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World Building in Fantasy Fiction – How to Name Countries, Cities, etc.

Naming places in my WIP is hard. I don’t mean whole countries, I usually struggle alright through those (more detail in a bit), but towns and rivers and little hamlets are the worst! The good news is you don’t need to name everything. The bad news is, when you do name something, it needs to fit and it might just need a little bit more work than you thought.

Before we look at how you name absolutely everything, let’s think about what actually needs a name. You also want to consider your map for this, because you don’t want to have so much information drawn into it that it overwhelms your reader.

The only places you need to name are the ones important to your story.

Let’s use one of my maps as an example:

The only bits I named are those important to the story itself, either because my MC Rachael went there or because their importance was mentioned. Over the course of Rise of the Sparrows, Rachael goes to Blackrock, Arlo’s hut, Aeron’s hut, and eventually makes her way to the White City. It may not look like much on the map, but would you really want to try to make sense of where she is if I had named fifty towns, ten rivers, and three smaller settlements just to make the place appear more lived in? Your map is an excellent way of giving your readers a chance to get to know your country, and of following your characters as they go about their business. That won’t be easy if it’s crowded with all of the names. Your readers don’t need every corner named to know that other places exist.

The other places on the map aren’t being visited in Rise of the Sparrows but they are mentioned, and are important to one or more of the characters; therefore, they needed a name.

So you can breathe easy! Your world needs to be believable, but you don’t need to name everything to achieve it.

Once you know what needs a name, how do you go about finding it? Well, there’s no one guaranteed way to naming your countries, but here are a couple of things you can consider:

What is your country known for?

Rifarne was the first country I named, ever, and I named it early on in my writing process, so what the country is known for has changed a little since then. In this specific example, I eventually went with River, Farming, and Bone (I can’t explain the latter; it no longer makes sense to me)

What’s the primary language of your country?

To ensure credibility, not every one of your countries should be from the same background. Therefore, not every country should sound like a Britain equivalent, for example. So how do you make sure that your countries sound polish, danish, french, or russian?

Well, remember those words you noted down in the step above? You translate them. To use a different example – for my country Hjeva I used the words home and beautiful and then I translated them to Norwegian, Hjem and Vakker. I then played around a little by combining different parts of each word with each other until I had something that sort of resembled a country name. The result was this mess:

Excuse my handwriting… I never thought anyone would ever see this mess!

But what about cities, rivers, mountains, and so forth?

If the steps above worked well for you, you can do exactly the same thing again! I name everything this way, and I’d like to think that it’s served me well so far.

It can get a little messy (see picture for indisputable proof), so I recommend you leave plenty of room in your notebook!

When should I name all the things? 

That’s up to you. Everyone’s process is different, so if you prefer to name your countries first/last, that’s fine. My worlds always feel much more complete to me once I’ve got the names figured out. I am completely hopeless at naming things, however, and tend to leave it quite late. By the time I finished the first draft for Darkened Light I had placeholders all over the draft! That’s totally fine. You can always fix it later, in the edit, so don’t worry too much. Chances are your characters will take you to places you didn’t predict, so you can’t name everything before you start writing anyway. (Unless you’re just that organised. In which case – how?? Don’t the Gods of Procrastination get to you??(Also, don’t forget to leave your draft room to develop and breathe.))

How do you name your countries, towns, and mountain ranges? Do you go with whatever feels right, or do you have a system? Grab a cookie and talk to me! 🙂


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8 Comments

  1. Fabulous advice. I did something similar with Awaken. I played around with Greek words and angel names to come up with my own hybrids.

    • sarinalangerwriter sarinalangerwriter

      I was wondering how you came up with your names. They suit the story and historical context so beautifully!

      • Thanks. I’d hate to be scrutinised by someone who loves their Greek language. I massacred a couple of words!😂

  2. Really cool post! It was really cool hearing about your processes! I have a similar method of playing with foreign words when I need to name things 🙂

    • sarinalangerwriter sarinalangerwriter

      It works so well, and usually I’m really pleased with the outcome!

  3. I’m late catching up on your posts, Sarina! But this is a brilliant one about world building. I tend to go overboard with my naming of anything and everything!
    With Pirate Eyes and its larger world, I went experimental. But for two other high fantasies that I have planned, I used Latin and Greek names. I like having the subtext of meaning conveyed through actual terms.
    With Eléonore, I combined a bit with Celtic and French and some Latin. I’m going to be doing a post about it during my series on writing her 🙂

    • sarinalangerwriter sarinalangerwriter

      I’d love to see your experiments! ^-^ I’ll look out for your post! Or won’t that cover the experiments?
      I do, too. It adds a lot of depths for me, and I like that the readers don’t necessarily know what I meant to say. Like a little secret between me and my world.

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