This is a continuation of my multi-part listicle on world building. If you want to read the other parts, in which I cover my experiences and opinions on language and time as they pertain to world building, click here.
Oboro Dono. Herr Schindler. Agent Bond. Princess Cirilla. Warrant Officer Ripley. Moiraine Sedai. Detective Holmes. Lord Vader. Gae Bulg. Optimus Prime. Mr. Underhill. Doctor Lecter.
A dozen names and titles. A dozen different stories and backgrounds. Each one is rooted in lore, culture, time, location, and language. Like language, titles and naming conventions tie to the world they were created for.
In Unknown Worlds
In sci-fi/fantasy, crafted names can be common and easily referenced like Princess Cirilla, or acute and esoteric like Moiraine Sedai. Even without reading The Witcher series, you can associate with Princess Cirilla’s title. She’s a princess (or was.) We have princesses. But if you haven’t read The Wheel of Time series, then the name Moiraine Sedai can just look like a jumble of letters. Is it a first and last name? A name and a title? Is it both? Acute and esoteric names can be a little hard to penetrate for your average reader, but for fans of the genre they’re another part of what makes their passion so special. For them, the title Aes Sedai immediately conjures images of a guild of (sometimes) powerful magic users with a rich history, many unique members, and their own in-universe rules. If you asked me what a Witcher is, I would tell you to prepare your notebook.
When you give something or someone a name, you could just look up a random name generator available in multiple places on the internet, sure, or… you could also put some real effort in and add another layer of meaning to the titles and names your characters use. You’re a writer, right? You take this stuff seriously? Robert Jordan could have just called his guild of wizards “channelers” or an equally unremarkable equivalent—like the laymen in his universe are wont to do—but that wouldn’t have given them the mystique they needed for real staying power. Instead, he reached out and found inspiration. Aes Sedai is actually a reference to Irish folklore, where the Aos Sidhe are a race of magical people. The name for Aes Sedai power, saidar, is a derivative of the Norse word seidr, which is also a form of magic. Giving your terms and titles meaning can even move your story along!
If you have a character in mind, but don’t have a strong name, yet, you can reach into the rich linguistic history of our own world to stitch together a name that speaks to the character’s qualities. If you dig deep enough, even the given and family names of famous characters can be mined for meaning. Let’s circle back to Princess Ciri from The Witcher. Her full name is Cirilla Fiona Elen Rhiannon.
- Cirilla – From the Latin and Greek terms for Lady and Mistress
- Fiona – Gaelic terms for White or Fair
- Elen – A Welsh variant of the Greek terms for Torch, Bright, or Shining.
- Rhiannon – Literally Divine Queen
If you know anything about little Ciri, this probably describes her for you pretty well. She’s the heir to the Elder Blood, capable of stepping between universes at will, also the heir to several mortal thrones, and even has white hair. White lady of divine light indeed.
Now, a problem that can arise with this method is a disagreement in language conventions between the various names. If, for instance, Andrzej Sapkowski was just looking up names from exotic languages online and discovered that the Japanese word for “white” was shiroi (like I just did) and then just slapped that in there, it would be a strange departure from the established conventions of both the language used by Cintrans in the books and also with the names on either side (Cirilla Shiroi Elen Rhiannon.) He’s already kind of dancing with it, but it works because of the Scandinavian forms of each word in use. Like I said in my blog post about language, make sure your invented terms fit where you place them.
The point here is that your names could just be labels you and you and your readers use to reference characters, planets, and unique items, or they could be keys that unlock deeper meaning and tell the truly devout members of you audience everything they need to know—like a little VIP card that rewards them for their attention.
In the Known World
You could be forgiven for thinking that using established titles and names in an historical or contemporary setting would be easier than creating meaningful ones and, in a way, you’d be right. You don’t have to actually come up with these terms yourself. They have established meanings and histories. But in a way, you would also be wrong, because they have established meanings and histories, and you’d better use them right. Even if you’re writing what you know, there are probably gaps in your experience. If you’re writing, you’re researching, and when dealing with real-world terms and scenarios, you just don’t want to sound inauthentic. You don’t want to sound like you don’t even know what you’re talking about. Imagine if you were reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a video game and you noticed something you know about completely misrepresented. It happened to me while I was watching a television show called Supernatural and a woman wearing a private first-class rank referred to herself as a sergeant. Took me right out of it. It’s been years and I still haven’t forgotten. You don’t want that to happen to a property bearing your name.
For writing about the known world, I just can’t stress enough that you do your research. A layman might believe that a captain in the Navy and a captain in the Army have the same level of responsibility or that they wear the same symbol. Good luck understanding how Japanese people refer to one another and in what context without doing some research. What’s a doula? What are their responsibilities? How do they dress? How do members of a guild refer to others when the person outranks them, or the opposite? A person of Germanic ancestry probably shouldn’t be named Taka unless they have a complicated backstory.
There’s no need to beat you over the head. When using established titles and naming conventions, do your research and consider all the implications of your character’s station.
Thanks for reading. As always, if you consider yourself a writer, or just want to start developing your talent, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of our monthly genre contests for a chance to win cash, a custom digital book cover, and an author spotlight interview.
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