by Brenda W. Clough
If you have been following along, we have discussed naming regular folks, and also generating names for fantasy and science-fictional purposes. But wait, there’s more. Whatever or whoever your characters are, they need a setting. A country, a town, a space ship, a country-western bar.
As with other names, there is a major divide here — the ones that exist in the real world, and the ones that you make up. In this day of interconnectivity, it takes maybe five minutes to find the top-rated Chicago-style pizza restaurant in downtown Ulan Baator or the highlands just outside Luang Prabang. Just fish it up off of Yelp, and send your characters over for a pie and a brew. You can probably view the menu on the restaurant’s web site, look at the street facade through Google, and email the owner for permission to reproduce the sign on the book cover.
But sometimes it is preferable that a place not actually exist in the real world. Your plot may call for activities — a downpour of electric eels, let us say, or an invasion of zombies, or five generations of sex-crazed dictators — that an existing polity would dislike being involved in. Or it might be too much work to research the history of Mexico for the past fifteen centuries. adjusting your novel to fit into the interstices of reality. If you could just make it up it would be ever so much easier. Then you could tailor the history to the plot rubbing out kings, marrying off princes, and calling up hurricanes at will.
So you need a new country. You could begin by picking a language. Luang Prabang is the ceremonial capital of Laos, so it is a Laotian name. Or pick a region. If you know the thing is set in Brazil, start digging. It wasn’t always called Brazil, was it? Could you recycle an older name, or a version of an older name? Suppose instead of naming it Brazil you blended the name of two contiguous countries? There is no reason why it couldn’t be Eastern Bolivia, is there?
A place on earth should have a regional sound. South American countries sound different from ones in Asia. The time period also has its effect here too. Rhodesia was named after Cecil Rhodes, but they don’t call it that now. Think about why people named the place. Were they honoring the Queen (Virginia, Queensland, Victoria), naming it after home places (New York, New Brunswick, New Haven), trying to impress people with their intellectual chops (Memphis, TN, Cairo, IL, Athens. GA, Rome, NY) or what? I had a culture name a planet with a series of highly pacific names (Aloha, Caritas, and so on) because that was how they rolled; Klingons would do it different. Why is Provence called that? It is from the Romans — it is ‘province’. If you were a Roman the place was our province, the first and oldest one, that needs no other designation because it’s been ours for millennia.
This also applies to ships. Human vessels tend to be named after objects events, or persons that are respected or commemorated. Scope out existing lists to see how they do it. Would future humans do that? Would aliens?
But the best names are tied to the thing or place or story itself. I loved it, in Heinlein’s Time for the Stars, when because of advances in quantum physics the very latest FTL spaceship is named the Irrelevant. That’s the rule: that all your names tie into the work and propel the story along. Do that (and shove all the names through Google, don’t forget) and you are golden.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.