How Do You Decide What to Call Things in Your Made-Up World?

February is Fantasy Month 2

The Dragon’s Eye. The Spine of the World. Butterbeer. The Shire. Allomancy. The Force. Tesseract. Infinity Stones.

These names probably evoked some sort of image or memory as you read them. Well… okay, maybe not Dragon’s Eye, since I’m not nearly as well-known of an author as these others. *grin* But if you’re familiar with most of the popular fantasy stories available today, at least one of these was easily recognized.

In your own world, you will have to make decisions about what to call things, and I’m not just talking about naming characters and countries/towns here. I’m talking about all the nomenclature of your world.

Do people live in houses, huts, yurts? Does your calendar follow ours? Does your world have the same seven-day week? What about the sun, moon, and stars? How about your currency? Do they have idioms that are different from ours? Do all the common elements go by the same names, or are you going to create your own names for things?

A great example from my own recent world-building of Turrim was that my world is sort of on the brink of a technological renaissance. Certain technologies are being discovered and I had to figure out what to call some things. One of my characters designs a gun. A simple thing, really, except the word “gun” is super boring. Also, when I did some research and digging I discovered that the word “gun” came from a particularly large ballista that the men named “Domina Gunhilda” in the 14th century. The word “gun” came from that name, and though that meant the word was certainly old enough to use in my 1800s-ish setting, I couldn’t swallow the idea of that same etymology happening on this completely different world. So, I needed a new word.

When I was writing The Minstrel’s Song series, I started right away by calling the sun “the Dragon’s Eye,” and the moon, “Toreth.” I also changed the names of the seasons, “Cold Term,” “New Term,” “Warm Term,” and “Change Term.” In this way, I was able to give the world an otherworldly feel without having to rename all the things. I could keep a lot of things familiar, yet still maintain that fantasy realm feel, simply by changing a few big things.

It can be tempting, as an author, to change all the things. To rename everything. To try to go so far as to create a completely unique world with nothing familiar in it. But I would offer you a gentle warning that doing this will have several unwelcome results: 1) You’re going to have to remember all the things you changed and stay consistent (which might not be a problem, maybe your memory is flawless, you take excellent notes, and you practically live and breathe this world you’ve created and you’d never mix up any of it), but that leads us to a second unwelcome result: 2) You are going to spend all of your time describing all the things so that your reader (who does not live and breathe your world) is not lost or confused when you tell him that:

“Jeovanni walked the last few glips on the flargen until he reached the smethnew where he went inside and purchased a pint of glug to take home to his Memi so she could add flavor to their Renvalli dinner.”

Now, in this humorous example, you can probably get the general gist of what’s going on, but your interpretation might be incorrect. You might think he’s gone into a tavern to purchase ale, but maybe he’s gone into a shop to buy turmeric. And “memi” could be mother, wife, sister, aunt, grandmother, daughter, or servant, so you’ll have to make these things clear. Buuuuuuut, you proooobably don’t want your reader to have to learn an entirely new lexicon in order to be able to understand your story. You want to make this story accessible to your readers (unless you’re just writing for yourself, in which case, carry on).

So you’ll have to make decisions. What things can you change and not leave your reader clueless? What things can you keep the same to make your life easier? What things just sound wrong in the context of your world?

The other day, in a group I’m part of, an author posted a list of names of different towns in his world, asking if they sounded like they went together, or like it made sense that they all were in the same world/region. I looked at the list and it was spectacular, but one name stood out to me as “off.” I couldn’t have told you why. I didn’t comment, because I couldn’t give good advice. But I saw the same question later, and four or five other people had commented saying that the name I had felt was “out of place” was also tripping them up. A few of them were able to give reasons, but in the end, it had more to do with the way the word looked and sounded than anything truly explainable.

Sometimes you won’t even be able to explain what sounds wrong, you’ll just know it does.

Trust your instincts.

And if you’re worried your instincts are wrong, try to find places where you can get good feedback.

Mountain Segue

Can you think of any examples from books you’ve read where common, everyday things are called something slightly different and it helped give a fantasy, “otherworldly” tone or feeling to the setting? Are there any examples of strange names or odd naming conventions that have pulled you out of stories?

Make sure to come back tomorrow, as we will be talking about adding backstory to your realm. Yes, your characters need this, but sometimes your world does, too.

~ jenelle

7 Comments

J. L. Mbewe

Great post, Jenelle! And so important! I wish I had known this when I first began. When I first started writing, I had different names for EVERYTHING. I even created my own language and named things using that language. I was trying to stay true to a realistic fantasy world. And then later I scratched the naming of stuff that is familiar to all, like elves and dwarves. If readers have to work too hard to understand what is happening or to keep up with a bunch of new stuff (AND there is a host of new stuff already just because we are writing fantasy!), they will not enjoy it and might walk away.

I do LOVE naming things, but this is something I struggle with. Especially with people’s names. How to make it feel fantasy, but not too difficult or too modern. You make such a good point that naming things can really add a cool level of other-worldliness. It is one of the things that make it feel more real, but I want to be careful that these created names don’t detract from the enjoyment of readers.

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Kessie

Yeah, I’m running into that with my sci fi. Do I change the names of all the parts on an alien space ship? Is a monorail a monorail by any other name? Is a docking bay still a docking bay? I’m getting around it by staying in close third POV and having my hero use human names for everything. I can always make it weirder later.

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Christine

This is something I think is SO important, and yet something I fail at miserably. Especially in my earlier days. I used to name people and places WILDLY. To this day, I’ll go back and read old stories and not even be able to pronounce my characters names. It totally looked like I did a keyboard smash for everything. *shakes head* So yeah, these days I tend to stick to much simpler sounding names. XD

And I TOTALLY agree that renaming eeeverything can just lead to headaches and frustration on everyone’s part. I loved your little example. I feel like I HAVE read books like that and I spend the entire story just trying to figure out the world instead of simply enjoying the plot. And I think that’s the key. The point is to make your readers enjoy the story. If giving certain things cool names to really enhance the world does that, then awesome. But if it just gives everyone a headaches, it’s prooobably best to just stick with familiar terms with things.

I LOVE that person’s idea of listing out all the names and getting feedback on if they all fit together. When in doubt, ask someone else, right? ;D

Such a great post, Jenelle! Thanks for sharing!

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smudgedthoughts

Okay, I didn’t really realize how desperately I needed this until I read it. XD So far, I haven’t really tried creating a high-concept fantasy world (this, of course, is probably soon to change because of an invasive plot bunny I recently had, but I digress XD), and part of that MIGHT be because I’ve always been worried that it won’t be unique enough or it’s TOO unique and no one will understand a word that I’m saying. I guess it’s just a really thin line we need to straddle, and I’ve been to scared to try. XD BUT! This gives me hope?? And also ideas!!! And now the plot bunnies won’t stop multiplying…. Aha.

OH MY GOODNESS, THAT WRITING EXAMPLE!!! I have DEFINITELY read books like that, and they don’t even try to explain what they’re talking about. They just sort of drag me along for the ride and assume I know what they’re talking about, and yet . . .??? I AM LOST. WHAT IS HAPPENING. WHY AM I EVEN STILL READING THIS BOOK. XD

This was an excellent post, Jenelle!!! I’m absolutely loving Fantasy Month!! MEEP! I’m so glad I’m actually here for it this time around. XD

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jenelle

I am thrilled beyond words that everyone seems to be enjoying these posts and finding them helpful. My biggest worry was that they would be… well, boring… since the posts are a little bit different and more laser-focused this year.

But I’m happy that people are finding them interesting and still entertaining.

Okay, that writing example was SO FUN to write. So, I’m not saying that making all the things up isn’t really, really enjoyable. Just that… well, we have to remember to keep it enjoyable for our audience. LOL!!!

I’m so glad you’re here, too!!!

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smudgedthoughts

I actually really like the laser-focus! It’s kind of like a writing workshop for fantasy, which is definitely something I will forever fangirl over. XD

Lol!!! I think it’s a really difficult balance to straddle sometimes! I love coming up with funky words, but sometimes a little explanation helps a TON. XD

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jenelle

Oh good! I love fangirling over fantasy, as well… which is why I do this every February :) :) And I’m glad people are enjoying the laser-focus, because it’s been really fun, and made coming up with posts a LOT easier.

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