Q&A

What Should I Avoid While Creating Names in Fantasy Cultures?

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Hi Mythcreants, thanks for taking my question!

I was wondering about fantasy naming conventions. Are there any specific things to avoid/emulate while creating names in fantasy cultures?

-Evan

Hi Evan,

Great question. What to aim for and what to avoid depends on what approach you’d like to take to otherworld names.

Some like to create new words to reflect the culture of the setting. Collectively, this is referred to as a naming language, a very simple type of conlang (constructed language). The purpose of thinking of your invented names as part of the same language is that it makes them feel more consistent and real. If that’s what you’d like to do, we have a very brief guide on making a naming language, and I have some additional tips and cautionary notes you might find useful. The gist is that you choose a subset of letters and sounds for your naming language and stick to those so they look consistent.

Instead of creating your own words, you can also borrow words and names from an ancient Western language such as Latin, Greek, or Old English. A few readers will be familiar with these languages, but not that many, and to everyone else they should work pretty well. However, you don’t want to take any words from non-Western cultures and treat them like they’re fantasy words, as it will look really weird and/or appropriative to the people of those cultures. It’ll also be really weird to Germans, for instance, if you give places modern German names.

It’s also okay to repurpose English words. This will make your names easier to remember too. For instance, a city could be called “Greenfalls.” For a person’s name, you’ll still need to look back in history a bit so the names don’t feel too modern, but you may not have to look back very far. Other writers will do place names like “Greenfalls” and pair it with simple names that feel English-y but are invented or rare, like “Kera” or “Rivon.” The trick there is to keep it simple and readable.

Last, just make sure it’s really easy to tell all of your names apart. People are especially likely to mix up words that start with the same letter and represent the same type of thing, like two characters that have names starting with “S.” If you name one city “Whitefalls” and another “Greenfalls,” that could also be an issue. If you think you might have an audio version, words that have roughly the same length and vowel sounds will get you in trouble there.

Happy worldbuilding!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I would like to add two things.

    When it comes to names in general (for people or for places), I prefer names I can at least imagine to pronounce. If a name looks like they first removed all vowels and then all letters that would suggest vowels, it’s going to be hard to imagine it when it’s dropped in conversation.

    Languages often have specific words which are used for places to signify something about the area or about specific buildings there, which can easily be worked in and gives you a chance to suggest a certain environment.
    German, for instance, has ‘berg’ at the end of town and city names in mountain regions, because ‘berg’ means ‘mountain’. The suffix ‘burg’ on the other hand means ‘castle’ or ‘fortress’ and suggests that something of that kind is part of or near the city or town in question. ‘Nürnberg’ is close to a mountain. ‘Ludwigsburg’ refers to the local castle which as some point was built by or inhabited by a ruler with the first name Ludwig. ‘Frankfurt’ is combined of two suggestive words: ‘Frank’ points to the ‘franken’ a German tribe, whereas ‘furt’ marks an area to cross a river, a ford – the name suggests that the city was built in an area where the franks often crossed the river, because it was low there.

    • Eddddd

      “By the beard of Mrifk!” swore Grignr

  2. Dave L

    One thing I would ask is avoid pronunciation ambiguity

    Is the name Gep pronounced Ghep or Jep?

    Is Chere pronounced Care, Keer, Chair, or Cheer?

    Is Xun Shun, Shoon, Zhun, Zhoon, Ksun, or Ksoon?

    • Dave L

      Of course, if you’re basing the names on a foreign culture you’ll follow the patterns of that culture when transliterated into English

      That’ll have conventions that many readers will probably recognize

  3. Elga

    you don’t want to take any words from non-Western cultures and treat them like they’re fantasy words, as it will look really weird and/or appropriative to the people of those cultures.

    I suggest, you mean, don’t use words from culture that you are not familiar to, do you? Because I saw some good examples of non- Western culture introduced into fantasy world. For instance, Witcher.

    • King Atlas

      In other words, don’t “exoticize” cultures! (this is especially a problem with asian cultures: pretty sure there’s some kind of trope out there that deals with the association of east asians and “tech dystopia”?? something along those lines).

  4. Kenneth Mackay

    I’d suggest also Googling any place names you come up with. If you create names by combining common prefixes and suffixes, such as -ford or -mouth from real place-names, there’s a chance you’ll accidentally hit on a place that already exists; it can be disconcerting to your readers if your fantasy city is called, for example, ‘Aberdeen’!

  5. AK Nephtali

    I’d recommend looking up phoneme charts and taking a brief introduction to phonology. Learn about consonant clusters and legal sound constructions, and in a few hours you can name pretty much everything!

    I’ve been messing around and here are some of the names for both places, cultural thingamajigs, and people.

    For instance: Auraheim, Ikari, Authonon, Xrache, Tyuko, Aurish, Asran, Chari….

  6. N

    I think it’s possible to respectfully use names from / similar to non western cultures if your fantasy culture and/or character is clearly based on that real world culture. Of course that requires solid research on that culture. I’ve recently read two books that are both set in fantasy!Egypt. NK Jemisin’s Killing Moon has character names based on ancient Egyptian sounds, though not actual ancient Egyptian names. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed has a setting based on a much later period of Egypt and the characters have Arab names; though I will note that Ahmed himself is of Arab descent so he would have already known what depiction was respectful. writingwithcolor on Tumblr is a pretty good blog as well for how to respectfully depict cultures based on specific ethnicities/religions/cultures in fantasy/sci fi.

    • N

      For example one thing that writingwithcolor have specifically said to avoid is to base fantasy cultures on real world cultures and then divide up the fantasy cultures as magic/non magic, evil/good, human/non human. E.g if all the characters with Viking-sounding names are good/human/non-magical and all the characters with Iroquois-sounding names are evil/elves/magical, there’s a pretty glaring issue right there, same if it’s flipped.

      • AK Nephtali

        Wish that I could bookmark comments! Yours was cool and insightful.

        Making up your own phoneme chart and a syllable chart is an easy way to avoid cultural stereotypes and baggage, but there are still pitfalls. For example, a person could portray langauges with guttural sounds as inherently evil, which leads into the stigma of foreign languages that are not European. Also, you have to learn phonology… *Laughs in hours spent hunched over Wikipedia pages and YouTube videos*

        • AK Nephtali

          Also, when I said ‘you’ that was very much hypothetical, not addressed to you you specifically. Sorry if the tone came off wrong! (I’m autistic, so yeah.)

          And NK Jemison is indeed incredible

        • N

          Agree with you on the language thing; like I said, be very careful about implying that any culture is inherently evil. If you want to take inspiration from cultures not your own then I do believe it can be done if you put in the work (research, speaking to people, sensitivity readers) to avoid harmful implications.

    • Tony

      Ancient Egypt seems like a somewhat less risky source of inspiration than modern non-Western cultures do. As with Mesopotamia and the Levant, the cultures of those regions have changed drastically since antiquity, and they also have some continuity with the West via Phoenicia, Greece, and Rome. And unlike, say, Voodoo/Vodou/Vodun/etc. or Native American religion, the pantheons of ancient Egypt and the Middle East don’t currently have worshipers outside of pagan reconstructionism, while the regions themselves have been largely Christianized and Islamized.

      That said, some modern cultures in those regions do have some lineage from the ancient civilizations I mentioned. Egypt’s Christian minority uses Coptic, a modern form of the ancient Egyptian language, in its liturgy, while Syriac Christians in the Levant and Iraq use Aramaic in their liturgy and sometimes in daily life. (Relevant: https://mythcreants.com/blog/is-cultural-appropriation-still-an-issue-if-the-culture-is-gone/) I’d also avoid depicting ancient Egypt or the Middle East as more supernaturally spooky than other cultures (e.g., hostile mummies and demonic Sumerian gods), along with other Orientalist stereotypes.

      • N

        Oh yeah, 100% agree that ancient Egypt is less of a minefield than a religion that’s still actively practised today. But I’m not entirely sure that it’s useful for writers to never ever take inspiration from settings other than their own. It has to be done VERY CAREFULLY – I cannot stress this enough – and with tons of research and probably some sensitivity readers if you’re depicting the whole culture and very closely taking inspiration, but the choice is between that and not having any PoC characters in the setting at all, ever. (Unless you have PoC characters but only give them Western-sounding names, which is a different minefield.)
        Especially if your setting is something that exists in the real world and not in Europe (e.g a steppe or tropical rainforest or archipelago), then for the sake of worldbuilding you would in any case need to do research on how the cultures living in those climates have historically adapted, and once you do that research you can have non-religious names based on languages used by those real-world cultures as well, instead of giving Western names to characters very clearly from, say, fantasy!Japan. Jemisin’s characters don’t happen to use Egyptian-sounding names in a German-looking setting, their climate is clearly based on Egypt, even if the religion is not.
        The Dothraki are a case study in why research is important; Martin and the showrunners specifically cite various Steppe nomad groups as inspiration but nothing about Dothraki food, clothing, politics or economics in any way resembles what any Steppe nomad group on either continent has proven to work in that climate. As a result the Dothraki world building is full of holes because basic questions about their society’s functioning are unanswered by the narrative; it’s not as if giving the characters made-up names from a made-up language made that depiction any less racist or illogical.

        • Tony

          Agreed! Another option is to give characters dark skin and non-European features but to make their culture unique and not directly based on any particular real one. One way to do this is to focus on their lifestyle and to figure out from there what cultural features would make sense based on that.

  7. Erynus

    Take into account that most of surnames’ meaning come from a feature of the person, many surnames are jobs (Smith, Stoner, Mason…) or physical features (Brown, Armstrong, Short…), even something else (Stark, Hardy, Brooks…)
    It happens in several languages, so you just need to “translate” that words into your conlang.

  8. Esq

    The best advice is to keep it simple if you aren’t using a real world or close enough to the real world name. Many of the elaborate names can come cross as more funny than elegant.

  9. Fabian

    “It’ll also be really weird to Germans, for instance, if you give places modern German names.”

    A monster called ermordenung … a planet called Krieg … a necromancer named Dieter … it is amusing every time.

    • Cay Reet

      I feel the necromancer should be called Detlef. (Or Johannes, but that’s another story entirely…)

  10. Richard

    Avoid apostrophes and things like umlauts and cedillas. The former are silly when inserted into a name for no reason, and the latter will make the name unpronounceable to anyone who doesn’t speak one of the languages where they are common.

    Avoid large clusters of consonants or guttural sounds. Sure, Polish has a lot of “strz” and “szcz” constructions (for example), but anyone who isn’t a native speaker of that language will wind up spitting all over people (and maybe even chipping a tooth) when they try to pronounce them (NOTE: I’m Polish on my mother’s side, and even *I* have trouble with them).

    • Tony

      Yeah, I mainly only use umlauts (and funky letters like Æ) when writing about Norse mythology.

    • Jeppsson

      As a native umlaut user, it still bugs me when people randomly put umlauts over vowels because they think it look cool and exotic. Umlauts drastically change pronunciation! The Swedish letters Å, Ä and Ö are completely different vowels from A and O! So I think randomly umlauted words might be MORE problematic for someone who knows how to pronounce them, because I often get the feeling that the person who wrote it intended for the words to be pronunced with regular A’s and O’s, and only put little dots over them for aesthetic reasons. (Same with the German ü btw, which is not the same as regular U.)

      • Cay Reet

        True, in German, Möetley Crüe sounds like someone from Sachsen is trying to pronounce it…

  11. stephen

    I might use the names of obscure and extinct languages, or very small towns. I might take those words and change one or two letters.

    Rinkworks.com has some random word generators; is anybody here familiar with those?

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