When it comes to worldbuilding, and getting a read on where people stand in the world, nothing is quite so useful as a name or title. There's an incredible diversity of name types and title types out there, each one bringing with it a lot of information - indeed, potentially an entire setting.
Take "king," for example. What comes into your mind when you read it? A lot is going to depend on the name that follows. King Henry - puts us straight into England, and probably gives us a historical time period associated with a particular King Henry. King Midas - well, that one takes us to Greece, and to Greek mythology. King Terandi - a name people don't know was probably fabricated by the author, and thus puts us into a fantasy setting, but also will tend to set up an expectation of a medieval setting. King Niall - this one will depend on how many people know about the historical King Niall. The associations of "king" set up expectations that are so strong, they can be difficult to guide or defeat in situations where we don't want people thinking "medieval England." Thus, we can pick a different title to flag differences. In "Cold Words," I used the title "Majesty" (used as a noun in the same way as king, rather than as Your Majesty) to indicate a kinglike ruler without bringing in the usual associations with the title. The difference in the title acts like a flag, telling readers to expect something a little out of the ordinary.
Reggie mentioned that in her world of Spectra's End, there are Benefactors and Chosen, but only Benefactor directly serves as a title preceding the name, whereas Chosen go by first names without any title preceding them.
Titles tell us where people stand socially, and what their perceived social function is. As such, they are incredibly useful.
The use of names is also very informative. Using first names often implies solidarity or even intimacy, and can sometimes indicate that one person has power over another. Glenda mentioned that in her world, people are stratified by age, and so the formal terms of address depend on the age group a person belongs to.
What do people in your world call people they don't know? In Japan, people will often call strangers by kinship names depending on what generation they perceive a person as belonging to. An old person might be called "grandmother" (obaa-san) or "grandfather" (ojii-san), a person not quite old enough not to be offended by the implications of that one will probably be called "aunt" (oba-san) or "uncle" (oji-san). Young people will be called "big sister" (onee-san) or "big brother" (onii-san). By contrast, English speakers tend to use words like "sir" or "ma'am." There are also plenty of alternatives to these, but they tend to have a range of social implications. Who would call an unknown man "Mister"? Who uses the words "Miss" versus "Missus"? Who uses the title "Ms."? There are also appellations like "hey you," "man," or "dude," which are used with varying frequency and have interesting social implications. Sometimes the usage of phrases like these indicates a particular regional dialect.
If you will be making up your own set of titles, as Morgan is (she explained the meanings of Sena, Ser, and Per), then it's important to give those titles contextual support. Let readers know what they mean by putting them in a surrounding scene with characters whose relationship is pretty clear, and maybe add a little uncertainty or conflict to give your characters an opportunity to internalize their choice of titles and what they might mean.
This kind of contextual support can also be used to change the significance of words that people already think they know, like when an alien or foreign person reacts unusually to the word "friend," etc.
It's a good idea to look up kinship terminology throughout the world for inspiration.
I explained that in my Varin world, people have individual names (like first names) and caste names. However, caste is supposed to be the most important thing about them, so the caste name actually comes first. My character named Tagaret who belongs to the Grobal caste is therefore known as Grobal Tagaret... to anyone outside his caste. Within the caste, everyone assumes knowledge of their shared caste status, so they don't use the name at all. Instead, the noble caste divides itself into twelve extended Great Families, and so within his caste, Tagaret is known as Tagaret of the First Family. The caste names are also used as appellations for people when you don't know their names, because every person not in the nobility is required by law to wear a mark showing their caste identity. Therefore, if Tagaret meets an unknown person on the street, he'll look for the castemark and call them by caste name accordingly.
We also spoke about social context in which solidarity is expected. In this kind of environment, the informal title or name becomes the unmarked option, and the formal term becomes "marked." Therefore, if a person uses the formal term, it's an indication that something is wrong - an insult, an intent to hurt, etc. It's a distancing move. One example of this is when an angry parent calls a child by their full name. Anger causes the parent to reject sweet loving nicknames and distance him/herself from the child.
Sometimes people refer to one another in a particular way because of identity and underlying relationship, but other times people will be influenced by the formality or social rules of the surrounding circumstances. You can choose a term of address in order to invoke a particular relationship between you and another person. People will invoke the relationship that is most relevant to the social terms of the interaction. Glenda mentioned a home-schooling parent who had the children call her Miss Page during class time to make a distinction between contexts.
Some contexts call for a job title to be used as appellations, and others do not. This varies across cultures.
Certain family names can become associated with particular social classes, caste identities, or other socially significant information, such as when one says, "She's a Rockefeller." Last names can tell where you are from, how people might expect to treat you, or what your job is. Sometimes a society will try to erase social distinctions, such as undercaste membership in Japan, but the signs of that distinction will remain in the last name or in the region the person is from. Ethnic differences are often visible on people's faces, but there is yet another layer of identity and possible bias wrapped up in what that person's name is. Glenda mentioned Polish and Irish names.
We spoke about the name changes that occurred when immigrants came to the US. These name changes sometimes happened voluntarily - to try to fit in deliberately - and sometimes they happened involuntarily, when the immigration officials chose to alter names they had difficulty pronouncing or spelling.
Reggie told us about her last name, Lutz, which is a traditional German last name - except that in her family her surname used to be Luzzi, and it got changed.
We spoke briefly about choosing baby names, and what significance they are perceived to have. I encouraged people to go and research that on their own. Sometimes people change their own names, often for reasons of disconnection from the past, from the family, or from a previous self/body. In some cultures, there are childhood names and adult names. Ursula K. LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea had an interesting system, where you had a childhood name, and then were given a True Name as an adult that no one would actually use, because that would give them power over you. Instead, you would have people call you by some common name. Miyazaki's film Spirited Away also uses the idea of stealing someone's name. Names have power, and that goes through a lot of fairy tales, such as Rumpelstiltskin, etc.
Join us this Wednesday, 3/18/15 at 3pm Pacific on Google+ to talk about Autonomy!
Thank you to Che Gilson, Emily McKinney, Glenda Pfeiffer, Morgan Smith, Reggie Lutz, and Brian Dolton for attending. Here's the video: