I’m always trying to think of unconventional names. I have a rather strong background in Japanese entertainment (that’s code for watching too many cartoons in the past), and so many of the names I use in my works are either influenced by Japanese language and their word construction, or are simply pure Japanese to begin with.
I’m thinking of a new story and need to come up with a character name, as his name will be one of the points in the book the rest of the characters will point at, question, etc. He’ll often introduce himself by a self-made title instead, always some reversal of an idiom… or not. Whatever works.
But this thought of names reminded me of how names are treated, how other cultures treat them, how I treat them, how I’ve used them in my own works, and how their associations work.
So, to generally address some of these issues and how they work:
- Names are treated as identifiers for individuals, though names are not unique.
- A first name is an identifier of the person themselves, in most circumstances.
- Other parts of the name can be to pass on family names that aren’t part of the family identifier, thus the middle name(s).
- A last name identifies the family the individual comes from, usually the father’s since most societies defer to male lineage.
- Cultures place importance on which part of the name to use in various situations
- Americans use the first name in most situations when dealing with peers. The middle name isn’t used outside of immediate family, and even then rather rarely. The last name is used when addressing superiors, or as a sign of respect. It isn’t typically used when speaking with family members or workmates.
- The Japanese always use the last/family name of a person they are not an immediate relative of, and usually only use a first name with people they become close to. Before using a first name, permissions is also sometimes asked/given, it can be considered rude to use it otherwise. An interesting example is that the boyfriend/girlfriend relationship can sometimes be inferred when someone calls a person of the opposite gender their first name, due to the intimacy a first name denotes. In American culture it’s polite to call a school-age person of the opposite gender by their first name.
- And let’s not forget given and mature names! I don’t have as much experience with this, but it is seen in some parts of Chinese culture, though I usually see it in historical stuff. More research is required. But the basic gist: a person is given a name at birth. After they have matured, their mentor/teacher/parent figure recognizes their maturity, and adds a special character to their name, and now they have a new “adult” name, to distinguish them from their childhood name. Certainly names are important, if they can change completely as a sign of honor.
- How I’ve seen them used, and how I’ve used them.
- This got me thinking, “What’s mother’s name?” Of course I can answer that off the top of my head, but think about it for a moment: I’m willing to bet “Mom’s name is mom… oh, and her given name, of course,” – or that children are quite used to only ever using their parents’ titles, and would have to spend a very short moment, short but still existent, moment to recall a parent’s actual, given, full name, as well as a mother’s maiden name. It’s just not used outside of a certain context.
- I’m reminded of one of my friends, who has had issues with his parents for as long as I can recall. But the thing that sticks out is how he started referring to his parents after a while, and after a while it truly seemed like they now had this particular title in his mind, he didn’t have to consciously refer to them as this anymore, it was just their title. That title? “Parental units.” Parental unit number one was probably the mother, parental unit number two was probably my friend’s father. I even recall him asking a question about how my parental units were doing! This behavior still fascinates me, especially when dealing with people names and titles. And if you’ve grown up in a troubled household while feeding your mind with cyberpunk books and games, sci-fi worlds, dystopian futures, you may just refer to those beings that happened to spawn you as android-like units as well. This I don’t recommend, but it’s certainly interesting to take note of when developing realistic characters.
- I personally grew up with much family around, aunts and uncles of both the blood and unrelated but close kind, and so I’ve spent far more of my life referring to people by their first name than last. Interestingly, being in a religious environment makes you automatically refer to other congregation members by their last name, but I’ve still noticed that we tend to move on to first names when a closer friendship is established. It still depends on local customs. But for me, in my mind, referring to someone by their first name is the norm. In addition to that, I prefer to be called by my first name in all situations. However, this is quite against customs in, well, most of history, most of the world. I actually have to make a conscious effort to remember to use only last names in most situations.
- And the last item is where I’ve gone and let it influence my writing. I’ve introduced about every single character in my Together with Silver, or The Lupine books (as I’ve started to think of them) by their first name. In fact, it’s actually part of the story that suddenly, characters who have known each other for decades suddenly find out their best friends’ last names, which play a part in the plot. In fact, some of them don’t have anything but a first name, and use the ancient way of referring to themselves, First Name, son/daughter of [parent name]. Now though this may fit with the time period, it’s still something to keep in mind, to play with, and to recall when writing.
Names are rather important. How titles influence them, how age influences them in all it’s various ways, how experiences influence how people use names and titles, all play a part in the simple question of: so what’s this character’s name?
I haven’t answered that question yet. But it’ll come. And regardless of the name itself, how it’s used will be vital to the story.