The Shakespeare quote starts "What's in a name?" but the truth of the matter is there is an awful lot packed into a name. A name can tell a story of who you are. A name can set expectations. Your name will carry your reputation across whatever expanse your reputation is travelling across. Today I want to talk about names, and how you can use them to both enrich your world and make some places have their own particular flavor.
Personal Name, Family Name, Clan Name, Ship Name?
In the modern world we have people named in two ways. First, everyone - more or less - has a personal name that is specific to who they are. Second, we have a family name that identifies our family group. There are duplicates and such, sure, but in general that is how it works.
The default thinking in the West is to order them Personal Name and then Family Name. However, in Japan and other countries you go Family name and then Personal name. The idea being that in the West we value the individual more than the family, but in Japan you value the group more than the individual. Basically, in the US first you are you, and then you are a representative of your family. In Japan it is the opposite - at least, traditionally.
Go into a fantasy or historical realm and this can even break down further. Do the people in the area organize into clans? In L5R - a game based off Japanese Court writings - the world is broken down into 7 clans. When dealing with other clans it is polite to address someone by their Clan name, then if further clarity is needed you use their Family name, and only after both Clan and Family are proven to not be of use do you move to Personal name - or if you are very intimate with the person.
Another fun example is in Mass Effect. The companion Tali has a name that ends with a ship name. In her culture what ship you are a part of is as much a part of your identity as your family name. People make judgments based off that ship as much as they do off the family name. You could have to overcome both to be recognized as an individual. It'd be like if your home city was part of your name, and it was expected that people would judge you as a "New Yorker" before they even considered your family and who you are.
Play With The Setup
Take this to your world and what do you have? If you're like me, you frequently don't think of name conventions. People have first names, people have last names, and that's about it. But put the thought in and you can have fun.
Dwarves in Fantasy worlds frequently don't have family names, but they do have personal names and clan names. So you get "Bruenor of Clan Battlehammer" which is sometimes shortened to "Bruenor Battlehammer" but you don't get "Bruenor Baker of Clan Battlehammer" for example.
What else could you do? I saw a post today with a GM talking about an event in his world where the PCs had to explain the concept of Family Names to a group from another country. The PCs were from a place where you had family names, but they were in a location where you had a personal name but not a family moniker. THe people there were very confused why Lord Windhelm was still alive when he had been doing business a hundred years ago.
In a Star Wars game I'm in right now my character is the only one without a last name. It's a deliberate move that I'm not sure others have picked up on or will. The message being my character doesn't have a home or a family. They're just them, and that's all there is to it. It's something I've used in other games as well, and is particularly common with Ronin in L5R where the lack of a family name is also a sign to others that this character can't be trusted and can be abused more than other samurai.
Place Names and Titles Too
Titles and place names can also be brought in. A character who is "Guardian of the Whispering Vale" has a sense of gravitas, and potentially mystery, to them. After all, what is the Whispering Vale? What does the Guardian of the Whispering Vale do? Is it really the Whispering Vale, or is it merely a Whispering Vale?
At the same time, identifying with where you live is not a new concept. You see it all the time, and it used to be even stronger before the internet made the world so interconnected. A place where you always give your home town, and where that means things - as it only can in Fantasy universes I mean - could be a fun way of distinguishing things. How do those people react to a party of adventurers who travel so far from home, and aren't even all from the same place?
Nick Names, Pet Names, and What I Go By
Finally - for this post - there is a tendency for people to have variations of their actual name that they go by. A person named Robert may go by Bob. Someone named Richard could go by Dick. Anthony can become Tony. Sometimes people will shorten it to just a letter. It can inform a lot about a character.
Consider two women. Everything about them is the same. One goes by Vicky, the other goes by Victoria. Do you get a different impression of them? The one who insists on Victoria comes across to me as a lot more prim and proper.
Hopefully this gives some ideas. Play with the names in your game. Make them mean something. Use them to help make your world more real. There is a lot in a name.