Last Names in High Fantasy

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Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by dios4vida » August 11th, 2011, 9:41 pm

Howdy y' again... :)

So I'm almost done with the 'zero' draft of my WIP (gotten the storyline pretty well finished but need to fill in holes, etc. before it can really be a first draft). I'm super excited about it. It's going great. But I digress.

When I name my characters, I usually go for sounds more than looking names up and meanings and things. Since I create my own worlds, mythos, and fantastical creatures I try not to borrow too much that's identifiable as "real". It makes my life hard sometimes but it's the only way I'd have it. (Again, digression...) I have first names for all of my characters, but no last names. I didn't have last names in my last WIP, either. Once I find a single name that fits that character I usually just stop and stick with that. But now that I'm thinking about it, I don't know if that's an okay practice or not. I know of several high fantasy novels whose characters are single-named (the first Dragonlance trilogy comes to mind first) but those are 20 year old novels. Is that something that's okay for today's high fantasy? Does it bother you if characters don't have last names? Do you think they're important for fantasy at all?
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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by polymath » August 11th, 2011, 10:51 pm

I believe you're looking for a credible reason for a naming convention. Some samples below of how surnames came into being.

Traditionally, surnames were given so that a town's individuals with similar names could be distinguished from each other. Smith is an obvious one. Wainwright, Cooper, Johnson, and so on. Another convention before a statutory surnaming convention served government purposes for censuses, taxation, law enforcement, and military conscription needs was to surname a person according to some distinguishing circumstance.

Appearances, apparel, accessories, weapons, jewelry, decorations, and tatooing, daring deeds, foolish acts, place of domicile, and so on, some unique and memorable identifier, more nicknames than surnames, nonetheless they were useful for identifying persons by surname. More precisely, they are synecdoche or metonymys. In the far back, no one had much more than that and often only as a given or taken name. We see the like today when a person's taken name is all he or she might go by publicly. Some even legally change their names to one word or simple phrase identifiers. It's tribal naming conventions that follow that principle.

What I'm getting around to is solely a given or taken name might fit the setting, especially the time and place for high fantasy. Working that into the narrative might enhance setting and go toward situation and character in terms of self-identity and projected identity. Also, changing names was at one time a feature of coming of age rituals. It still survives in religious institutions for taking a name of a saint, prophet, or martyr at ascendance rituals. And taking new names for passage rituals is not uncommon even today. Birth name, baptismal name, confirmation name, each added on, in turn, and adding to a person's statutory identity. The marriage ritual traditionally changes a woman's maiden surname, though that practice is under revision, rightly so in my opinion.

Spanish naming conventions respect the personages' surnames of one's lineage that are of the aristocracy and in position according to pecking order. Don Juan de Velasquez de Alyon de la Maria Santos, for example. Typically male lineage first, then female, unless the female house is of higher station.

My given name and surname translated from the original languages into contemporary parlance means first born of moonlight stalker. Some of which is valid to my self-identity. I'm not first born of my sibling sept though. I do tend to hunt through the moonlit darkness of knowledge, however.
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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by GKJeyasingham » August 11th, 2011, 11:23 pm

I think it's fine, depending on the culture you're trying to portray. If you think about the various cultures today, there are some that place considerably more emphasis on the surname compared to our North American culture (e.g. Japanese culture). I'm not sure if there are some that place less emphasis on the surname, but it would definitely be interesting if there are.

Right now I've been reading a bit about Japan for my story, and I'm starting to find it odd how virtually every fantasy novel I've ever read seemed to be some morphed version of the North American / British culture (past and present, particularly the medieval times). In the case of Harry Potter, it works because it's set on Earth in Britain. But when the fantasy world has no relation to Earth whatsoever, it makes no sense at all. There are so many different cultures on Earth with so many different aspects that we as writers can draw from. Why do we limit ourselves so?

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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by CharleeVale » August 12th, 2011, 12:22 am

I say do whatever you want. No one in my WIP has a last name. Their 'last name' is a color associated with their profession. (One character's name is 'Kalor Green') So obviously alot of people in my WIP's world have the same 'last name.' So I think you can do whatever you want. :P


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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by Falls Apart » August 12th, 2011, 8:13 am

Just do what feels the most natural for the characters. If it feels like throwing in last names would ruin the flow, don't do it, but if you're going out of your way to write around surnames, you have a problem. I would say that most high fantasies/fantasies in general are based in Europe (usually England) during the middle ages (kudos to you if you're going against the norm here and basing your world off Asian, African, Aboriginal Australian, or Native North/South American culture) where they definitely had surnames, mostly based on occupation/physical features (if my experience reading historical fiction is correct). The world the fantasy I'm writing/attempting to write is based on Gaelic Ireland, where each character would come from a particular clann. If I were in your position, I'd research whatever country and time period most strongly resembles your novel's setting, find out their customs on names, and see if it works for you.

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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by MattLarkin » August 12th, 2011, 8:19 am

As Falls Apart said, if your fantasy culture is even loosely based on a real world one, research it for the time period in question. If last names were important then, adding them will add authenticity.

That said, neither of my current fantasy works uses last names, nor would they feel appropriate to the mythic past vibe of the settings. - freelance editing for fantasy and science fiction

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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by delorfinde » August 14th, 2011, 7:02 am

I went through the whole first book of my trilogy with only one character having a first name. He then died at the end of the book. In the second book, however, there was a moment where for dramatic effect a previously un-surnamed character's sister needed a surname. "I want you to kill Alys" doesn't have the same effect as "I want you to kill Alys Hatton", does it? So I added one in. Before then, it hadn't been necessary.
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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by Nicole R » August 15th, 2011, 11:13 am

I think it can go either way. Last names can be a fun world-building detail, but I'm not bothered by books that don't include them. In my own writing, I usually add a last name only if the culture calls for it and it reveals something of the character's history/personality.

I do, however, love one-name bad guys! They just seem creepier somehow.

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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by Sanderling » August 21st, 2011, 2:22 pm

I've been thinking about this myself for my current WIP. In the first draft I think only the MC had a last name. And I waffled about what to do with the others. There weren't any definite spots in the writing where a last name came naturally or was necessary. But on the other hand, it's set in a realistic world, and here on Earth, and especially in our Western culture, just about everyone has last names. So these characters /do/ have last names, even if they're not referenced. I ended up inserting them for the other prominent figures at spots where it made sense to do it early in the manuscript, just once each in most cases, to lend an additional layer of realism to the characters, but I didn't bother trying to work them in frequently through the rest of the manuscript.

However, as others have said before, depending on your culture it may not be necessary to have last names. Many in history didn't - think Plato or Aristotle, for instance, or people in the Bible. Wikipedia has a page about it:

A lot of historical names are two-parted but the last name was an indication of pedigree (Ericson, Thomson), profession (Tanner, Smith), place of residence (Townsend, Rockburn, de Whatever) or some other descriptor. You see this sort of naming convention in high fantasy frequently because it was common in the dark ages and middle ages.
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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by Gypson » August 29th, 2011, 7:30 pm

I only really see the point in last names in fantasy if they denote profession (ex. Fletcher), family ties (Romeo Montague), or social rank. If last names have specific purpose, they can do wonders in fleshing out the world.

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Re: Last Names in High Fantasy

Post by bcomet » May 1st, 2016, 5:56 pm

I like what Oscar Scott Card writes about names in fantasy and sci-fi: do not use unpronounceable names (such as: Dhjfjhfduyfye or Rhwhhejrhhrej or Ra-Hfdjjd) as such tongue twisters (considering also that a majority or readers read aloud in their minds) drive many people insane. (And especially when you have a huge cast of characters. How do you/they keep track of who's who?)

Some say don't use the same first letter (Howie, Horratio, Hoppenwood, etc.) for your other characters unless it is really distinguishable. (Again, who is who, and keeping that straight is always good.)

I like to find a name that feels and sounds like the character: (i.e. evil or noble sounding, etc.) and that is definitely (at least somewhat) pronounceable. Original is good too, but these guys needs vowels.

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