Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Worldbuilding 101: Naming Places

So, today, I want to talk a little bit about world building. One of the things I love most about writing in Sci-Fi and Fantasy is the world building. I love being able to create whole worlds out of words. Massive forests with trees that reach impossibly high, where gazelle like creatures roam about on eight legs, dodging the sharp eared elven hunters. Great, star spanning empires with space ships the size of cities that explore black holes, or dive into the core of a sun to mine plasma in order to harness its power in their war against the walrus-tusked aliens known only as the Klar. I love that kind of stuff.

Of course, those are just outlines, sketches of the world where a story or novel will take place. The key to world building is in the details. And today, I want to discuss one specific detail, which is the names of places.

As a long time D&D player and GM, I’ve seen all kinds of strange and fantastic place names, many unpronounceable or just gibberish in order to make it sound fantastic and/or magical. And I cringed whenever I saw it. And then I cringed even more when I saw those kinds of place names in novels.

You know the kind of names I mean.

The city of Koblidakadan.

Malichinorthia, capital of the Ruoaen Empire.

And just like these overdone examples, they usually are long. And the issues I have with this is that when you look around at the real world, and see what we’ve named places here, you find that humans are pretty unoriginal when it comes to naming places.

Hilltop. Riverside. Mountain Pass. White Sands. Central City.

These are common names for places, especially small communities, like farm villages where many fantasy heroes come from. And for bigger cities? Well, if you look, you’ll find that most of them are named after people. So, yeah, name your capital cities something that is not common words, but try to make it something that fits your fantasy countries culture. Let’s look at some real world examples.

Washington, named after one of the founding fathers of the United States.

Paris, named after the people that first lived there, the parisii.

Moscow, named after the river it’s next to, it’s name latterly meaning the City by the Moskova River.

And let’s look at my favorite place for this kind of thing. China.

From Wikipedia:

"Beijing" means "Northern Capital", in line with the common East Asian tradition whereby capital cities are explicitly named as such. Other cities that are similarly named include Nanjing, China, meaning "southern capital"; Tokyo, Japan, and Đông Kinh, now Hanoi, Vietnam, both meaning "eastern capital"; as well as Kyoto, Japan, and Gyeongseong; now Seoul, Korea, both meaning simply "capital".

My point here is that you don’t need a fantastic sounding name to make your place seem cool. Stick to realistic sounding names for your human populations, at least. You’re world will look a lot better for it.


  1. Very good points! I had such a great time creating the planets and characters for The Chosen. I tried to keep things somewhat simple but I also wanted to stretch a little and think of how different other alien races would be from us and what sort of grammatical rules would they have for naming people and places? I came up with the rules and then started naming based on those. II think I had just as much fun creating my worlds as I did writing the actual book!

  2. Great Piece. When I am world building, the first thing I do is draw a Map. I try hard to make my Cities and countries workable. After all if you can't read it, then you don't know where you are!

  3. @Shay, that's awesome! I also try to keep things consistent within a culture. Making rules like you describe really helps.

    @Tiger Princess, I love maps. I once wrote a fantasy novel where I drew the map first, and drew my character's journey on it, and the map ended up becoming my outline. One day, I need to go back to that novel and finish it.