Many writers struggle with naming characters. I’m not here to help them. I’m actually going to make it harder by giving them another consideration to bear in mind: character names help define your world.

How names work in the real world

Every culture on Earth has come up with a method for naming their offspring (though I’d love to hear of historical exceptions if one didn’t). Some will name children after ancestors or historical figures. Some will give a name that they hope will shape the child’s destiny. Surnames can be passed from mother or father, indicate profession, or directly indicate parentage. There can also be situations where a name changes over time, whether through a rite of passage, marriage, gain or loss of a title, or through legal petition.

Name as a reflection of culture

A name will give a careful observer a good indication of who a person is and where they come from. Modern Earth has begun breaking down the clear delineations that once existed. Most fictional societies haven’t intermixed to that extent (and I’d recommend against it, because it’s such a useful worldbuilding tool to consider discarding it), so you can use those markers to inform your readers quickly about a character.

Naming conventions can include hints as to class, race, profession, or any other societal sub-group that you want. By making clear what part of the name is proscriptive versus which are individual choice, you can give readers a wealth of information without bogging down your narrative.

Language and Nationality

Smith, Schmidt, Kowalski, Herrera… these all mean the same thing, but their linguistic origins differential them.

Yamamoto, Solzhenitsyn, Le Fleur, Schumacher. Many times, even without knowing a particular surname, the sounds and structure can give clues as to the language spoken by the bearer.

Titles and honorifics

Modern democratic ideals often run counter to accumulating honorifics. But in other times and places, noble titles and earned accolades were a literal forms of “making a name for yourself.” When giving a full name, the inclusion of honorifics is a great way to build your world. A variety of noble titles indicates a complex feudal structure. Knighthoods, doctorates, and military ranks can give hints not only about individuals, but entire organizations and hierarchies.

Bringing these together to widen a world

Random name generators and slapping together the first syllables that come to mind can give a fictional character a name. But when you think about the world you want to build for your readers, you need to use some of these names to expand the world.

  • For every culture, come up with a “feel” for their language. Decide on a few common syllables or letters that come up more often than in other languages. Decide that all feminine names end in “oi” or there are no double-vowel sounds. Maybe a particular language uses a lot of x’s or double p’s.
  • To define a hierarchy, introduce members of several levels of it with appropriate ranks or titles.
  • Decide what traits you want a name to indicate. If you want profession, class, caste, or gender clearly indicated by glancing at a name, come up with the rules a given culture uses as markers.