What’s in a Name – Fantasy Worldbuilding Basics Part I

“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 is called.  Indeed, the rose that Juliet spoke of during her not-so-secret ponderings on the nature of Romeo has many names—a different one in each human language—yet they all refer to the same flower.  So what does this mean for us as writers or in terms of worldbuilding in general?

The Power of the Inanimate

In real life, Shakespeare’s point is true for the most part.  Donna down the block is still going to be the same person whether you call her Jill, Jack, or Molly.  That being said, it could be argued that many people consider their name to be part of themselves as a whole.  Many would probably say it was a part of their “identity” beyond being just something they answer to when called or a word on their driver’s license.

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 exerting power” (Miriam-Webster Dictionary).  In very simple terms, what object agency essentially means is that we, as humans, tend to assign power (or agency) to things that we use to manipulate or control our environment.  Those things can be anything from objects and places to words and drawings.  And we don’t necessarily realize that we do it.

Let’s take this a step further to demonstrate.  Imagine that you have a precious family heirloom—say, your late grandmother’s favorite ring or grandfather’s pocket watch.  The ring or watch themselves hold absolutely no ability to influence the world around them.  Until you enter the picture, that is…

Because of your attachment to your grandmother or grandfather, you give the object power.  As a result, it has the ability to produce emotional or psychological effects upon those that interact with it because of the assigned meaning.  In other words, it now has power.

To your grandmother or grandfather, the power (agency) that the ring and watch had would have been different because the meanings they attached to it would be different.  For example, if your grandfather was a businessman, 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, thus adding a whole new type of agency to the objects they treasured.

This is probably a good time to note that the discussion above is really a very simplistic explanation of object agency.  There’s a lot more to the notion and various scholars have different insights into this piece of theoretical framework. For those interested in this part of archaeological theory, I’ll include a few reading suggestions at the end of this post.

Moving On…

Everything that I’ve stated above can be applied to names as well.  Based on our individual 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 the safety or “social acceptability” of certain place.  And this often happens without us realizing it.

At any rate, the TL;DR of the above is simply this: names (among other things) exert their own form of power and influence over us even if we don’t know it.  And this is important to us as writers because it’s something you should be taking into consideration when creating your own fantasy world.

The Power of Names

It cannot be denied that names have the power to color how we perceive someone or something or someplace.  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?

When doing this, don’t try to force a particular appearance or visualize Bambi or Horace according to what you think would be socially acceptable or politically correct.  I want you to go with your gut here because that’s how your readers will see them.  They’re going to build an image based upon their own perceptions of what someone with that name would look and act like.  And that’s going to happen immediately, as in the moment he or she is introduced, well before they get to know his or her personality through the story.  Inevitably, it’s going to color their perception of him or her from that point on.  Depending on your story and the way you see the character, you’ll have to either go with it or fight against it.

When worldbuilding, regardless of whether you’re creating your own fantasy world or using a real world setting like in Urban Fantasy, all of this will still apply when it comes to the way you name your world, the locales, and the people that inhabit your stories.

But why?

Naming Your Worlds, Locations, and Characters

Before I go on, I just want to clarify that, in this particular post, I’m not focusing on the foundations of the world itself. By that, I mean that I’m not getting into “Big Bang-type” theory that explains whether your world popped into existence thanks to a god or coalesced into being out of space debris.  That’s important for you to know so I’m saving that for another post—don’t worry.

The goal of every writer is to create believable worlds and characters that make sense to our audiences.  One of the best ways I’ve found to make a world and its people believable is to look at what humans have done throughout history.

Why?  Because doing so reveals innate tendencies that are virtually universal to humans as a whole (thus the discussion on object agency) 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 write for themselves—a good author (a successful author) writes for his or her intended audience.

Instead, if you’re anything like me, you probably had ideas for characters long before you ever began envisioning the world itself.  It’s a bit of a backwards way of doing it, I know, but that’s how my worldbuilding for Verdin began.  So for now, I just want you to think about the names you might be considering and what they mean to or might evoke in a reader.

Does the name you’ve chosen for your world evoke a certain feeling?  For example, I wanted the name of my world to evoke a sense of lush vegetation, of vibrant and diverse life.  I chose Verdin because of its similarity to the word “verdant” and the feelings it brings up within me.

What about locations in the world? One thing that you might want to consider is that, anthropologically speaking, many cultures will name a location or area based on an event or prominent geological feature.  For an example from my own writing, see my short story Maidenfall (it’s not perfect yet, though…still perfecting that story).

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.  17th century Spaniards gave this span of terrain the name after a German man, on the run from the Inquisition, died there.  In fact, the cities of Las Cruces (The Crosses) and Socorro (Help or Assistance) take their names from events that took place 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 in almost anywhere.  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.

What about your characters?  Are their names relevant to their culture?  Does their name have a traditional meaning to his or her people?  What societal preconceived notions or biases are attached to it?  Most importantly, how does it fit with your character’s personality?


I think I’m going to leave off here. This post is a little over 1,700 words and I could seriously go on about this particular topic forever.

Suffice it to say that worldbuilding is a huge endeavor. Trust me, though, it’s well worth the trouble.   In the end, you’ll have a complex and rich tapestry upon which to build your stories.  And frankly, it’s a lot of fun!  To me, it’s a lot like weaving the Bayeux tapestry only I get to control the events and it’s on a much grander scale.

What do you all think?  I’d love to hear your input on this topic and how you approach names in your worldbuilding endeavors.  So please, feel free to comment below.

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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