Episode 23: Learn How to Creating Names
Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create names, including tips and tricks we can use, the difference between given names and surnames, and both people and place naming considerations.
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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- How to create given names and surnames
- How to invent place names
- Techniques for altering common words into being names
- Why we should keep it simple
- Common mistakes to avoid
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Episode 23 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-two. Today we discuss how to invent names. This includes tips and tricks we can use, the difference between given names and surnames, and both people and place naming considerations. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series..
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
Before we get started, I want to mention that there are transcripts of every episode available, and you can now buy these transcripts. In fact, you can buy the podcasts episodes, too, as audiobooks that you can take with you. Just go to Amazon or artofworldbuilding.com and search for the series “The Art of World Building” and you’ll see books of the transcripts among the series books. Since episodes are based on chapters from the series, I group the transcripts that way, too. In other words, there’s a book called “Creating Life – The Podcast Transcripts” which has all of the episodes based on that book. Now, on with the episode.
The first thing I want to talk about is people names. As it turns out, it’s not until relatively recently, like the 12th Century on Earth, that people had a first and last name. These are also known as a given name and a surname. One thing this immediately suggests is that it’s optional for our world for people to have two names. In some countries, people have more than one surname, and hereditary last names are not universal. So, what this gets at is that we have a lot of flexibility on how we want to handle naming. And if we have multiple sovereign powers in our world, we may want to have it different in one than another.
Another area of variation is that in western countries, the given name is typically first and the surname is last. But in eastern countries, this is actually in reverse. In Spanish speaking countries, the given name can be followed by, first, the father’s surname, and then the mother’s.
Let’s take a closer look at the given name and what this really means. The given name is just what it sounds like. Somebody gave you that name. Usually, this is the parents, but it could be something like an older sibling. In an authoritative regime, we could decide that the state is the one giving the name. These names are typically given at birth, but they could be at a later time such as an important event or a religious ceremony. I’ve seen some stories where someone is given a name at birth, but then when they become something like a wizard, they’re given another name.
The point of a given name is to distinguish one person in a family from someone else in that family. That immediately reminds me of George Foreman, the boxer, because he named most, if not all, of his sons George. But maybe they all have a different middle name to distinguish themselves from each other, and that’s what they actually use in day-to-day conversation. But most of us don’t do something like that. In the United States, at least the middle name is a second given name, and there are people who choose to go by their middle name.
There are various reasons that people give a name, and one of those is that they simply like it. But sometimes a name is given to suggest something for that child, such as Hope. Now, many of the names that we hear today actually do mean something, but most of us have no idea what they mean unless we’ve looked it up. We can also do this in our invented world, but, of course, then we’re going to have to explain that to the reader if they want to understand that a character’s name means a specific thing. We can also use an occupation for a first name, but this is especially true of last names like Smith for a blacksmith. Sometimes something that is a last name becomes a first name, like Harrison. Of course, it is possible to give yourself a new name.
Let’s talk surnames. Unlike a given name, these are typically inherited from either your family or a clan, but not all surnames are inherited. Just like a first name, we can choose to change this. Government officials in the United States changed many people’s last names when they were at Ellis Island immigrating a long time ago. Surnames are another area where the original meaning of that name can often be lost.
But let’s talk about where surnames can come from because we can leverage this when we are inventing stuff for our world instead of just making things up out of thin air. Places are one of the most obvious ways to get names. Let’s say we have a character named Galen. If he is from a village, then maybe he doesn’t need a surname because there might only be one Galen there. If he lives in the town of Norin and then he goes traveling, he might become Galen of Norin, which in time could be shortened to Galen Norin.
When we do this, we may be implying that someone’s ancestors came from a certain city or area of our world, but Galen might be a little more enterprising or wanting to convince people of something that isn’t true, and he could just choose a name and maybe no one would realize this. Of course, in the real world, people will sometimes have an accent that might give them away. But maybe he’s good at changing that too.
Norin doesn’t have to be the town where he was born. It could be just where he has spent much of his life, or where he has most recently lived before going somewhere else and needing to adopt a surname. If there is a prominent land feature, like a mountain or a castle, then maybe they do that. So, let’s say he lives near Ardo Hill. He could become Galen Ardo. Or maybe we want to be more generic and we just call him Galen Hill instead of Galen Ardo, based on Ardo Hill. Of course, that name is pretty common on Earth, so that may suggest something here, but it still makes sense. We can use any place in our setting that we have a name for.
Another source of surnames is an occupation like blacksmith or ironsmith. Naturally, that’s going to result in Galen Smith, another name that really reminds people of Earth. In some countries, a servant might have to take the first or last name of the person they work for and add an “S” to it. So, if Galen has a maid named Suri, maybe she becomes Suri Galens instead of Suri Galen. We might also have an actor who often plays a king and becomes known as Galen King.
Another thing that we’ve seen here on Earth is that sometimes we can use the first name and that becomes a surname. For example, let’s say Galen has a son named Rogan. Rogan becomes Rogan Galenson. My last name is Ellefson. So, presumably, there’s a guy somewhere named Ellef and I am a descendant of his. We don’t hear daughter used as much in that context here in the United States, but in, I believe, Norse culture, that is very common. This means his daughter would be Galendaughter.
Nicknames can also be the source of a surname. So, let’s say we have a character who is famous for hunting down and killing trolls. He might be known as Galen Trollman. That sort of structure also reminds us of Earth, so we might want to go with Trollkiller instead. Sometimes people are essentially given a surname by other people who witnessed their behavior and decided that their behavior is just like a famous person who had a similar personality. So, for example, Caesar was known to be arrogant, so someone might end up being given the surname Caesar. We would need a situation where someone actually can have a surname forced on them, and it could be something like someone being a servant.
Going back to that Ellis Island example, maybe someone immigrating here was really arrogant, or behaved that way in line, and the government official decided to slap the name Caesar on them. Now, that immigrant may not have even known what it meant, but now it’s their last name and, of course, they pass it on.
There is one subject that’s covered in the book that I’m not going to cover here because it gets confusing if you can’t look at the names. That is the concept of the compound surname. This is very common in Spanish speaking cultures, and it happens more in the United States in the last 20 or 30 years than it used to. What we’re talking about is a child having the last name, or the surname, of both the father and the mother, often separated by a dash. This is simple enough when we’re talking about one child, but what if that person becomes an adult and is getting married to another person who did the same thing? So, now you’ve got two people, each with hyphenated last names. Well, what do they do? This kind of thinking can result in really long names, which we do sometimes see in fantasy books where our character just has a name that goes on for like a mile. If you want to do this, well, then learn about compound surnames and how to create these, and then it will become easier to do that.
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Let’s talk place names. Just like with people names, we sometimes have no idea what a word actually means. In the United States, many of us probably assume that anywhere named Washington has something to do with George Washington. But a place like Dallas, we just think it’s called Dallas. The reality is that is actually named after somebody. This is the kind of thing we definitely do not have to explain to our readers because they really don’t want that kind of exposition all the time anyway. A place name is just a place name, and that’s the end of it.
However, if we do have a historical figure from our world, we may want to leverage their name by using it for a place. When we use a place name, at least here in the United States, we often add a suffix like “ville” or “burg” to it. So, we might end up with Jacksonville or Harrisonburg. Sometimes we use the feminine version of a name. So, for example, Alexander the Great has his name on many places, but it’s always called Alexandria. To do that, you may want a naming convention such as earlier when we talked about adding the letter “S” to Galen to become Galens. The Cook Islands are named after Captain James Cook, and Saint Dominic resulted in the Dominican Republic.
There are many examples of this that you can leverage or use for inspiration, and all you really need to do is Google places named after people and you’ll find some of these lists. Of course, the big problem with doing this is that we are naming them after another character, and it might be one that we are using in our book. That’s unlikely to happen unless they’re something like 90 years old. This is why I mentioned historical figures earlier.
It can also seem like we’re being a little bit redundant to have a character in our story who also has somewhere named after them. It could seem like we’re just trying to not make up more names. The point is that you’re going to want a pretty good reason to do this. Sometimes it helps to modify the name. So, a character like Luke Skywalker from Star Wars could have a place named after him where it’s just called Skywalk. By modifying it, we make it a little bit less apparent, while also getting away with leveraging a name we have already used.
If we have saints in our world because we’ve worked out our religions, then we can use those saints for naming places. There might be other people who have done great things that we can use this way. Another option is to use events. For example, maybe a shipwreck happened nearby, and this was a while ago, but now the place is known for that because that’s what people think every time they think of this place. We can also do this in reverse where we name something in our world based on the setting. So, for example, the Ebola Virus is named based on the Ebola River. An obvious example of something like this is a battle being named after the place where that battle happened.
We can also use natural events like weather. There are places that are actually named things like Snow or Tornado or Frostproof. These literal names are a little bit less interesting, but sometimes we can do something a little more artful like Rainbow Springs. Something I mentioned earlier is that we can add suffixes and prefixes to names. So, we end up with something like Jacksonville and Harrisonburg. This is actually fairly important because there are areas of the world that have a certain naming convention, and we may want to do this on our setting. For example, “ton” is often added to something to make a place like Hamilton. We can use the word “ford,” which is a river crossing, and that ends up with something like Stafford. I’ve got a pretty good list of possibilities that I have in the book that you can check out.
The last tip I’ll give you for this is that we can also do compound names. You’re well aware of this because you’ve probably seen some of these such as Ironforge or Oakheart. All we really need to do is make a list of words that we may want to combine, and it’s good if we can choose some names from our setting and things that may be typical of that genre. Once again, I’ve got a list of these in the book.
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There are some general tips I can share, and the first of those is to keep the names short. Longer names are harder to read, remember, spell and pronounce. In our modern world with social media, we always want people to be talking about our characters, but if no one can spell their name, then that’s going to be more difficult. One example of being too long is having too many names. This can also be true of titles. Lately, when I watch Game of Thrones and they introduce Daenerys, it sounds like they’re just going on and on and on with all of these titles. It actually keeps getting worse and longer the longer the series goes on. I keep waiting for someone to go, “Oh, god, this is taking forever. Would you just get on with it already?”
Now, if we do want our characters to have really long names, that can be fine, but I would suggest using that once when we introduce them to the reader. Otherwise, just stick with something like the given name that they will be using throughout the story. The only other time we might want to use the longer name is if someone is, for whatever reason, discussing their lineage, or if they are being introduced again in a formal setting, like Daenerys is with all of her titles.
Now, if we have a lot of introductions, like with Daenerys on Game of Thrones, we may, as an author, just want to start kind of skipping that and saying, “Okay. After all the introductions were done, blah, blah, blah.” We never want to lose our reader’s interest and make them start skimming over stuff, and that’s one of the ways we can cause them to do that. I always consider that a moment of losing the audience. In theory, we always want to grab them and then never let go. So, we shouldn’t do something that kind of makes them skip over stuff, just get annoyed with us, or do anything that ruins that hold we have on them.
Being annoying with names is one of the potential problem areas. Even if we have a single name that is really long, like 20 characters, most people are not going to take the time to sound that out. And, of course, in the real world, most people are not going to want to say that. They’re going to shorten it to something like a memorable aspect of that name, the way we might take Johnathan and shorten it to John. I’m not saying Johnathan is a really long name, but, in fantasy in particular, we sometimes get these really crazy names and people just tend to skip right over that.
Another option for using that long name is that sometimes a parent will say the full name when they are disapproving of their child. So, John might go by John all the time, but when his parents are really mad at him, they call him Jonathan. The reason people do that is that is the formal name and they’re trying to exert some formality because the person is now in trouble.
We should also strive to keep names simple. Part of what I’m getting at here is the use of apostrophes and hyphens. World builders typically want to create the sense of somewhere different with the names, but sometimes we can overdo it with too many consonants, hyphens or apostrophes. When we put too many consonants together, we sometimes make the audience unable to pronounce that name.
As I’ve already mentioned, hyphens are use to connect two names, such as someone wanting to keep both the father’s last name and the mother’s last name. We should have some sort of justification in mind when we do this instead of just randomly throwing out a hyphen. We can also make this cultural, just like with the Spanish where this frequently happens.
Now we come to the apostrophe. For some of you, you probably already have an attitude about this because this is a somewhat infamous subject where fantasy authors in particular make up names with apostrophes, and they just overdo it. It should be remembered that an apostrophe is there to take the place of a missing letter. Sometimes it’s actually more than one letter. So, when we do this, we should decide what letter has been omitted. And if the name seems fine with that letter, then leave it in. An apostrophe is also used for a contraction such as “can’t” instead of “cannot.” One problem with doing this is that people don’t understand what we are contracting unless we explain it. So, there may be no point to this and it can look random. This means that even if we have a rational worked out, they’re not going to understand it and they may still think that it’s kind of stupid.
Now, there is one good use of an apostrophe, and that is to suggest pronunciation. If you are following along with the book and looking at what I’m about to describe, it would be a little bit easier to understand. Let’s say that we have a name “Tourten.” Most of us might pronounce that as “Tourten,” but we might have intended it to be “To’urten.” One way to solve that is after “T-O” have an apostrophe, and then “U-R-T-E-N.” Therefore, it looks like “To’urten.” Even if this is why we’re doing it, we should work out what letters were omitted by that. So, for example, maybe there was a name “Tourney” and the last name “Urten,” and we removed three letters.
Another general tip is the issue of similarities. There’s an old idea in writing that we shouldn’t have two main characters who have a name that starts with the same letter. So, for example, on Earth, we could have Randy and Ralph. Both of them start with R and they’re both the same length. Why is that a problem? Well, because readers tend to not read that carefully, especially if they get excited like, of course, we want them to. So, they may just not realize that they have read the wrong name. We may want to keep this idea in mind when we are naming people or places for our setting. If we are inventing our setting for a specific story, it is a little bit easier to avoid this problem. We should also pay attention to the way the word looks on the page. We may not think that books are a visual medium, but they are. And, of course, we should pay attention to how the name sounds. It’s always a good idea to say your names out loud because if even you struggle with this, then someone else is probably going to as well.
One way to get around some of this is if you have a webpage for your book, you could put a kind of glossary on there with a recording of yourself saying each one of these names. But this is a kind of nice-to-have. A lot of the readers are never going to go there, play these files and hear these names.
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Now, for my favorite part of inventing names. That is using techniques to do this. I’ve been making up names for 30 years. Over those 30 years, I’ve come up with some pretty reliable tricks. One of those is the silent or repeated letter. The way I spelled was Galen was “G-A-L-E-N,” but there’s no reason I can’t add an “H” as the second letter. Or I can take the “N” at the end and make there be two of them. Sometimes doing this changes the pronunciation, but that could be fine if we are okay with the result. Another trick is to either substitute, add or subtract vowels. Instead of “G-A-L-E-N,” we could double the “E” and end up with Galeen. Now, Galen, spelled “G-A-L-E-N,” could be “I-N” instead. It would sound the same, but it would look different.
I should point out that one of the ways that I do this is that I take known words that are around me on a product, for example, and I will sometimes apply these techniques to those words, or parts of those words, to invent names. That is how I got the name Galen. It is on a product in front of me. There’s also the word “Solution” on another product, and I took that and just changed it to Lucion. I’m recording this in my recording studio and I have speakers that are made by a company called Alesis. I can just get rid of that first “A” and I end up with Lesis. If I don’t like that, then I start applying the techniques that I’m talking about, changing it up until it becomes something that I like. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. The great thing about it, to me, is that I’m still using my creativity to invent something rather than using something like a name generator. You can find name generators online, but I don’t personally find that to be very rewarding.
We can also choose to capitalize another letter. When we do this, it can make it seem weird unless we use an apostrophe like we were talking about before. Another technique is to switch out the first letter of a word. So, the word “woman,” if we put an “S,” “D” or an “R” on the front, we get Soman, Doman and Roman. When I do this kind of thing, I’m usually sitting there looking at my computer keyboard. We can also add a suffix or a prefix. Galen could become Galenor, Galendor or maybe Galenda, Glenda. We could add a prefix and end up with d’Galen. Remember to have fun with these when you’re doing this.
Another source of names is a foreign language, but, of course, we do live in a world that is pretty well interconnected. So, you could invent a name that you think is original, and it’s actually a word from another language. When we do this, we might want to apply these techniques to alter that name so that it is not exactly the same.
My final tip on this is to be consistent with your names, but not too much. For example, let’s say that you have decided to use “nor” as a suffix on the end of names. You don’t want to make every last settlement in a given region have that same suffix because it starts to look a little bit too planned. The reality is that places get conquered, they get renamed, stuff happens and so, sometimes, the name changes. Now, if we’ve already created a map and we’re already using a place that has names where everything has the same suffix, then there is an easy way to get around this. We can just decide that somebody somewhere renamed everything. So, for example, maybe that became a kingdom in its current form 40 years ago, and the new ruler renamed every last settlement. This is plausible, especially if it’s something like an absolute monarch who can do whatever he wants, but what we want to avoid is the impression that we have done too much planning. We always want to be realistic.
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