Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Map-Making 201: Naming Things

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Two weeks ago, I posted Map-Making 101: Drawing the Map, which was the first half of a workshop I presented at the fifth annual Teen Author Boot Camp. Here is Part Two of the class, which is on how to name all those places (and eventually the people too) for that map you've drawn.

Consider genre & tone
Knowing the genre and tone of your story will get you started on the right track. If you're writing a realistic fantasy novel, you probably don't want to choose satirical names for places like those used in the Princess Bride: the Cliffs of Insanity, the Fire Swamp, Zoo of Death, or the location of the R.O.U.S.'s. Also consider the two movies Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy. Both have a similar storyworld, similar adventure, similar cast, similar villains, and similar stakes… but Star Wars has more of a dramatic tone, where Guardians of the Galaxy is comical.

Try something different
Strive to find a unique method of naming the places in your story. You could do this in many ways. A couple examples that come to mind is Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember. Bardugo used a Russian theme in Shadow and Bone for the culture of the people, the architecture, and for many of the character and place names, like Chernast, Ravka, and Balakirev. In City of Ember, DuPrau chose many names for her underground city that had to do with pipes or underground things, like: Rockbellow Rd., Stonegrit Ln., and Plummer Street. Click on these Google search results for "Shadow and Bone map" and "City of Ember map" to see what I mean.

Think about the geography, religion, and cultures in your world. What do these people care about and why? How can the names you choose reflect that?

Foreign Languages
J. K. Rowling used Latin for many of the names and spells in the Harry Potter books. I used Hebrew in a similar way in my Blood of Kings books. Is there a foreign language that hasn't been overused that might fit one of the cultures in your storyworld? You don't have to use actual words. You could simply choose the style and sound of a language and rearrange letters to make up your own words. Be sure to Google them to make sure you don't choose words that have awkward meanings in the real world.

Fictional Languages
Creating your own language is always an option, but I warn you to be careful. You might spend much longer than necessary doing so. Languages like Elvish and Klingon took a very long time to write, and if you want to write a novel, that's where you should invest the majority of your time. But if creating your own language is something you really want to do, go for it! I'm far from an expert, but I did write a post on creating your own language a few years back. Click here to read it.

Google Maps is a favorite of mine. If I get stuck and need interesting character or place names, I often open Google Maps, type in a foreign country, and zoom in, looking for interesting words. I've done this by themes, as well, to come up with a series of similar sounding names like Leigh Bardugo did in Shadow and Bone. You simply pick a country, find interesting names, and flip a letter or two around to create your own unique words. Again, just remember to Google possible meanings.

The maps of earth are also useful for speculative fiction genres like alternate history and dystopian. With these genres, use what's already on the map and invent a few changes. Brandon Sanderson's Rithmatist has an amazing alternate history map. in which the USA is actually an archipelago called the United Isles with states called Georgiabama, New France, and Canadia. My dystopian map of the Safe Lands was set in the real town of Crested Butte, Colorado, eighty years in the future. I traced the shape of my map over a map of the local ski resort. When I had need of street names in my story, I zoomed in on Google Maps and used the street names that were already there, tweaking some and leaving some as is.

In Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Katnis, Primrose, and Rue are all types of flowers and plants. In my Blood of Kings trilogy, I didn't want to use Hebrew words for all my character names because I wanted to try and give the feel of different cultures. So I came up with themes for each city. For Carmine, since it is a vineyard manor, I created a list of names having to do with wine: Basalt, Clay, Peat, Flint, Gypsum, Keuper, Loam, Terra, Pinot, Malbec, Verdot, etc. In Allowntown, an orchard manor, I listed types of apples to use for names: Cider, Crab, Gala, Baldwin, Pippin, Ambrosia, Cortland, Cameo, Ginger, Jonamac, Braeburn, Macoun, Taylor, etc. Some other themes I used for names of people from different villages were: Inupiat, Kenyan, Gaelic, names of stars, and things having to do with the sea.

Call it what it is.
Did you know that a shire county is a non-metropolitan county in England? Put on your Jane Austen hat and see if any of these sound familiar: Yorkshire, CheshireDerbyshire, Nottinghamshire, HertfordshireShropshire . . . These are all shire counties in England. Tolkien simply called it what it was. Parts of your map could be named by trade: think of New York City’s Garment District or Financial District. You could also name things by ethnicity like in Chinatown or Little Italy. Geographical references like Upper East Side, Midtown, West Village are also clever ways to name things. Or what about landmarks like World Trade Center or Battery Park? What landmarks are on your map?

Chester Rapkin was known as the Father of SoHo. He was an urban planner who first used the term SoHo in 1962 to coin the area South of Houston street. This started a trend for nicknaming places in Manhattan by acronyms: NoHo (North of Houston Street), TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal Street). Click here to read my full post on this subject. I used Mr. Rapkin's idea when I came up with the location of Cibelo in my Safe Lands books, which is (SPOILER ALERT!) the CIty BElow the LOwlands.

Many of US cities were named in French and later Americanized. For example: Detroit (French for strait), Little Rock (la petite roche), Green Bay (baie verte), Boise (French for wooded). And that's only French. The United States is extremely diverse in the cultures that made up the places on our map. Your storyworld should be a little diverse as well. Think though the history of your world. Where did the people come from that named things? What language did they speak? And what were their names? So many places in our country are named after famous people. Think of Pennsylvania (named after William Penn) or Louisville (named after King Louis 16th of France). And what about Lincoln, Nebraska? It doesn't just work with cities, either. Think about the Lincoln Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge, FDR Drive, and the JFK Airport.

Simple is often best
When creating a map for a story, it's important to keep a few things in mind. Ask yourself: Are these names memorable? Can readers pronounce them? And do they fit my storyworld? The answer to all three should be yes, nine times out of ten. Really try to make things easy on your readers. Think of these names that are memorable, pronounceable, and and fit the storyworld, and you'll see what I mean.

Death Star, Enterprise, Fablehaven, Firefly, Hogwarts,
Middle Earth, Narnia, Neverland, Newcago, Panem.

Agent Smith, Albus Dumbeldore, Aslan, Bilbo Baggins, 
C-3PO, Captain James T. Kirk, Chewbacca, Data, The Doctor, Gandalf, 
Han Solo, Harry Potter, Kelsier, Merlin, Morpheus, 
Neo, Mr. Anderson, Q, R2-D2, Randall Flagg, Spock, 
Starbuck, Terminator, Vin, and Yoda.

What are some of your favorite place or character names from books or movies? Share in the comments. And if you have a neat trick for choosing names, share that too!


  1. I love it when names have a meaning behind it, like why Sally named her son Perseus. In my book, some of the characters have to change their last names occasionally, because they're longer-lived than most humans. So when one family's turn came around, they changed their last name to "Grant" because they wanted to emulate Ulysses S. Grant's heroism and desire for right.

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Williamson!

    1. Heh... -is a Grant-

    2. Cool! :D

    3. Heh...-is related to another leader during the Civil War-

  2. Hmmm...well, right now I'm doing something that's not so much Middle Earth as Fablehaven/Camp Half-Blood/Hogwarts, where, thousands of years ago, the mages built a series of tunnels underground and used various forms of magic, as well as illusions, to turn them into forests, caves, lakes, etc. I just named this The Paths, since using made-up names didn't fit the theme of my story, and each one is usually just given a number (The First, The Fourth, etc.) or something simple, like the Cavern of Stars. So it's more Percy Jackson-ish in that respect, nothing fancy...but I did use made up names for my NaNoWriMo novel, so I'll share a few here. My story had a lot of Greek-myth elements (plot lines, not gods like in PJO) so many of the names were drawn from Greek myths, as well as from real places, or from Greek/Latin words.

    Caelarinth (town)--from caelum, sky in Latin, and Corinth, place in Greece.

    Archaia (country)--from archaios, old in Greek.

    Calidor (desert)--from calidus, Latin for hot.

    Aquilon (very, very cold region)--from aquilonem, Latin for north.

    Hemera (name of the fantasy universe)--name of the Greek goddess of day.

    Nyx (magical island)--Greek goddess of night.

    Polu (river)--from polu, Greek for long.

    Great post, I'll definitely refer back to this the next time I'm working with a fictional universe! Which might be fairly soon, as my NaNo character has been promised a part in a better novel and is getting impatient…

    1. What a fun story, Ellie. I like The Paths.And how you're using Greek elements in your story.

    2. Thanks, Jill! I've been working on this book for more than a year now and it's finally beginning to come together. Still has a long journey ahead, though. I love working with the Paths because I can actually base them off of real-world places while still having the freedom of writing in a fantasy world.

  3. I've often had trouble naming places, and I sometimes I cheat and just find a correlating word, and throw an 'e' on the end. I'm a naughty namer of things. Other times, I put a word such as 'river' into google translate, translate it into an European language, and change a few letters. In my current WIP, I created a language for the Beautian people with a very precise alphabet. The alphabet only allowed certain letters to flow into certain other ones, so that does help narrow down my options of what to name places. Thanks for the great post! This will definitely help me the next time I need to name places on my map!

    1. This: I'm a naughty namer of things. --LOL!
      And what an interesting idea for creating a language. I like that, Melissa!

  4. This is really interesting! My story that I'm working on has a fantasy world, and lately I've been trying to really give it its own feel and depth. Even if I don't end up making an actual map for my world, I'm excited about formulating its history, culture, and such. :)

    1. Good, Emily! I'm sure you'll come up with some fascinating ideas. Creating worlds is a lot of fun. :-)

  5. This is a really great post!
    I have a city (it's not really a city- it's more a small town) in a book that I've basically given up on. There's only one or two characters that I feel like are actually ones I would want to read about, and the plots kinda generic.
    Anyways, I'm looking for a name for my city. It's supposed to take place in a kind of cross between England and Germany, and I really want a name ending in -shire, but still keeping a British yet German yet modern feel.

    I kind of want a name with a fall-type feel, if that makes sense. I like nut names, too, like Chester for Chestnut or something like Hazelnut.

    Blargh that's a lot of writing. If anyone could help me it would be much appreciated. :)

    Anyways, hi!


    1. How about :
      Hersfeldshire, Ebernshire, Nossenshire, Pinneberg, Walshire, Macademia.

      If you wanted a German name, you could look at a list of German cities and take sounds and ideas from that. Hope this helps!

    2. Fun ideas, Abby. I agree and suggest you look at a list of German cities or words. Maybe you could add -shire to the German word to get your mix?

    3. Thank you! I love those names. :)

  6. Thanks for posting this! So many great naming ideas! Too bad I'm not making a map of a fantasy world right now. :) Sometimes when I name a city or something, I'll go on Google Translate, type in a random word (like 'evil') and translate to English. It seems to work well.

    1. You're welcome! And, yes, I love the internet for such things. Makes life easier sometimes. :-)

  7. My WIP is based on Norse Mythology, so I use a simple naming method, at least usually. I downloaded an Old Norse to English dictionary off of the internet, so, for example, if I wanted to name a fierce warrior, I go about it like this.
    First, I think. My book is largely based around a theme, and that theme is fire. The warrior is fierce. The Old Norse word for fierce is atall, and the word for flame is hiti, according to my trusty dictionary. It can be wrong sometimes, so I double check on the internet. My warrior is thus accurately named Atallhiti.
    And that's exactly what he is. There is a battlefield in my story haunted by the spirits of restless soldiers. Using the exact same method, we come up with either Bjǫðdauðr or Vǫllrdauðr. That literally means "fields of death". Bjǫðdauðrinn would be "fields of the dead."

    Baffled? So was I, till I Googled how to read and pronounce Old Norse. And it turns out there are a *whole lot* of letters that don't even exist in English. I now know some rudimentary Norse, like pronouncing stuff, and some vocabulary, and that you ad the suffix -inn to substitute for the word "the". There are synonyms of course, but so far I've come up with nothing.

    So. It works, and then it doesn't. I could alter the name into something speakable, but then I somehow feel that my story is "unauthentic." Go figure. Many names in my book are of my own creation, but using the real deal can produce some really beautiful names that couldn't describe my story better. That's cause they literally do. Sorry for the long comment. :D

    1. From all your comments I've read over the past few days, your story sounds really interesting. Just sayin'. c:

    2. Jonathan, your story sounds great! I love reading mythology based books and there are not nearly enough out there! Great way of naming characters, too.

    3. I feel your pain, Jonathan. Maybe try to go with a phonetic spelling in the cases where you can't translate perfectly. That way they'll still have the right sound.

    4. I'll try that, Mrs. Williamson. And thanks, Ellie!

  8. Most of the time, if someone makes up language they use latin. For written languages norse runes are also a popular choice. Try applying latin to a book with Elvish in it and you will see what mean.

  9. Jonathan, I second Emily G's comment and no need to apologize for a long comment yourself - it was so interesting! I love Abby's idea using Google's translation tool. That sounds neat! My favorite names are Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, and Faramir and from my previous obsession Luke and Mara Jade Skywalker and Princess Leia and Darth Ani as I call him. I think my next obsession will be Merlin and Arthur. For making up names, I just like to smash letters together until I come up with something that sounds right. Works for me!

    1. Smashing letters together can really work well sometimes, Anne. And I love the name Faramir too!