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.
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.