo Hill, becomes Galen Ardo, or the generic word for the feature can be used, resulting in Galen Hill. Regions such as counties, states, kingdoms (including long forgotten ones) and more can be used.

A knight might wish to suggest he comes from a respectable city instead of the less-favored one from where he actually originated. Said knight need have never even visited, much less lived, in that city. Few if any are likely to contest such a claim unless advanced technology, the kind found in SF, allows them to easily verify his origin. That said, a character doing this might have an accent that betrays him, for example, and be unaware his ruse is known or suspected.

In some countries or regions, an article is placed before the surname, such as “de” in France, resulting in Galen de Borun, and this is sometimes later altered to d’Borun or Deborun. When using an apostrophe in names, remember that the punctuation is replacing something. We can make a list of articles used in a given country; remember that not every name should have them as that looks too consistent and planned.

Using Occupations

Surnames were often derived from an occupation, such as a blacksmith or ironsmith. This latter point raises an issue for fantasy authors. There are almost certainly blacksmiths in your world. If you call someone Galen Smith, that surname looks too much like a name from our world, which interferes with our attempts to create a world that appears different from Earth. The way to avoid this is, well, to avoid this. Choose occupational surnames that are likely for your world but don’t exist in ours. Another option is to leave that example as Galen Blacksmith, because that’s less familiar. This also allows us to introduce a character and state their profession simultaneously (unless it’s different, in which case this can be a problem).

In some countries, servants took the first or last name of their employer as a surname, adding an “s” to the end. Galen’s maid, Sori, becomes Sori Galens, or maybe Sori Isa-Boruns. An actor who always plays the role of a king in plays becomes Galen King.

Using First Name

A surname is sometimes created from a first name. Using Galen again, his son could be Rogin Galenson or Rogin Galen. This first makes sense but also looks a too little Earth-like. His daughter might be Galendaughter, a common naming convention in some European countries. A shorter suffix might be simpler. In Russia, girls inherit their father’s last name just like boys do, with one distinction: the letter “a” is added to a girl’s last name. For example, Galen’s son would be Rogin Ori Isa-Borun and his daughter would be Suri Pia Isa-Boruna. Simply adding “a” works for some names but not for others, so we’d need more than one version.

Using Nicknames

While we sometimes associate nicknames with being unflattering, not all of them are, and in either case, these can become a surname. Those who’ve refused to choose a surname are sometimes given an unflattering one. In our world, Trollman could be someone who has specialized in dealing with trolls or who resembled a troll. Any physical or even personal/mental characteristic can be used. If someone acts haughty like a hated nobleman, they could end up with that nobleman’s surname, which is the reason some people on Earth have Caesar for a last name. To be more precise, a relative may have been given that surname derisively and then passed it down. In some cases, families remove unflattering names in later generations.

Another variant is using something unrelated to the individual, sometimes as an affectation. Someone can be named after the morning sun, a beautiful (or even deadly) flower, or an animal known for its strength.

Compound Surnames

Where an individual has two last names, this is called a compound surname. Several varieties exist on Earth and can be leveraged for our world. Each of the two names is typically derived from one parent. Let’s take the name Galen Sori Isa Borun and break it down:

First Given Name Second Given Name Paternal Last Name Maternal Last Name
Galen Sori Isa Borun

Figure 14 Compound Names

Galen Sori is his first and second given name. Isa is his paternal last name (i.e., his father’s surname was Isa), and Borun is his maternal last name (his mother’s surname was Borun).

If Galen has children, they can either inherit just Isa or both Isa Borun, but in Hispanic cultures, seldom if ever is only the maternal name (Borun) inherited alone. There’s no reason we have to follow that, of course, but it shows some variations are available even here.

If Galen has children who inherit Isa Borun as a surname, and then they have children, it can become more complicated. For example, let’s say Galen’s son Rogin Ori Isa Borun marries a woman whose last name is also a compound name, Sine Tiona. They have a son, whose name could be Uron Dain Isa Borin Sine Tiona. Those wanting to shorten his name can call leave off his middle name “Dain,” but they can also use only his father’s surname, calling him Uron Isa Borin. Since it’s not okay to use only the mother’s surname, Sine Tiona, we can’t call him Uron Sine Tiona. Variants on all of this exist.

Similarly, his father’s surname being Isa Borin means it would be wrong to call Uron by just one of those: Uron Isa or Uron Borin are both wrong. This is again assuming we’re following the Hispanic convention. We can invent our own rules.

To help avoid confusion, we can use punctuation: Galen Sori Isa-Borun has a son Rogin Ori Isa-Borun, who marries a woman with the last name Sine-Tiona. Their son is called Uron Dain Isa-Borin Sine-Tiona. In our work, we’re seldom going to want to use all of these names, as audiences expect to be on a “first-name basis” as the expression goes in the United States, with our characters. This is considered more personal, and audiences want personal connections with characters.