How real is your fantasy?

I’ve seen a few posts recently about names – especially character names – in fantasy novels, and how they can either draw a reader in or repel them….and how varied readers’ responses can be, to names carrying a fair swag of diacritics, or at the other extreme, to names that can feel over-simplified.

I thought and felt long and hard about names in my novels. Adjustments have been made along the way, which have included paring back the two invented languages scattered throughout, leaving a trace of both only in spell-words. The other area of naming I’ve paid special attention to is words that ‘set the scene’, that create the environment of the story-world. In the ‘show, don’t tell’ model, there are two main aspects I use to give the world of Siaris a feeling of internal realism. One is context; using only the context of a naming noun. The other is creating an unfamiliar word that has real word associations or suggestiveness in its soundforms. Even more effective is to combine the two; then the need to ‘tell’ drops away.

For instance, if I write, “Sitia leaned on the balcony rail, and gazed out over the iphemile spread like snow across the mountains. Its clear, sweet scent settled her mood,” the reader will (I hope) be picturing a carpet of white flowers in an alpine setting. The flowers interact with the senses of the character, which gives them a specific context and purpose ie; they have soothing properties. That is the basic level. The next level will work for readers who have some knowledge of plants and/or herbal medicine. The ‘mile’ in ‘iphemile’ is a pointer to chamomile, the tiny white real world flower, originally found in hilly/mountainous areas, used as a tea to calm unsettled nerves and treat insomnia. The ‘iph’ in this flower name is suggestive to ‘eph’ in ephemeral, meaning something transient, in this case a seasonal plant. So the fusion of the two should suggest a delicate, seasonal white bloom that carpets mountainsides.

Here’s another example: “The long, sonorous notes of a kulu drifted through the trees, signalling another dawn.’ The combination of ‘notes’ and ‘dawn’ give the word ‘kulu’ its contextual clues, that it is a type of bird, in dawn chorus mode. But what type of bird? This is where the double clues become important; Β long, sonorous notes and the similarity of the sound ‘ku-lu’ to ‘cuckoo’ are designed to trigger an association, yet still have an exotic feel.

Despite this element of construction, most of my name creations are in the first instance unconscious. I’m an intuitive writer, and it is often when reading back what I’ve just written that the associative wordplay becomes clear….and it’s a real source of delight to observe what auto-suggestions my mind in ‘writing flow’ has come up with!

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer and world builder, how do you create your names? Do they seem random? Do they ‘appear’ from your unconscious and magically suit their purpose? Or are you a meticulous constructor with an over-arching sense of order? How do you ‘flavour’ your world?


To sample more of my world-building, the first novel of The Siaris Quartet, Daughter of Hope, is available from Musa and Amazon. The second novel, Reunion can also be found at Musa and Amazon and other online stores.


18 thoughts on “How real is your fantasy?

  1. I have never studied lingustics, but I love words, the kind of person who looks words up in the etymological dictionary rather than the standard one. I love discovering the origins of words, and the English language with its diversity of influences is particularly interesting. Perhaps because I know enough about words to recognise how they are composed, but not enough to dare to do it myself, I tend to leave well alone and stick to names that already exist. I admire anybody who can invent their own language.


    • I haven’t studied linguistics either, Jane, but like you have always loved word etymology…and the aesthetics of sound forms. As far as these novels go, I ‘hear’ the characters speak in their own language/s and always have, so it’s an integral part of who they are, in my imagination, even if very few words of their languages remain in the published novels. xx


  2. Love your sense of wordplay, drawing in sights, sounds, and smells. I tend to name characters based on personalities, strengths, and even after people I know. A name has to ring true for me to immortalize a character with it. I also agree with Jane – you’ve done a bang-up job inventing your own language. Kudos!


    • Sharon, thanks very much! Yes, I’ve been told I have ‘sensory writing’…it’s true, I do tend to ‘feel’ words as much as hear or see them, maybe more. I agree with you about the name ‘ringing true’…you can feel it instantly, can’t you, when there’s the right ‘fit’ of a name to its character. πŸ™‚ x


  3. Your examples remind me of a bit in Lin Carter’s 1975 book Imaginary Worlds, where he quotes a line from Edgar Rice Burroughs – “Upon a massive bench of polished ersite, beneath the gorgeous blooms of a giant pimalia…” He points out that, although both names are just invented sounds, swapping them over would sound ridiculous. Like yours, they tap into the reader’s associations of sounds and things.

    I don’t create many words for things, but the names I make are partly instinctive and partly using a basic understanding of the structures in the invented language they’re taken from. I don’t actually create the languages, and usually I don’t work out what the names mean, by I try to be consistent in terms of sound and structure – things like the way many Latin names end in -us or -a, and whether they’re sonorous or guttural etc.


    • Oh, E.R. Burroughs is definitely a friend of mine! Yes, I think when you’ve read a lot, the ‘feel’ for words does become instinctive, Nyki. Thanks for sharing your ‘technique’. πŸ™‚


  4. An interesting post, Joanna, and one that has invited some interesting comments. In the case of my magical fantasy, Covenant, I started off using anagrams and allusions to existing names and terminology. Then I simplified things down to a few simple rules about how some of the religious names were formed – not quite a language, but a starting point! As has been said above, sometimes it was simply the sound of ‘feel’ of the words. I confess that, in one of the early versions, there were 20 people whose names began with the letter ‘t’!


  5. I haven’t had to name fantasy characters yet, but I did have to name Native Americans for a YA. I looked up some examples of various tribes in the region and made selections on their language. Otherwise, I just try to be as authentic as possible to the time period. But your method is very smart and I’ll keep it in mind for that moment when such a name is required. Thanks.


  6. Hi dropped by from Amaleen’s blog.

    I failed terribly at guessing what the names meant. I figured the first one was snow–I’m from Canada and we can smell it over here. I blame the fact I only had one sentence and didn’t know the season.

    The second I was closer, and again I thought elk or moose like creature.

    Just for the record, I’d come to you to get some help coming up with names. When I pick them they are always short, not how the real world works. You definitely have the touch. πŸ™‚

    Wonderful blog. Congrats on the nomination. πŸ™‚


    • Hi Emaginette, and thanks for stopping by and commenting. Oh dear, now I’m seeing a moose up a tree (and yes, there is an antelope called a kudu, so that’s a good call)!

      Thanks and cheers! πŸ™‚


  7. You could definitely see your enthusiasm within the work
    you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid
    to mention how they believe. All the time go after your heart.


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