Re:Fiction - The Fiction Writers' Magazine

The Name of the Prose, Part 2: Naming Places and Objects

Welcome to Part 2 of this series. In Part 1, we considered the primal importance of naming your story and the characters in it in ways that invited readers in, helped set and maintain the tone of your story, and reinforced the various characters’ qualities. In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look into other issues related to names in fiction, such as naming places and objects, choosing the best spelling for a name, and maintaining ease of reading.

You Are Here: Place Names

A sense of place plays a critical role in determining whether a reader “gets into” a story or not. Good place names can lend an aura of reality to even the most fictional of places. Conversely, when an author inserts an obviously made-up place name into a realistic story, the name alone can make the whole setting seem ridiculous to the reader.

A number of writers set stories in California’s Gold Country, where I resided for thirty-five years. They often name their fictional towns Pickaxe, Gold Pan, or Mother Lode. When I read these sort of names in a tale, I find my suspension of disbelief dwindling every time I collide with one of them. In reality, the area is referred to as Mother Lode Country, but the towns have much less “folksy” names like Grass Valley, Colfax and North Bloomfield.

As a reader, I have a strong personal preference for real place names. If a story is set in Grass Valley, or Chicago, or San Francisco, why not say so? It pays to use landmarks your reader might recognize. This requires some research, but the payoff in terms of bringing reality to a story is invaluable. Not only can the reader recognize and relate to the surroundings, but selecting a real location allows the writer to describe more with fewer words.

If a real place is unsuitable for some reason, try setting your action near a real place. 

My mystery/detective novel, The Antiquities Hunter, required that part of the action take place at an unknown archaeological dig. The well-known digs were... well, too well-known and too well-exploited to be appropriate, so I made one up. But I set it near enough to a known site that my readers, if they wanted, could look up the neighboring dig on the Web or in National Geographic and satisfy themselves that they knew the terrain—and that I knew it and had described it accurately.

A story may work whether the writer uses a real or fictional setting, but I get downright grumpy when a writer has clearly made up a fictional place out of laziness and whole cloth. If the best setting for a story is a real town, then use a real town. Bite the bullet. Do the research. It’s worth it.

A side benefit to using, and therefore having to research, a real locale is the frequency with which I find new stories lurking in the scenery and history of an area. 

Naming Places in a Fictional Setting

Many science fiction and fantasy works explore places that are entirely in our heads. I mentioned Tolkien because he’s the undisputed master of evocative place names and has inspired several generations of fantasy writers. 

Tolkien gave us books full of names that are delightful to read, to hear spoken, and to speak. I sometimes say “Barad-dûr” just because I love the feel of the name on my tongue. It seems to say what it is—the Tower that holds the malevolent Mayar spirit of Sauron. Similarly, names like Minas Tirith, Cirith Ungol, and Lothlorien are delicious delicacies, every one. With brilliant subtlety, Tolkien changes our perception of Saruman’s capital, Isengard, by having Saruman more often refer to the tower, Orthanc. 

There is a downside to this. It’s tempting for writers following in Tolkien’s masterful footsteps to simply copy the sounds or to use his names as jumping-off points for their own. They copy his work instead of his methodology.

The movie Willow does this in a rather tongue-in-cheek (or cheeky) way when it tosses out character names like Bavmorda, Elora Danan and Fin Raziel and place names like Nockmaar and Galladoorn. The names are a mish-mosh of different cultural contexts from the real world ("Elora Danan" has Celtic roots and "Raziel" is Hebrew for “the mystery of God”).

As a reader, I like it when a writer has clearly borrowed Tolkien’s attention to research rather than his syllables, and found real-world rootstock that creates an endless supply of appropriate linguistic material. 

As a writer, I try to do exactly that, which is why in the Mer Cycle trilogy—which was my first experience writing anything that took place entirely in a made-up worldI identified language groups to use for my cultures, then invented character, object, and place names that had meaning in those borrowed and modified languages. 

Hence, the heroine of The Meri (Mer Cycle, Book One) is named Meredydd (pronounced Mer-e-dith with hard th as in “the”). The place of her schooling is Halig-liath ("Holy Fortress"), and this fortress overlooks the Halig-tyne ("Holy River"), and is in the shadow of the lofty peaks of the Gyldan Baenn ("Golden Mountains"). 

By pegging my made-up language to real ones (Old English and Gaelic), I was able to avoid floating or changing meanings. “Liath” always means “fortress,” “baenn” always means “mountain,” and "tyne" is "river" throughout. This gave me ready components for naming places with consistency.

If you do decide to make up your languages out of whole cloth, create basic components that have consistent meanings, then use them to create more complex structures. If you do this consistently, your reader can intuit what a name means even without checking your glossary.

Spelling: A Ghoti by Any Other Name is Still a Fish

A lesson I took away from writing my first novel was that a slavish adherence to ”reality" is a hobgoblin that can tie your reader’s tongue in knots.

The Meri was my first experience trying to create a fantasy world from the ground up. With Tolkien as my only model, I waded hip-deep into Scottish history and Auld English linguistics to come up with character, clan, place, and object names for The Mer Cycle. Here’s what I learned: whatever names you use, it pays to simplify their spelling wherever possible.

Why? Because it will allow the reader to actually hear the word in her head. 

I wish I’d simplified my heroine’s name in The Meri. I had a lot of readers who said, “I didn’t know how to pronounce 'Mereddyd,' so I just thought of her as 'Mary.'” Meredydd was the Gaelic spelling of the common name “Meredith,” but my readers didn't know that. 

I could have spelled Meredydd as “Meredith,” I suppose. Instead, I opted to use story action to hint at how readers should pronounce her name. Meredydd’s classmates at Halig-liath tease her by calling her “Merry did,” and that was how I got around the fact that I’d chosen to give my character an archaic name.

Spelling: Punctuation and Diacritics in Names

Stan Schmidt, an editor I respect immensely, cautioned me against using unpronounced diacritical marks in names (apostrophes, slashes, etc). For one thing, he said, readers tend to think the marks should be pronounced, thus changing your character's name. I had rendered a character's last name “M'butu,” which in some African dialects would be pronounced “Mk!butu”—where the k! is a click of the tongue.

My advice: use diacriticals only if they are pronounced. In writing Mr. Twilight (a collaboration with Michael Reaves) I used the Navajo language for some names. In Navajo, the apostrophe calls for a full stop in the middle of the word. Without it, the name Ma’ii (Coyote, the trickster god) might appear to be pronounced "my" or "may" rather than ”mah/ee."

Don’t Go Overboard

Sometimes writers do things with words just to change stuff up or to remind the reader that they’re not in Kansas anymore, however much the surroundings may look like Kansas. I find this is especially true with fantasy set in alternate historical times. Sometimes these little alien touches work; sometimes they don’t. 

One of my favorite writers—Patricia Wrede (whom both of my daughters also adore)—has a series (Frontier Magic) set in an alternate America she calls Columbia. Some things are familiar (there has been a Civil War fought, in part, over slavery); some are not (the Mammoth River is the western edge of civilization and is warded with a Great Barrier spell). There are mundane animals and magical ones and the human population practices regional forms of very practical magic. 

I love the books. They’re detailed, intimate paintings of this quirky and wonderful alternate reality. BUT there is one very tiny thing that jars every time I see it: children are called “childings.” The word arises frequently and is the only common word that the author chose to alter in this way. It stops me for a second every time I see it.

Conclusion: Winning the Name Game

Good names for people, places, and things can be a bonus for both reader and writer because they can make stories memorable. Back to J. R. R. Tolkien’s work—how delicious are the names Orthanc, Osgiliath, and Minas Morgul? Though easily pronounced in the reader’s imagination, these are yummy, rolling-around-on-the-tongue words that make readers want to say them again and again. (Well, at least they make me want to say them again and again.)

Names are spices that can make a story savory or sweet. It can take some experimentation with the recipe, but writers who master the spice blend will bring hungry readers back for more.

Writer of speculative fiction as the result of a horrible childhood incident involving Klaatu and a robot named Gort, Maya Bohnhoff is a New York Times bestselling author of science fiction, fantasy and mystery. Her latest novel is THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER - a Gina Miyoko Mystery from Pegasus Crime. When she’s not writing, she’s performing and recording original and parody music with her husband, Jeff. Her short fiction appearances include Analog, Amazing Stories, Interzone, and Baen’s Universe; she’s a Nebula, Crawford, Sidewise, and British Science Fiction Award finalist. She has been known to blog about writing and other things at mayabohnhoff.com and bookviewcafe.com.

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