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World Building: Naming places

May 17, 2012

I hate naming.

Here’s the full disclosure: I’ve been a pseudo-literary writer for a long time. I’ve tackled fantasy on and off, mostly in abbreviated longer works, because I find that the genre lends itself better to bigger stories. It does because I’m a dedicated, if not particularly great, worldbuilder.

Recently I’ve begun moving into the outlining phase of things (when not distracted by Diablo 3), and this has reminded me how much of a slog worldbuilding is to me. I’m a characters and relationships guy. Thrust back into the world of dealing with my protagonists (I’m playing with multiple perspectives, if only because I liked them before I read Game of Thrones), I feel much more natural. I make networks of relationships, identify themes, create antagonists (who, of course, are more complicated than that. One of the benefits of multiple perspectives), figure out how multiple perspectives can work (for instance: in the first Game of Thrones, every PoV character is together at the beginning. New characters are introduced only when new, important factions appear, and the character had always been featured prominently in previous chapters), and do plot stuff. This feels natural.

Naming places, though? Not natural.

My big trouble is naming the antagonist nation to the north. Their language is a combination of Slavic and the sounds of Mongolia. They bear elements of both cultures, as well as French (clearly, world-building is combining influences until things are unrecognizable). They’re rather important to the story, so they need memorable names, but it’s hard for me to conceptualize what they should refer to themselves as. It’s gotta be punchy, of course. It’s got to be a name people can remember, and one that doesn’t sound stupid.

As it is, I’ve three named and defined countries (fortunately, one of those is where the story actually takes place). I’m a little worried things resemble Italy too much (I’m drawing on a lot of the history of the early 20th century in Italy, before and after the first world war), but that’s okay: there’s plenty of different influences, and if people can stick so closely to English history, certainly I can go off the rails with Italian history.

Here’s the thing, though: very little of this matters too much in the first third of the story. I know it’s coming, of course, but the first part of the story’s going to be smaller and quieter, to establish the local conditions. This is not a novel of nations, but rather of a particularly contentious one, one fragmented, healing from war, and falling quickly into others. I’m more interested in the local landscape than I am in the multinational one, except for setting those things up.

The personal journeys of my protagonists are more important. I’ve got a half-dozen characters who I really like, and their stories are the most important ones to me. And that’s the part of the story I have best: their hopes, dreams, aspirations, loves, hates, and rhythms. They’re character I love writing about, who do things that I often disagree with. They’re in awkward situations: a theme of the novel is that characters are stuck inside old machines that are vestiges of a dying way of life. They’re fighting becoming obsolete, which I feel is a very modern theme. They’re realizing no one has any answers, that horrible things are going to happen, that they are powerless to stop them. The ways they react to this problem vary individually, but it’s a theme.

See, these things come easier to me than naming. What the hell to call Napoleonic France with the hat of WW1 Germany by any other name?

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