What’s in a Name – World Building Basics Part I

A rose with raindrops
“A rose by any other name…”

“What’s in a name?” When Shakespeare penned that infamous question so many centuries ago, he was speaking of the idea that the essence of an object or person remains the same regardless of what it’s called. Indeed, the rose of which Juliet spoke during her not-so-secret thoughts on the nature of Romeo has many names — a different one in each human language, for starters. So what does this mean for us as writers or in terms of world building in general?

The Power of the Inanimate

Naming characters is something that almost every writer has to do at some point. I would go so far as to say that it’s something of an intimate process. It is, after all, something that will (hopefully) live on in the memories of readers for years to come. The thought process that lies behind the naming may vary from author to author but if the story requires that the actors have a name, then it must be done.

Some comb through consensus records of a particular time period. Others use genealogies in search of something that strikes them. Still others throw darts at baby name books and…

What? What do you mean no one does that? I’m sure someone somewhere does…right?

Personally, I say that giving a name to a character should never be a minor decision. Why?

Because names have power.

Okay, maybe not like Superman-type power and possibly not even on par with Batman. But it’s power nonetheless.  Trust me.

In real life, the point that Shakespeare made is, for the most part, true. Your neighbor Donna next door is still going to be the same person whether you choose to call her Jill, Jack, or Molly. It could be argued, though, that many people consider their given name to be part of themselves as a whole. Some would probably go so far as to say that it’s a part of their “identity” beyond just being a string of sounds. On some level, the name helps to define them or carries some sort of meaning.

I’ll give you an example. My mother and grandmother (both from the American South) absolutely loved Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Because of their affinity for both the novel and film, they decided to name me Tara, after Scarlet’s ancestral home.

Yes, I…I was named after…a house.

My point is that my name carries a value that is sentimental both to myself and my parents. And if our parents cared enough to choose a name that meant something to them, the least we can do as authors is to give our “brain children” something similar. Besides…it’s in our very nature to do it.

To explain why this is, we’re going to take a small detour into archaeological theory. Don’t worry — we won’t get lost. I promise.

In Behavioral Archaeology, there is a concept called object agency. The word agency here is defined as “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of

A horseshoe on a wall
What does a horseshoe make you think of? Good luck? Protection? An old-fashioned game?

exerting power” (Miriam-Webster Dictionary). Essentially, in very simplistic terms, what object agency means is that we, as humans, tend to assign power (or agency) to things that we use to manipulate or control our environment. But it’s not just physical objects. It can also include anything from places and geographical features to words and drawings.

The kicker is that we don’t necessarily realize that we do it.

To demonstrate, imagine that you have a precious family heirloom — say, your late grandmother’s favorite ring or grandfather’s pocket watch. On their own, neither the ring nor the watch hold any ability whatsoever to influence the world around them. Until you enter the picture, that is.

Through your emotional attachment (or lack thereof, as the case may be) to your grandmother or grandfather, you give the object power by assigning it a meaning. As a result, it now has the ability to produce emotional or psychological effects upon you and others. All of this is solely because of the meaning that you or they give it.

But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. To your late grandmother and grandfather, the power that the ring and watch had would have been completely different because the meanings they attached to it would be different. For example, if your grandfather was a business person, perhaps that watch meant timeliness and fashion. After all, it’s no secret that people have always used possessions to silently communicate their wealth and status to others, which is another manifestation of object agency.

This is important to us as writers because it’s something you should be taking into consideration when creating your fictional world.

What’s in Your Character’s Name?

As I mentioned, this concept of object agency can be applied to names as well. Based on our personal experiences or through conditioning via popular or traditional culture, we allow names to evoke certain biases or preconceptions about the people and places that bear them. These preconceived ideas then lead us to make various judgement calls about that person’s personality and habits or, in terms of place, even the safety or “social acceptability” of certain location. All of this often happens without us realizing it — people are very rarely aware of the social conditioning that colors their perception of their environment and people they meet.

tree with names carved in the bark
Names influence us even if we don’t realize it

Speaking strictly from an American point of view (the only one I can speak from, I’m afraid), consider the given name Bambi. At first, it might conjure up images from the Disney film. You might think of a frightened fawn that’s just lost his mother or of his finding a new friend in a young rabbit. Feelings of sadness or hope might come to mind.

Now, instead of a baby deer, I want you to think of a woman with that name. What do you think a woman named Bambi looks like? Is she intelligent or ditzy? Is she pretty or average? What does she do for a living? Is she physically strong or is she on the weaker side?

What about a woman name Jezebel or Cookie? What about Betty? A man with the name Horace? Or Bubba? Or Joe?

All of these names have some sort of culturally-conditioned stereotype associated with them. Those stereotypes will play a role in how your audience perceives your character. And that’s going to happen immediately, as in the moment he or she is introduced by name, well before they get to know his or her personality through the story. This will inevitably color their perception of that character and you, my friend, will have to work with it or against it.

So why am I telling you all of this?Woman typing on typewriter

Because in essence, the goal of every writer is to create believable worlds and characters that make sense to the audience. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to look at what humans have done throughout history.

Doing so reveals innate tendencies that are virtually universal to humans as a whole and provides us with an understanding of not only ourselves but also of our audience and how they will perceive or react to what we write. If the audience can’t connect to the world or to the character, if they can’t feel for them (either love or hate), then you’ve lost the battle. While writers love writing, they do not necessarily write solely for themselves — a good author takes into consideration the intended audience and the effect the work will have on them.

What About Off-World Locations?

Ah! Now we’re talking! If you’re working on building a non-Earth world, this is the fun part…well, one of them, anyway. That being said, the same principles mentioned above apply to the planet and landscape themselves and I really recommend refraining from tossing place names out there willy nilly. So what, in my opinion, is the best way to go about this?

Anthropologically speaking, many cultures will name a location or area based on an event or prominent geological feature. In New Mexico, for example, there is a section of desert between Las Cruces and Socorro called the Jornada del Muerto, or the Road of the Dead Man. Seventeenth century Spaniards gave this span of terrain the name after a German man died there while on the run from the Inquisition. In fact, the cities of Las Cruces (The Crosses) and Socorro (Help or Assistance) take their names from historical events that happened there.

Another example is the Cibecue Apache place-name of Tliish Bi Tu’e, meaning Snake’s Water, given centuries ago to a spring that has long since dried up (Basso 15–16). In Tamil Nadu, India, the town of Yeracud means “lake forest,” thus named because of the lake in the center of the hills and the surrounding forests.

This practice of naming places in this way is so prevalent in human societies that it can be found almost everywhere. And because these are things that humans do in real life, your readers will be able to fully buy into the idea that the people inhabiting your world would do the same or similar, even if you’re writing about an alien race that’s not even remotely human.

So there you have it. The Grímravn edition of Artem Nomina. Again, take this advice with as many grains of salt as you like since this is just my way of doing it. Each author has their own way and one is in no way better than another.

Now get out there and name those brain babies!

Additional Resources

  • Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
  • Hodder, Ian. “The ‘Social’ in Archaeological Theory: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective.” A Companion to Social Archaeology, edited by Lynn Meskell and Robert Pruecel. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006, pp. 23–42.
  • Hoskins, Janet. “Agency, biography, and objects.” Handbook of Material Culture, edited by C. Tiller et al. Sage Publications, 2006, pp74–84.
  • Shiffer, Michael. People and Things: A Behavioral Approach to Material Culture. Springer, 2008.

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