What’s in a Name? Naming Strategies in Fantasy and Science Fiction

I have agonized over names. Boy names, girl names, names that slip between binary genders. I have spent hours pouring over baby name websites, writing potential combinations in notebooks, crossing some out, and circling others. No, I’m not pregnant, much to my mother’s eternal frustration; I’m a writer. 

All writers struggle with names, and I think fantasy and science fiction writers have it the hardest. After all, it’s a bit of a letdown if the hero saving the world is called something like “John” or “Abby.” What would the Hunger Games be like if Katherine was the representative from District 12? Or if the wizard Gordon picked up the hobbit Bob to destroy the One Ring? 

The naming of places and characters in fantasy and science fiction presents unique challenges and solutions. First and foremost is the sheer number of names a science fiction or fantasy novel needs. When building a world from scratch, a writer has to figure out names for countries, cities, neighborhoods, and streets, as well as all the characters. Numerous websites are dedicated to fantasy or science fiction name generators, which spit out suggested titles for everything from elves to spaceships. Many fantasy books include an appendix with lists of characters and places, sometimes absolutely essential. 

The nomenclature of a world can give hints to the kind of cultural echoes it intends to evoke in the reader. For example, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books are set in an alternate version of our world, and the dragon breeds are perfectly chosen to reflect the time and culture. The English dragons have names such as Regal Copper or Winchester, and the French dragons are, well, French, like the Fleur-de-Nuit, which is dangerous in night attacks, or the Flamme-de-Gloire, a firebreather. These types of names give the reader a handhold into the writer’s imaginary world so that they can more grasp a picture of the setting and character. 

Other series like Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, use the same kind of culturally representative names, but their significance is woven into the lore of the world. The first king, “Taker his name was, quite simply, and perhaps with that naming began the tradition that sons and daughters of his lineage would be given names that would shape their lives and beings…but history shows us this was not always sufficient to bind a child to the virtue that named it” (Assassin’s Apprentice, 1). Thus the series is populated by characters who either exemplify their names, such as the honest King Verity, or show a stark contrast between the intended virtue and the character’s nature, like unfaithful Prince Chivalry and truly awful Prince Regal. 

Not all fantasy names are so structured, but few are chosen thoughtlessly. I recently read Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir and was absolutely delighted by the care taken with every character’s name. For the titular character, she writes, “There are a lot of reasons as to why Gideon is called Gideon. The warlike prophet of God who really messed up the Midianites is part of it. Gideon is a prophetic name: someone named their own demise in her” (468). And Harrowhark, another major character, is named “very specifically for the harrowing of Hell” (468). This kind of Biblical root casts an ominous, gothic spell on the novel, and though not all the names for this book are strictly religious, many draw allusions to ancient texts that gave me a deeper sense of the atmosphere of the book. 

Of course, not all fantasy or science fiction has developed naming strategies, and I’m sure some authors pluck names from thin air and fit them perfectly into their stories. I believe, however, that names in fantasy and science fiction carry power. They can determine a character’s fate or help build a world. They can be on-the-nose or only vaguely reminiscent of the real world. Either way, they often have to do more work than names in non-genre fiction, but when crafted with grace and creativity, names in fantasy and science fiction can help guide readers through strange and wondrous lands by using real-world languages and cultures to inform the readers or build atmosphere while the writer sweeps them away on the grandest of adventures.