I make no secret of it anymore.
Most of my family and friends know that I am yet another would-be novelist. To make matters ten times worse, I am a would-be fantasy novelist! I am defiantly proud of this fact, but then that seems to be normal.
Writing, like all art forms, has many intricacies and pitfalls to claim the unwary, and occasionally the wary as well. Fantasy, like all genres, has its own unique precipices and bramble thickets. Today I explore the dangers of place-names.
Naming is far more complicated than it seems. There is a fine line between iconic and obtrusive, original and over-wrought, simple and boring, and between fitting and cliché. Whatever is a writer to do?
Pitfall 1: Pretension
Sometimes pretension works. Not often, but it does happen. When I see “Doom” in a name, my first impulse is to say “not another one…” and yet “Mount Doom” in the “Land of Doom” (from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) lives up to its impressive title.
Pretentious names come in all shapes and this pitfall is often combined with others (I never said I could only topple into one at a time!). To move away, briefly, from place names and bring in a character-name example, consider Mr. Furious from the super-hero spoof film “Mystery Men.” When Mr. Furious is asked his real name by a woman he likes, he fidgets and tries to come up with a suitably “awesome” name:
Mr. Furious: “It’s Phoenix… Phoenix Dark… Dirk. Phoenix Darkdirk. I was christened Dirk Steele, and I changed it to Phoenix.”
His lady-friend is unimpressed. Finally, he admits that his name is Roy. Her reaction to his “cool” names is mine when a place or character has a pretentious name and fails to live up to it.
In short, with great pretension comes great responsibility, and an author had better deliver not only up to, but above the standard. If your “Dark Lord’s” kingdom is called “Doomland” or “The Deadlands” or “Domain of Darkness” (alliteration is fun!), make sure it can out Doom or Dead or Darkness the competition. Otherwise it will simply be “Moderately Doomful Deathland that is Not Quite as Dark as that Other Dark Lord’s Dark Domain.”
Pitfall 2: Other Languages
Tolkien was a linguist. Most of us are not. Why are “Minas Tirith,” “Orthanc,” ” Lothlorien,” and Tolkien’s myriad other non-English-based place names so awesome? Because he created languages behind them. Numerous authors who are not linguists succeed in making up good names from fictional languages. “Narnia,” of C. S. Lewis comes to mind.
The pitfall here opens when these names are over-used and over-wrought. T’naké’lorilin’arpa’liél is not a cool name… it is horrible eye-bleeding gibberish. Accent-mark, umlaut, and apostrophe abuse are good warning signs. If every other word in your made-up language has an apostrophe in it, please start over. If your strange place-names are hard to pronounce or read, you should consider simplifying them.
In other words, this can be a good naming scheme in moderation, but overdone it is cliché if not unreadable.
Another option, of course, is to use real language. George MacDonald’s city “Gwyntystorm,” from The Princess and Curdie is Welsh. The same readability rules apply.
Pitfall 3: The Cliché
I may write a post just on clichés one day. Not all are bad. The trick is to be aware of them and to avoid or use them depending on the situation. Be Aware. A Cliché is most dangerous when the person using it does not recognize what it is. It’s the gun that can kill a story in the hands of someone who doesn’t know it is loaded or hasn’t learned to take aim.
Writer A thinks herself so very clever in naming her elven village Greenleaf Dell.
Writer B glories in his extra-awesome city name of Wizardhome.
Either of these could be put to good use, but their cliché leanings make care essential. Another cliché, not easily avoided, is being too-flowery or overly-dramatic with names. See pitfall 1.
Pitfall 4: Mundanity
I feel this becomes a problem if all the place-names used are uniformly ordinary and therefore boring. Brian Jacques’s “Redwall” works very well. It is descriptive and mundane, like naming a child after its eye color, but the personality of the place fills it out and makes its name iconic. If, however, my towns are all called Greenwood, Red River, and Brownfield, then they fail to differentiate themselves and the people who live there seem two-dimensional as they can only think to name their homes after colors of geographic features. In short, ordinary is ok, but ordinary without variety makes for a bland world.
Then there is the allegorical-name problem. Such names belong in an allegory, like “Glome,” from C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. They do not work well in a non-allegorical story.
Pitfall 5: Out of Place
No matter how wonderful a name is, if it does not fit in the world it belongs to, and fit seamlessly, then it is the wrong name. There is not much else to say about this one, but it does lead me into the process of…
How to Find the Right Place Name:
If you have other strategies, please tell me about them in the comments!
1. Start with the place.
Brainstorm on what it looks like, what kinds of resources (or lack thereof) it has. Are there myths associated with it or great historical events? The time spent doing this should be in proportion to the importance of the place to your story. That said, if it is an important place, like the central country, or a primary player in events, go into depth. Sometimes names spring from the details.
2. Follow up with the people.
Places pick up names over time. Who has named this place? Flesh out their culture. This is where research comes in handy. Study real people-groups from our world. Find ones that are similar to the fictional people you want to create and begin modeling the fictional people on real people (multiple real groups can be inter-woven to create new and interesting fictional groups!).
3. Combine the two
Now that you have the people and the place, what would these people call that place? Again, look at real people-groups and see how they name places. Brainstorm until you have some options to pick from.
Sometimes it is the details that matter. Two real places I know are called Shiny Rock, and Tongue Springs. The first is so-named because it is the last place the sun hits before it sets over the valley Shiny Rock overlooks. The second is so-called because railroad workers in the area were given salted buffalo tongues to eat, and they would soak the tongues in the spring to make them palatable. It is details like this that fill our world, and details like this that make a fictional world solid. Even if the reader never knows why a place bears its name, the uniqueness of a name with a story behind it creates more atmosphere and believability than a random name chosen because it “sounds good.”
Don’t stick too close to one pattern. Each place on earth contains a variety of place-names. A well may be named for the person who dug it, and a mountain for its funny shape, a castle may be named for a betrayal that took place there or a relic contained within.
Think. Don’t slap names down hap-hazard, for then you risk a cliché-ridden and shallow world regardless of how rich or original your characters and plot may be. Also remember that the real world holds many names that are fun, weird, elegant, disturbing and beautiful, meaning you neither have to, nor should use the most mundane choice you come up with while brainstorming. Have fun with it!
And now, for a finale to this stupidly-long post, enjoy some real place-names. These are a map of the cultures, history, geography/natural resources, religions and ideas of an area. Every place and every culture on earth has a wealth of names. I would love to read some of your favorites in comments.
Accident, Acadia, Acedemia, Acorn, Adamsville, Alexandria, Alpha, Antioch,
Baneberry, Barren Fork, Bass Hollow, Bean Station, Bell Buckle, Big Frog Mountain, Bledsoe’s Fort, Buggytop Cave,
Calfkiller River, Castalian Springs, Celina, Creech Hollow, Crossville, Coal Creek, Copperhill, Cottontown, Couchville Cedar Glade, Clear Fork, Covington, Cumberland Plateau, Cypress Inn,
Del Rio, Denmark, Dismal Swamp, Dyersburg,
Elora, Etowa, Eva, Fall Branch, Fiery Gizzard, Five Points, Flag Pond, Flint River, Fort Assumption, Fort Defiance, Fort Louden, Friendsville, Frozen Head,
Germantown, Ghost River, Gilt Edge, Grand Junction, Grimsley, Gruetli-Laager, Guild
Harpeth River, Helenwood, Heiskell, Henry, Hickory Withe, Hidden Passage Trail, Hidden Springs, Hiwassee, Hoenwald, Hollow Rock, Horsepound Falls, Huron, Hurricane Mills
Idlewild, Jasper, Jellico, Joelton, La Follette, Laconia, Laurel Bloomery (I wish I was kidding), Lebanon, Lexington, Liberty, Little Emory River
Manchester, McKenzie, Medina, Memphis, Midway, Milan, Miller’s Cove, Moscow, Moss, Mount Carmel, Mount Juliet, Murfreesboro, Mousetail Landing,
Nameless (no joke), New Hope, Niota, Normandy, Obion, Obed River, Ocoee River, Oldfort, Only (yep, there’s a town called Only), Ooltewah, Ozone
Paris, Parker’s Crossroads, Pikeville, Pioneer, Pinson Mounds, Pistol Creek, Pleasant Shade, Poplar Creek, Possum Creek (not Opossum Creek…), Prospect, Pumpkin Town, Puryear,
Quebeck, Readyville, Red Boiling Springs, Reliance, Ridgeside, Roan Mountain, Rutherford,
Saint Joseph, Saltillo, Salt Lick Creek, Scotts Hill, Sevenmile Creek, Sewanee, Sharon, Sherwood, Shiloh, Signal Mountain, Smoky Mountains, Smyrna, Sneedville, South Carthage, Sparta, Stinking Creek, Sugartree, Sunbright, Summitville, Sweetwater,
Tallahassee, Tazewell, Ten Mile, Three Way, Thompsons Station, Thorn Hill, Townsend, Tracy City, Troy, Tullahoma, Tuscumbia River, Twin Falls,
Unicoi, Vanleer, Vonore, Wartburg, Wartrace, Westmoreland, White’s Fort, Wilder, Winchester, Wolf River, Woodbury, Yorkville,