How to Invent Fantasy Words

This post is similar to one that I wrote a while back for Mythic Scribes. But I wanted to write another post with some tips for inventing words and names for fantasy, and next week I’m planning to do a similar post about how to write technobabble for sci-fi.

So here are some of my tips for creating convincing words for your fantasy stories:

Use a real language as your base.

J.K. Rowling is famous for using Latin and Latin-esque-sounding words. How about the spells of “lumos” and “nox” to create light or make it dark? “Lumi” is Latin for “light,” so “lumos” isn’t much of a stretch; and “nox” means “night.”

Especially if your fantasy world is inspired by or reflective of a real culture, then go ahead and use the language for inspiration. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien based the people of Rohan on ancient Viking culture. Many of the words used were either Old Norse words, or based on that language.

Read your words aloud.

A lot of people fuss about the propensity of fantasy writers to create names that are completely unpronounceable. If a reader has no clue how to pronounce Lrkk’sian’wehqi, they will simply learn to recognize that collection of letters and know that it means “this is the hero’s love interest.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, and most die-hard readers of fantasy are accustomed to reading crazy, made-up words. However, if all of the words in your story – everything from character names to place names to the food and animals – are long, complex, confusing, and unreadable, you might want to scale it back a bit.

Stay consistent with sounds and styles.

Éomer and Éowyn. Not only do their names reflect the spelling and style of other names used in Rohan, but the close similarity helps remind the audience that they are family.

This is part of why I suggest to read your invented words aloud. Every language and culture has its own unique set of sounds and rhythm. For example, you don’t have to understand a word of Chinese or of Swedish, but if you hear the languages spoken, you can tell they sound very different.

Creating a convincing fantasy culture should include consistency in the words and names. You don’t have to go as far as inventing an entire language that people can actually converse in, like Tolkien’s Elvish languages or the Klingon language from Star Trek. But the sounds should be consistent.

Is your fantasy culture harsh and war-like? Short one- or two-syllable names that use a lot of sharp consonants like K and T and R could work. If your character names are softer and use a lot of vowels and apostrophes, then the place names should probably sound similar.

It’s okay to use real words.

Don’t shy away from using standard fantasy trope words like “light,” “dark,” “shadow,” “king,” etc., especially if you’re writing high fantasy or a similar sub-genre. With invented names for characters and places, it’s easier on the reader if you use normal real words for normal stuff. Unless it’s absolutely vital to the plot of the story that a castle is called a “dorpofal” in this world, then just stick with “castle.” That way the reader can focus on keeping all the characters, creatures, and magic spells straight, and not have to remember that when they’re riding towards the dorpofal they’re actually just headed for a castle.

In Star Wars (which is more fantasy, by the way, than strict science fiction), “real” words are used just as often as the made-up ones. The word “knight” conjures up a notion of heroic good guys; so even before the audience learns all the details about the Jedi, they can understand that Jedi Knights are the good guys. Same with the Dark Side of the Force. No fancy words to keep straight or figure out how to pronounce. The audience can devote their mental energy to the story, characters, and remembering names like “Vader” and “Palpatine” without having to remember what the bad side is called.

 

I hope this helps you writers out there in creating convincing and memorable (and not too confusing!) names for your fantasy stories!

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2 thoughts on “How to Invent Fantasy Words

  1. Terrific advice. I find it really interesting how some words that start out in the world of fiction end up becoming mainstream. From “Muggles” to “phaser”, the dictionary (or at least our everyday colloquial speech) has definitely grown over the years thanks to such. It’s fun to think about what as-of-yet uninvented words may do so in the future, too.

    xoxo ♥ Jessica

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    • That’s such a good point, Jessica – and that sounds like the topic for another blog post down the road. Thank you for the idea! 😉 As much as we credit Shakespeare for adding words to the English language, let us not forget that without JK Rowling and George Lucas we wouldn’t be saying “muggle” and “lightsaber” on a regular basis. 😛

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