As a longtime fantasy writer, character names are one of those things I have to put a good bit of thought into—so over the years, I’ve also seen a good bit of advice on how exactly this should be done!
One bit I see a lot is that a character’s name ideally has some meaning that corresponds to their qualities… and I like that idea, but it does make me ask: of all the popular names over the years, how many of their bearers really become something akin to its meaning-?
Maybe if I was writing a purely-romance piece, I’d commit to choosing names based off whatever they actually mean—I don’t read the genre much, but I hear of a lot of mainstay authors taking this approach, and I’ve always thought it was quite a clever way to add extra flavour to their texts!
This advice gets a bit problematic for me personally when writing worlds that really stray from our own—which is almost everything I write-! So back when I first began dabbling in this genre, I almost immediately wanted some way to just… roll with stuff that actually did suit my worlds~ (^◇^;)
It’s here that a personal interest really came to save me: linguistics!
I only found out lately that the study of names is called Onomastics—that’s not something I actually knew for a while… ٩(^‿^)۶
But the very origins behind so many real-world names and rules always captivated me, and I personally have that mindset that anything can be inspiration for writers—in this case, obscure, often-archaic rules behind so many names that we take for granted.
Among the systems around the world that I found fascinating:
- Russian diminutive names, their association with formality and intimacy, and the many variations—this article gives a pretty good overview of the basics!
- Chinese & Japanese names using their logograms to imply additional meaning outside of the sound alone: both 美咲 and 海咲 are read みさき (Misaki), but while the first roughly means “beautiful blossom”, the second instead translates to “ocean blossom”, and as someone endlessly intrigued by the ocean, I’m quite glad to be using that second variation~
- The fascinating culture behind Burmese names: from how normal it is to change your own, to its extensive connection with astrological elements—this article summarises this much better than I can!
Me learning about most of this was, in all honesty, mostly from my habit of just browsing and binging websites like Wikipedia, Quora, YouTube, and various travel blogs every night—and with everything I wrote down in my notes, it was really just a matter of… welp, figuring out how exactly I could create something similar for my worlds!
I only began true work on this idea in 2020, thanks to two factors: one, the initial COVID-19 lockdowns giving me plenty of time to myself for once, and two, a friend’s dream, which she and I discussed extensively as everything about this world just fell into place in my head~
Eight Islands: arranged in a ring with the last at the centre, all cut off and isolated from one another following a war that occurred 70 years in the past.
Coming up with the naming scheme / convention for each island was a lot of fun—but I typically started off with one basic factor for each: differentiating female from male names.
That didn’t universally-apply—It only went for the three islands I felt would be the most conservative on that topic—but as with real-world customs, it was a great place to start devising rules from!
The next was a more-linguistic matter: I wanted several islands to echo real-life places and groups, but at the same time, I wanted it to be different enough that I didn’t just basically rename said group.
This is where one of my favourite worldbuilding elements stems from: taking a look at the languages these groups speak, and then deliberately breaking as many rules as possible!
Phonosyntactic rules are among my favourite to just twist, because most of us aren’t even that aware of them, but it’s really obvious when they’re broken!
One such rule for English, for example, is the fact that the velar nasal /ŋ/ sound (ng) can never start a word—any word that does start with that immediately sounds un-English, for lack of a better word!
I also love introducing sounds that otherwise don’t occur in a given language—like separating the “L” and “R” sounds from one another in Japanese-inspired regions, as these sounds are basically the same for native speakers of Japanese and several other languages!
Last but not least, I also have a lot of love for just blending cultures and geographies together that you wouldn’t otherwise see—Ancient Romans on a tropical island under a Westminster-inspired government? Modern Koreans residing in a cold, arctic archipelago? Secular Persians in a flat, Mediterranean environment?
Even without using these real groups… it’s really fun for me to just throw together these random elements, then sit down and actually write how these societies all work—but at that point, it’s not about the names anymore~ *\(^o^)/*
And all of this without once worrying about the meaning of any name—not that they’d even have one since I just pulled them out of nothing!
I’m not saying this is the best method of naming your characters of course—I do think that losing the meaning sacrifices a bit of depth that could’ve been there—but in its place instead is, for me anyways, pages upon pages of notes on how each and every morpheme in a fictional language melds together to create a name!
All notes that I may post here someday actually…
Much of this has been pretty rambly and general, so in the future, I do plan on going over specific characters from my (all unpublished （＾Ｏ＾☆♪) works to just discuss them—from where and how I got their names, to why I’m so fond of them~
‘Til then, have a lovely day, and all the best~!
(If you want to learn more about English Phonosyntactics by the way, then I recommend Heidi Harley’s 2003 book English Words: A Linguistic Introduction! Pages 58-69 really highlight how much about this language even non-native speakers like me just pick up without thinking about it…)