Middle Earth. Rivendell. Winterfell. Dragonstone. Hogwarts. Chamber of Secrets. All of these place names are from the Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter series, and I can say them out loud to another person without getting embarrassed. They’re even cool. But I’ve also read fantasy where the names sound clunky, even corny, and unfortunately, that’s one of the first things to take me out of what may otherwise be a good story. Even my own.
And it’s not just the names of places that can make or break it for readers, it’s all names. The names of anything and everything created during world building–characters, rituals, spells, flora, fauna, etc.
I’ve come across ones that are, in essence, illegible. And I’ve stumbled over them as if my mouth were filled with rocks, which makes them hard to use as intended. Although I hate to do it, I’ve sometimes shortened or completely replaced difficult names with a nickname. But if I didn’t, I would never be able to keep the characters and their stories straight. I remember names better when I can pronounce them.
And as fellow writer A.H. Lewis pointed out to me, it’s even harder when the spellings of the unfamiliar names and places look similar. “I hate when fantasy names are ridiculous and impossible to say in your own head let alone out loud,” she said. “Or when they’re too similar, and you’re like, wait, which one is this?”
Coming up with names for places and characters in fantasy stories isn’t easy. I’ve often wondered how I could ever come up my own unique, but cool, names.
I wasn’t immediately sure why many of the naming conventions in LOTR, GOT, and HP work so well, but I’ve come to realize that it’s because they are simple, pronounceable, and memorable combinations of real words. Or based on real words. For example, the house name “Slytherin” and the magic spell “Leviosa” recognizably resemble “slither in” and “levitate.”
Yes, yes, all words and names were made up at one time or another. And maybe it’s only the span of time that makes them feel familiar and comfortable. Regardless, any new names or words made completely from scratch I would recommend extensively beta testing.
A.H. Lewis employs the following tactics to create unique, cool names for her fantasy stories:
- Vary the spellings of conventional names.
- Use words from an existing language different from your own–ones that have relevant or added meaning or historical roots. (HP example: Leviosa is a levitation spell; in fact, a lot of the spells in Harry Potter are a mix of Latin and other languages and the characters’ names were chosen for their deeper meanings.)
- Use existing names from other countries and cultures. George R. R. Martin didn’t make up Theon Greyjoy’s first name. “Theon” is a name of Greek origin that means “godly.” Theon isn’t godly in the religious sense, but he does think rather highly of himself in the first two books.
- Try to capture as much of a personality through a name as possible. Hard consonants for bold characters, soft sounds for muted ones, etc. Mordor, in Lord of the Rings, is where the evil sorcerer reigns and builds his armies. It sounds appropriately foreboding and dark. Naming the villain’s home-base something like Hobbiton wouldn’t fly.
- Consider avoiding names that inherently lend themselves to nicknames; or avoid using nicknames in lieu of a character’s full name, which is done a lot in fantasy. So if your main characters’ names are Sophia and Giovanni, embrace those beauties and keep the use of Soph or Johnny to a minimum.
Random thought: could you imagine if the Fellowship of the Ring called Legolas, Legos? LOL.
I fully support the use of ethnic names and words from other languages when they are incorporated into the world building thoughtfully and respectfully. In fact, I have a lot more interest and patience with them when I come across them in a book. Writers just may want to be aware of both their intended and potential audiences when using them and consider whether or not they might struggle. If the answer is yes, having a lexicon and pronunciation guide in the back of the book would be a very helpful reader resource.
Or as Diana Gabaldon does in Outlander whenever Gaelic is used, find clever ways to have a character translate or reveal the meaning to the reader. Outlander example: “Sassenach” meaning “English person” or “outsider” is used as a romantic term of endearment by the hero for the heroine; the hero also uses endearments like “mo nighean donn” and “mo chridhe,” each of which he has to explain, but is incorporated into the scenes in ways that add sizzle and romance.
HP example: It’s LeviOsa, not LevioSA *feather levitates*. Thank you, J.K. Rowling and Hermione Granger for that cleverly placed pronunciation lesson. Ron and us readers will get that right until the end of time.
But the main takeaway is this: when in doubt, use simple, pronounceable, and memorable new combinations or spellings of REAL words.
If all these revelations are all old news to you, and I’m just late to the party, well better late then never! Either way, I’d be curious to know what you think about the naming conventions authors use in books. What works for you? Or doesn’t work for you, and why? What authors would you say have successfully created cool names completely from scratch–that is to say, without any apparent linguistic or historical roots?
Let me know what you think! I’d love to discuss.