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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? They 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 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 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 letting your readers get to know your country and of following your characters through the story. That won’t be easy if it’s crowded!

Your readers don’t need every corner named to know they exist. Trust them–they know a country has more than what you’ve named!

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:

Rifarne was the first country I named, and I named it early on in my writing process. What it’s 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. As I said, it’s moved on.)

Not every country should have the same background. Not every country should sound British, for example. How do you make sure that your countries sound polish, danish, french, or russian?

More importantly, what if you want to base a country on a long-dead civilisation but don’t speak the language?

The easiest way to create names based on ancient civilisations is Scrivener. Scrivener has a name generator, and you can pick any language you want. Hawaiian? Ancient Sumerian? Coming right up!

If you don’t have Scrivener, come back to the words you noted down above. Translate them.

For my country Hjeva I used the words home and beautiful, and then I translated them to Norwegian–Hjem and Vakker.

I played around a little by combining different parts of each word with others until I had something that resembled a country name. The result was this mess:

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

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 it’s served me well so far.

It can get a little messy (see picture for indisputable proof), so leave plenty of room in your notebook. The more room you leave, the more space for combinations you’ll have!

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 more complete 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 add your new shiny country names later in the edit, so don’t worry too much. It’s what the placeholders are there for!

Chances are your characters will take you to places you didn’t predict, so you can’t name everything beforehand anyway.

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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Published inA Writer's Musings


  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.

  4. Thank you for this guide. It’s going to help me so much. I sometimes am good at pulling names out of thin air, but other times I’ve been relying on random name generators for inspiration. The tips you’ve given here make much more sense and still require your own creative juices.

    • sarinalangerwriter sarinalangerwriter

      You’re welcome, Gary! I hate naming things, it’s the aspect I struggle with the most but the steps above make it a little easier 🙂 Before you decide on a name, I recommend googling it to make sure nothing offensive is already named after it 😉

  5. Ghee Ghee

    Working on a contemporary romance. Named a fictional town in Texas as the setting. Over half- way through I decided to Google said town. Surprise, there is an actual town by that name. Can I still use it? Should I?
    Enjoyed your blog.

    • sarinalangerwriter sarinalangerwriter

      I’d say you’re fine! I doubt my parents were bothered that there’s an Australian town with my name when they named me *shrugs* So many names are already taken anyway, it’d near impossible to come up with something completely new. All I’d say is to make sure your invented word isn’t offensive in another language 🙂

  6. Željko Matuško Željko Matuško

    You have a secret map on your nail on that picture where you holding a notebook 🙂

    • sarinalangerwriter sarinalangerwriter

      Well, I’ll be damned, so I do! :O

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