Naming things comes fairly easy for me. Sometimes the perfect name will just pop into my head. But that isn’t the norm, not even for me. When my bad ass muse is taking a smoke break I have to work a bit harder, so I’ve developed a few personal guidelines that help me create new terms for my stories.
|Pictured: Bad ass muse. Not Pictured: Manuscript that broke the Rules of Naming Things.|
Rules of Naming Things
Rule 1: Keep your terms simple.
Rule 2: Keep your terms simple. If the fictional “thing” you've created is not much different from something that exists in the real world, always use the term most commonly found in the real world. It will be less of a hassle for you, and will simply make following your story easier on the reader. Don’t call your creature a kertobble if it’s just a rabbit. Call it a rabbit. (See Rule #1)
Rule 3: Always remember that you're writing for a modern audience with modern sensibilities. Your names have to be pronounceable, and they must make sense within the context of the story. The reader shouldn’t be stumbling over your roadblock of terms. Jumping hurdles only hinders the reader from experiencing the story as it happens thus ruining any enjoyment. (See Rule #1 and Rule #2)
It’s a good idea to try and keep your term(s) to 3 syllables or less, preferably one to two syllables. The least amount of syllables contained in your word, the easier the word will be to pronounce, making for a more manageable read. Remember, readers will have to repeat your madeup words over and over throughout the story. Don't make it difficult.
Let's take a look at some words commonly in the English language in comparison to terms created by other authors.
- dog, cat, bird, cow, frog, bear, mouse, snake, horse, pig, crab, fish, whale
- book, phone, car, pen, desk, chair, pan, stove, clothes, spoon, fork, knife, plate
- Fictional terms: orc, elf, warg, ent, imp, troll
- eagle, lion, tiger, giraffe, rabbit, donkey, chicken
- pencil, hammer, keyboard, trashcan, laptop, paper, oven, saucer, pitcher
- Fictional terms: hobbit, dragon, kraken, griffin, goblin, centaur, portkey, quidditch
Words containing more than three syllables are fine for real life, where the average person isn't saying something like rhinoceros every few breaths. But it's not so great in a story where a reader will have to repeat it (in their head or out loud) over and over again.
Usually, they'll end up skimming over a long word if they continue to come across it. But why give them a reason to skim your story? Try to avoid using terms with more than three syllables if at all possible.
Sometimes a word with more than three syllables will fit your story perfectly though and you wouldn’t want to avoid using it. In that case, ignore my suggestion, and use what best suits your story. In many cases though, a long word will end up being an annoying burden on a reader.
If you absolutely must use a word with more than 3 syllables, consider having your characters refer to it with a shorter name. Keep the long version as the official term, while you characters use the shorter version of the name in their dialogue.
Example 1: Rhinoceros (4 syllables) becomes rhino (2 syllables).
Example 2: Television (4 syllables) becomes TV (2 letters).
Example 3: Hippopotamus (5 syllables) becomes hippo (2 syllables).
Example 4: Tyrannosaurus Rex (6 syllables) becomes T-Rex (2 syllables).
When it comes to naming your locations (cities, towns, countries, etc.) you have a lot more leeway with the syllable guideline. Afghanistan, Antarctica, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, and Lithuania are all examples of real world country names that contain more than three syllables.
Personally, I don’t find most people directly referring to their country, state or city on a regular basis so it would seem reasonable if your characters didn’t mention where they are located that much. In that sense, a lengthy place name may not be too much of a bother on a reader so most of the time you could get away with those.
Still, when writing a story I suggest keeping names of locations as short as possible where appropriate. It might be officially called the United States of America (9 syllables), but it's often referred to as just United States (4 syllables), or America (4 syllables), or USA (3 letters), or the US (2 letters). My hometown of Baltimore (3 syllables) is often shortened to B'more (2 syllables). Names seem to want to be short.
You can also play around with the amount of syllables in your words to show a distinct difference of culture or class, or a separation in time. For instance, an ancient language vs. a modern language. (See “Sound & Look” below)
The Name Game
Right now you might be saying, "All right already with the syllables. I get all that. But how do you come up with a name in the first place?"
Well, there isn't just one way to create a name. Here are just a few techniques that continue to work for me:
Use a Dictionary & Thesaurus
- Look up a word that's similar to your fictional term. Steal the Old English version if it sounds appropriate. If it doesn't, try to manipulate the spelling a little bit to fit your story’s needs.
- Search a thesaurus for words that are close to your terms' meaning. When you find one that sounds about right, use that or fiddle around with the spelling. Make it look different, but sound the same.
- Utilize other languages this way as well. Search dictionaries that are in a different language from which you speak. Find a word that achieves your desired sound and look, and use that or change the spelling to fit your story.
Use Greek and Latin Root Words.
Combine roots, stems, suffixes, and prefixes as you see fit and create your own mashup terms. Don’t get too sciencey, unless you’re going for accuracy.
You’re writing fiction so you don’t necessarily have to follow real world rules when creating terms from Greek and Latin roots. Your term just has to sound right within the context of your story.
Science geeks may call you out on your inaccuracy, but they may not be your audience. If they are your audience, no big deal, you’ll just have to work a little harder and follow those rules.
Other Things to Consider
Language Is Your Playground
You're not constructing an entire language, but the same advice applies.
Study the way words look and sound, and how they feel when they roll off the tongue. As writers, we should be doing this anyway. Words are the tools of our profession. We need to know them.
You don’t have to learn a new language, but it wouldn’t hurt anything if you did. You don’t have to practice the art of calligraphy, but it wouldn’t hurt anything if you dabbled in it. You don’t have to be an expert in scrabble, but it would only help your writing if you knew a thing or two about words and how they fit together.
All I'm saying is try things out. Experiment with words. Jumble them up. Play around and have fun with them. You’re free to type whatever you want from the privacy of your keyboard. No one's going to see. So don’t be shy. Words don’t bite.
To make your fictional world feel real, you definitely want to have a variety in the terms you create. You don't want all your words to be the same length, shape or sound. Consider varying your word length regardless of the syllable guidelines above. Language is rough. It’s never perfect. It should sound that way.
Sound & Look
Have an idea of what direction you want to go with your word in terms of sound and look. Think about the effect that you want this special term to have on a reader. You may want your words to sound unearthly and alien-like or magical; you may want it to look foreign to your personal culture or similar to a particular culture; you may want it to feel ancient or modern depending on the setting. Keep those things in mind as you create.
The reader should also be able to use context clues to figure out what a term means even if they happen to miss its definition as told in your narrative.
If you create a magical creature for instance, tell someone its name but don’t tell them what your creature looks like. Ask the person if they can picture what your creature might look like just by the sound of its name. They won’t always give the description you’re looking for. But when they do, it’s a good indication that you’re on the right track with that term.
If they describe your creature in a way that isn’t what you intended, that doesn’t mean you should change the word to something different. It doesn’t mean anything really. Just thank them for their time.
The goal is to try and get your terms to closely resemble the appearance of the thing in your story by the way the term sounds.
|Wookie’s look exactly like you'd think a "wookie" should look. Don’t they? That's not racist.|
Everything in Moderation
Try not to populate your world with too many original creations. Readers like to be grounded in a story and familiarity helps them connect with your story’s surroundings. Too many unfamiliar things in a story may overwhelm a reader and jolt out of the story.
Unfortunately, “too many” is abstract, and there’s no way to tell what will be the limit for any reader. But if you’ve only created two or three creatures or objects, etc. you’re probably good. It depends.
Don’t ever allow the search for the perfect name to hold you back from writing your story. Sometimes, in order to finish your story, you may have to insert a place holder name temporarily until you come up with a better name. I’ve completed entire manuscripts only to go back to it and “find and replace” all instances of a term after I thought of a better one. Nothing is canon until it’s published.