It used to be so simple. Your fantasy hero was Ug the Barbarian; or, if he needed anything more elaborate, he could announce himself as Ug son of Og, or Ug of Barbariania. The stunningly beautiful queen who first tried to trick him, then succumbed to his manly charms, could be called anything that sounded suitably sultry and slinky, as long as it finished with an a. The captain of her guard, who was secretly plotting against them both, and the evil priest seeking to bring back a blasphemous god, probably both had some random Latin name. Nome of them would have been seen dead with anything so un-chic as a surname.
Well, there have been historical cultures where that would have worked well enough, but they were usually cultures where only very local administration was needed. Once records need to be kept to account for tens or hundreds of thousands of people, it wasn’t so simple. Can you imagine how many peasants there were in mediaeval England called “John, son of William”? It wouldn’t even have solved the problem to call him “John, son of William, of Nether Wallop”, since there were probably a fair few of them in Nether Wallop alone.
There’s a widespread but incorrect belief that no-one except the aristocracy had surnames in the middle ages. In England, at least, the use of surnames began to filter down through the classes surprisingly early. Thomas Becket (the à was a later affectation) was the son of a merchant, born in 1118. In 1109, the abbot of Cîteaux was an Englishman called Stephen Harding – he must have been born not too long after the Norman Conquest. By the 14th century, certainly, surnames were the rule rather than the exception at all levels of society.
The reason for this explosion of surnames was the English obsession with keeping records. It’s been estimated that, in the year 1000, the English crown maintained more royal scribes than the rest of western Europe put together, and from around the 12th century onward there were manorial and court records kept that needed to identify people more specifically. “John – you know, the one with the pimple on his nose” just wouldn’t do.
The custom of having family names has grown up independently all over the world. China has had them for longer than most and puts the surname first. I’ve heard it said, though I haven’t made enough of a study to know if it’s true, that cultures which value individuality more tend to put the surname last, whereas those that value family tradition put it first. Then again, there are cultures that don’t have a fixed position for the surname. I once knew someone (an Ismaili Muslem from India via East Africa) whose surname was the third of three names, whereas his sister had the same surname as the third of four.
The Roman patricians had three names: a personal name, a family name and a clan name, but were commonly referred to by one or two of them. The variety in this can be illustrated by the three most important people on the Capitol on the Ides of March, 44 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar (known by his 2nd and 3rd names), Marcus Junius Brutus (1st and 3rd) and Caius Cassius Longinus (1st and 2nd). And the emperors took naming to excess – as they took everything else. The Emperor Claudius, for instance, was Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus.
Other oddities of naming having been used in different cultures. Russian custom (pre-revolution, at least) was to have a personal name, a patronymic (son of...) and a surname, and who used which was closely dictated by etiquette. If Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov (Lenin’s real name) had been moving in polite society, he’d have been addressed officially as Mr Ulyanov (or whatever title was appropriate); his social acquaintances would have addressed him as Vladimir Illyich; and only his close friends and family would have called him just Vladimir (or, more likely, a diminutive form).
Naming conventions in fantasy worlds can be as bizarre and inventive as the author wants them to be. I’ve used several, besides a number of cultures who simply have a personal name followed by a surname (or vice versa). Aristocrats in Ananë, for instance, use the prefix ne or n’ to their surnames: examples include Lord nePardin and Estent n’Ashne. A similar tradition exists in Greclisk – depending on which of the kingdom’s many people are involved, the more upper-class can be Farlas te Norrimon or Sokauni Olya-vi. In Errish, on the other hand, all classes have a prefixes for their surname: ma Kharish, for instance, for a male and me Anshik as an example of a female surname.
Perhaps the most complex naming system I’ve yet used is for Hafdosu, and uses a system of etiquette similar to the Russian one. One native of Hafdosu, for instance, is called Fel Arith Fugon. He’s addressed formally as Lord Arith – this system isn’t class-based, though, so he could be addressed as the local equivalent of Mr Arith. His acquaintances called him Fel Fugon. Anyone close to him (assuming that anyone is) would address him as Fugon. The first of the three names is always short, personal to the individual, but is never used independently. The main character of the story is a foreigner called Salsha Demnen (personal and surname) and the locals have immense difficulty working out how to address her politely.
I’ve only used this system in one story, but I’d like to revisit it. I also want to invent other bizarre naming systems. As long as it’s something that could conceivably work within a society, it’s plausible.
And much more fun than Ug the Barbarian.