Magical World Builder's Guide
By, Stephanie Cottrell Bryant
The Magical World Builder's Guide is a tool for creating a fantasy universe. Although there are several good guidebooks to creating a science fiction world, few deal with the quintessential elements of a fantasy realm. This guide ambitiously attempts to help fantasy authors discover their realms long before they sit down to the keyboard and fill in the details.
In addition, I've written a much-beloved 30 Days of World Building tutorial designed to help you hit the ground running with your world building in just a few minutes a day.By popular demand, you can now download the Magical WorldBuilder Guide in three easy-to-carry (non-DRM) formats:
- PDF for printing out at home or reading on a computer
- ePub for use with many fine ereader devices
- MOBI for use with Kindles and MobiPocket software.
Fantasy, like all fiction, is a function of the imagination. One common element in fantasy fiction is magic, a mysterious force which breaks normal physical and scientific laws. It has been said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and this is certainly true in fantasy. Take the example of the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Although based on a science fiction premise, these books share a fantasy flavor by the effortless use of instantaneous travel, or teleporting. In fact, the Dragonriders series has three points of magic: teleportation, telepathy, and time travel. These three magical points are all based around the dragons of Pern. Although some non-dragonrider humans can telepathically communicate, they do not share the teleportation or time travel abilities of the dragons and fire lizards, which can go between.
In another classic fantasy example, Ursula K. LeGuin's Wizards of Earthsea can use many types of magical spells, but they all rely upon names. Any object or creature to be magically manipulated must have a known name, which the wizard uses to command that creature's essense. Wizardry, then, is the study of names, and the responsibilities inherent in knowing another creature's name. So, if a wizard wishes to teleport a rock from one space to another, he must know the rock's name, and possibly that of its destination. This system seems to work best for enchanting creatures and objects, transforming them into other objects, and ensnaring them. Telepathy seems unlikely in this kind of world. Calling down pure magical energies is also unlikely, although calling lightning is not (and who is to say that the one is really less destructive than the other?) The fantasy worlds of Dungeons and Dragons are a popular magical base for much of fantasy fiction, especially novels based in the D&D worlds. However, these worlds have a definite "D&D" flavor to them, which anyone familiar with the games can recognize. Starting with the common player character classes (fighter, ranger, paladin, mage, cleric, druid, thief, bard), these novels are rife with gaming references which non-gamers (and gamers who are tired of such unimaginative creations) find irritating. Perhaps one of the most common problems with these novels is the fact that they rely so heavily on the exact same system of magic. I'm going to refer heavily and often to my gaming experience as I write this manual, but my object is to make it possible for other authors to create new systems of magic that are as rich and diverse as that provided in the D&D books.
For basic world-building, start with a map. Draw your map from anything, but remember that the natural world is full of irregularities. Sometimes, drawing a continent based on the stain a leaf left on the sidewalk after a storm is better than trying to make one up yourself.
Similarly, when and if your characters ever enter a village, city, or settlement, they will find that, for the most part, these are rather chaotic and "natural" formations themselves. Trust me; if you've ever been to Europe, you know that many of the towns seem to be built on a meandering cowpath. There are many reasons for this kind of street structure, not the least of which is defensive. But the primary reason is that the road was there before the buildings were, and they follow natural lines and geographical formations. Only in great empires (and attempts thereto) are straight lines used. The Roman roads were so phenomenal and so frightening because they were a straight line from departure to destination; the Romans did not let geographical barriers keep them from their objectives. Similarly, many American cities were built on clean, straight lines, to reflect an orderly lifestyle that was hoped for in this frontier. Further west, and in many of the midwestern towns, cities didn't just happen; they were planned out meticulously. Salt Lake City and Washington DC are two wonderful examples of cities that were planned out before they were ever built.
Once you have your map, decide on a technology level. Sure, you don't want your fantasy characters to have guns (or do you?), but what about cannons? Crossbows? Swords? Plate armor? Chain armor? Kevlar? What about ships: are primitive longboats the dragons of the seas, or do huge galleons rule and pillage through piracy and "privateering"? Are there paved or cobbled roads, or do people just follow the cow paths from one town to the next? How difficult or dangerous is it to travel, and what kinds of hazards exist?
If you go for a low-tech world, expect swords, spears, and polearms to be normal weapons. Remember that animal populations were a little less controlled, but natural predators culled off the weak. The "runt" of the litter of pigs wasn't a pet (see Charlotte's Web), it was a spring meal. Rarely would you have people bonding with their house cat, although favorite hunting and working dogs were often given special treatment.
A mid-tech world might be something like Earth at the turn of the century. Communications systems are becoming reliable due to the telegraph, and factories provide jobs for many many people. But working conditions aren't necessarily humane, and people still have (and will always have, in any age) conflicts with other people, and with themselves.
Finally, a high-tech world can be fun, especially when you add fantastical elements to it. Just beware of adding too many unreal elements to your story. A high-tech world in which traditional magic also works had better approach the subject of magic in a fairly straightforward manner, or the reader will be too confused by the introduction of both advanced technologies and magical principles.
Some worlds, you'll notice, are very magic-rich. Everyone has some experience with magic, and wizards are not uncommon. In some worlds (Piers Anthony's Xanth and Weis and Hickman's Darksword trilogy), everyone on the planet has a magical talent of some sort, and some lucky individuals have more than one. Although commoners are still uncomfortable with powerful mages (who isn't, given the possibilities), they don't stone him on sight. In this kind of world, cultures which fear or hate magic have found some outlet or method for dealing with wizards. Perhaps children with strong magical talents are hustled off to become priests (the equivalent of military school for scholastics). Perhaps they are killed, although in a magic-rich world, that amounts to a lot of bodies. Sometimes, they are merely exiled, and nearby kingdoms or cultures will have a higher incidence of magical refugees from such an intolerant area. Similarly, in worlds where everyone has a magical talent, those born without such talents may have a special stigma associated with them, and become outcasts, or just embarrassments.
A magic-rich world may or may not have magical items of any significant power. If one were using the standard AD&D gaming system, it would stand to reason that a high number mages means a lot of magic items. But that needn't be the case. It could take huge amounts of magical energy to create an item; more than any sane mage is willing to spend on frivolous things. Such items would be very rare, and very personal to the magician wielding them. Magically-enchanted weapons and armor would rarely exist, as it is an unusual mage who has time to learn how to use such things.
On the other hand, an average-magic realm could be rich in magic items. Take, for example, the world in Margaret Weis and Tracky Hickman's Rose of the Prophet series. Here's a world in which all magic comes from either items, or from the Immortals (genies, angels, devils, and other minions of the gods). Here's an unusual situation in which a wizard must use the magical energies charged into certain items (scrolls, potions, charms, etc) to cast even the most simple spells. But all wizards learn how to make such items as part of their training. These items are not permanent magical items, but tools for spellcasting which must be present when the wizard seeks to shape magical energy. The only other way to achieve magical effects is through intervention by the Immortals. And while some of the Immortals serve the humans directly, others are forbidden by their gods to communicate with any but the most devoted worshippers. In kingdoms where assistance from Immortals is common and direct, pure, magical spellcasting is less prevalent. The mortals have seen less reason to research new methods for casting magic, and so many of the more powerful spells have been lost.
A magic-poor world is one in which few people show any magical talent at all, and even fewer get the training to use it properly. Magicians and wizards might have formed an elite class, ruling others by virtue of their power, or closeting themselves away with their books and tomes. They are respected, feared, but not loved. They are rarely sought for magical assistance, because most people can get by without magic, thank-you-very-much. However, this poses an interesting dilemma as the protagonist discovers his own magical powers, and the frightening depth of his abilities (Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule series and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time are great examples of this kind of wizard-elite world).
Similarly, a wizard in a magic-poor world could be an outcast, hunted. In fact, any wizard not willing to become a part of the elite group may find himself in that circumstance anyway. In AD&D's Dark Sun world, there are three types of wizard spellcasters: Dragon-lords (the rulers of each desert city), preservers, and defilers. The dragon-lords are an elite group of highly powerful magic users who have risen to power. Defilers use a magic system which literally blights the land, leaving barren desert in the defiler's wake. Finally, preservers use magical energy gained from themselves only, and do not leave behind this kind of magical damage. The result: both defilers and preservers are hunted by the elite dragon-lords, who view them as competition. Because of the taint of defiler magic, all magicians are suspect in the eyes of the mundane populace.
Remember, though, that if a world is so poor in magic, that any two wizards travelling together should have some reason for doing so. In other words, it's unlikely that a fledgeling wizard (just discovering her powers) will conveniently be travelling with or in the company of an experienced wizard, unless one deliberately sought the other one out for some reason (the novice wanted to learn, the mage was neutralizing a threat, whatever).
The same is true in any world, actually. Although a higher incidence of wizards is more likely in a magic-rich world, that does not necessarily mean they will be companions.
Your mythical bestiary need not be extensive. Having run several AD&D campaigns, and having written many, many worlds with a variety of races and character types, I firmly believe that the most nefarious creatures in the world are human, as are the most exemplary and heroic. When I use non-human races in my stories, they are either presented as "similar to human cultures, with minor difference" or as a foil to human societies. Fantasy fiction is written by and for human beings, and we are the center of our multiverse. Therefore, alien (or mythological) societies should show us different facets of the human experience, and teach us in some ways how to deal with the alien-ness within our own world.
That said, there are some common stereotypical fantasy beings which you may or may not choose to use:
- goblins and gremlins: mischievous, evil, pranksters. Goblins are rarely a serious threat; they are the class clowns of the world.
- elves: tall or short, they are willowy figments of beauty. Tied to wilderness areas, they are usually masters of enchantment and illusions, and they are very long-lived
- fairies and dryads: These are more on the primitive, mischievous, goodly sylvan dwellers. They are often portrayed as female, wearing diaphanous materials (the movie Wizards does a good job of representing fairies-as-militant-defenders.)
- dragons: enormous, lizard-like beings, dragons are usually quite awe-inspiring, and inherently magical. They may range from sea-monsters to winged serpents of the air. They might breathe fire, or nothing at all, and they run the full gamut of good or evil. However, good dragons seem to be incapable of evil acts, and vice versa, traits not shared by good and evil humans.
- dwarfs: dwarf and dour; they seem to go hand-in-hand. Dwarves are short, stocky humanoids who spend a lot of time mining, and don't get out much. They are almost universally portrayed as male-- some speculate that is because females are indistinguishable from the males.
- orcs, ogres: These are large, smelly humanoids who find smashing and eating good humans a fun thing to do on a Saturday night. They live for violence, and participate in violent orgies for the fun of it.
- unicorns: attracted to virgins (for some reason) or maidens, these equines have a single horn growing from their foreheads. They are generally portrayed as the epitome of purity, but they are also wild and elusive creatures.
These are just a few of the denizens you can have in your lands. Naturally, you could take any aspect of humanity, twist it around, and make it into a culture or species. Remember, though, that individuals may not represent the whole race, and the friendly dwarf who hated gold makes an interesting (if comical) secondary character for your fantasy story. Too many "individuals" turns your story into the "misfits anonymous" club, but that's sometimes just the right premise for a comical fantasy novel.
Building a fantasy world is just like building a science fiction world; keep in mind the world's gravity, age, and formation as you build it. But then remember that magical accidents can be as environmentally damaging as a meteor. Nearly every fantasy world with magical abilities has some sort of mysterious magical accident in its history. From the ever-popular magical wars to the birth of magic in the realm, they're all there, as both a source of mystery (and geographical aberrations), and as a warning to those who would wield such powers in the present day.
In some realms, these magical accidents have created great, desert-like spaces, barren of life and (often) magical energies. Others create magically-charged areas, where the magic is so strong it mutates and transforms the inhabitants. Finally, some magical cataclysms are far enough into the past, and all magic has since "evened out," making whatever lands were warped no longer so. However, rivers, mountains, and even continents may havebeen created or destroyed during the cataclysm, and where once was the Lost City of Anadolia is now the Deep Ocean Blue.
If a magical cataclysm is a part of your world, then you'll need to know exactly where this event occurred in relation to your story, both chronologically and geographically. In Mercedes Lackey's Velgarth series (Valdemar et al), the Mage Wars left an enormous crater in which lies buried the weapons of the ancient wizards. Nearby, magical energies have so warped a forest that many of its inhabitants are twisted parodies of what they should be. And the "present day" stories occur some 4000 years after this cataclysm, when another such event is imminently approaching.
The cataclysmic history of your world should play a part in the story, or not exist at
all. Even if your characters only encounter it as a warning from their magical training days,
it should play a role in your characters' lives. After all, perhaps that warning serves to bring
a power-mad protagonist into perspective as she realizes what she could do with so much
magical energy. Or a great struggle ensues as the characters must cross an area which has
been magically wounded in some way.
Magical Systems: Different Types of Magic
There are four basic types of magic that have been portrayed in books, television, and games. The first is the "classic" magic, or sorcery. Sorcery consists of manipulation of the world through a mystical energy which is unexplained and unexplainable. This energy might be the "Force," mage nodes (unseen rivers and streams of magical energy throughout the world), magical naming, incantations and rituals, music, or some similar casting method. In general, this kind of magic is characterized by spells, which are basically the exercise used by the wizard to manipulate that energy.
The second type of magic is of divine origin. These are priestly miracles, and they range from creating water in the desert to healing the sick and injured. The power is granted from the gods themselves; the human caster is simple a conduit for the god's power, although he or she might have other abilities as well. In AD&D, the priest class of character has very specific spells he may ask for from his deity; these are usually granted straight-out, but may be withheld if the caster has offended his deity recently. Another example of priestly magic can be seen in Mercedes Lackey's Vows and Honor series. The Star-Eyed goddess grants her followers (especially her few priests) a very few, specific spell-like miracles. Some examples are the godfire marks on Tarma and Kethry's hands to the Spell of Oathbreaking. However, in most societies, even in fantasy worlds, divine intervention is a rare and precious thing. It usually comes in the form of visions and dreams, rather than direct spells, and the healing knowledge possessed by clerics is pure knowledge, like that of a doctor or surgeon, not a god-granted gift. Priests are therefore respected scholars, and the bearers of the words of their gods. But they are not usually spellcasters (this is not the case in AD&D, and is one of the things which makes up the unique "flavor" of an AD&D novel).
Finally, psychic abilities are the last type of magical phenomena which can be used directly by characters. These abilities are drawn from the mundane world of parapsychology. Also known as psionics, mind magic, and mental talents, they range from ESP to teleportation, and all phases in between. Because of the scientific experiments done in the "real world," psychic abilities may also appear in pure science fiction, and certain paranormal abilities do not contradict known scientific priciples, although they do challenge them. Who is to say, for example, that there is no way a person could see something from a distance; we do not know that there is not a sixth sensory organ which, like the appendix, lies dormant in most people?
The fourth type of magical phenomena has already been discussed; magic items. Entire series have been written around the sagas of magical items and the people who wield them. And for the most part, they are immensely popular books. However, good fiction is about people, not things. Unless your characters are at least as interesting as their inventory, there's no story. Trust me. So, when you have the hero being gifted with the Great Sword of Destiny (it's usually a sword, by the way), make the Sword into a tool for the hero's actions, not the other way around. Or, to quote one of my favorite lines from The Man in the Iron Mask, "I wear the mask-- it does not wear me." For an excellent discussion of "inventory-as-plot," read "The Well-Tempered Plot Device" by Nick Lowe-- it's a terrific critique of "magic coupon collecting" science fiction and fantasy stories.
Bottom line: Your hero must be in control of his destiny. He may despise what he is destined to become, or he may fear the future, but he must ultimately be in control of himself and his item of power, or you might as well leave out the hero and focus only on the sword itself.
Having discussed types of magic, I'd like to propose a few possible wizards from magic systems you might use. Some of these are stolen or adapted from other sources. They are intended as a starting point for your own creativity. Take the suggestions and then embellish upon them. No one wants to read a story using the exact same magic system as another favorite author. By changing these basic systems, you make them your own.
This is the classic AD&D system of spell casting. The wizard has a book in which he has written down his magical formulae. Anyone with the proper knowledge or training can decipher those formulae and use the spells, but it takes literally years to learn how to read magic (or it requires a spell). Someone without the proper knowledge and training who tries to use such a book will, at best, merely fail. At worst, he will cause a major magical accident, of the kind which turns your face permanently blue (in the case of a comedic fantasy novel), or ensnares your soul within some nefarious device (in slightly more serious fantasy).
Mage's background: The spellcaster is a scholar, and a specialist in arcane and unusual knowledge. This person not only knows about magic spells, but has unusual knowledge of other curious subjects. Subjects might range from the geneology of werewolves to the origins and interpretations of the Prophecies of Methaine (or whomever). These bits of unusual knowledge may or may not become useful in the course of the story.
Your homework: Write up the spells known by the mage, which are in his spellbook. They should be appropriate to his character: a pacifist is not going to have a lightning spell, for instance, just as a combat mage will probably not have enchantment spells, regardless of how useful those spells would ultimately be. Avoid using AD&D books for these spells. If you really need ideas, look at the Great.Net.Spellbook and adapt a few from there. The AD&D spells are too well known to gamers to be used without recognition. Remember that this system of magic uses formulae; those formulae may or may not have words, movements, or material items required for the spells to work. Or, working the spell from the book may be as simple as reading it from the book itself. However they work, remember that your mage has a limited repertoire to choose from.
Hedge-wizard or Herb Witch, Wise Woman
This kind of wizard uses natural magics to manipulate the world. Herbs and potions are her tools of the trade, but she can get by with something as simple as a sharp look and a well-placed threat. The hedge-wizard is especially attuned to the natural state of the world. These kinds of magicians are distinctly uncomfortable inside cities, of course.
Most pre-modern communities had a wise woman or wise man who knew the properties of plants, and their uses. The notorious Baba Yaga was a natural witch; she was distinctly tied into a natural world, filled with beneficial herbs, as well as poisons. Unfortunately, these herbalists and witches were also the first to be blamed when the crops failed, or a child mysteriously disappeared. As a result, a common conflict for these wizards comes not from within themselves, but from the communities they have always served. Also, these kinds of magic-users often conflict with other sorcerers, especially those who use "book learnin'" as the foundation of their magery. Hedge wizards look upon these sorcerers as unnatural, because they do not understand the natural rhythms of the earth.
Character background: The character is an herbalist and a healer. He or she is an accepted member of the community, although he is also feared by the more ignorant or superstitious members. He often lives alone, or with a mundane partner or spouse. Animal familiars are a common feature of this kind of witch, who can brew a poison as easily as she can make a healing potion.
Your Homework: Decide what kinds of potions and charms are possible, and to what degree of effectiveness. Given the geographical region in which this wizard lives, are the herbs available which he would normally need for certain magical brews? What does she need to cast a spell, and what does she normally charge to do so? How much of her magic is real, and how much is just "head magic," or tricking someone into believing that it's real? If it's all false, then how does that make the witch feel about herself and her magic? Does she look down on her ignorant customers, or does she fear that they will one day uncover her secret? Finally, is she hiding a greater magical power by pretending to be a minor hedge-wizard?
This kind of wizard summons the spiritual essences of others to do his bidding. Djinni-summoners, necromancers, elementalists, shamans, and spirit-dancers. These wizards summon spirits-- be they dead, animistic, elemental, or djinn in nature-- to perform tasks for him or her. Spell effects include transporting items, summoning other items into existence (as the spiritual servant fetches the item from elsewhere), directly affecting others (the spirit is ordered to somehow prank the other person), and so forth. Rarely can the spirit caller polymorph or transform creatures or objects. Similarly, their abilities to not lie in mind-to-mind communication. Although air sprites, for example, might be used for long-distance communication, the message, like everything the mage does, will be translated through the lens of the spirit's own experience. Direct effects, however, can be quite powerful, although spirits are naturally hesitant to put themselves in direct danger through such effects. An earth elementalist can summon an earthquake, while a necromancer might employ undead minions to do his dirty work.
Information gathering is one of the strong suits of the spirit caller. The spirits have information which those who dwell in the seen world do not. Water elementals would easily track a pirate ship, air elementals can see everything the sky knows, and the secrets of the dead are not safe from the probing questions of a necromancer. So, to, is it with the shaman or spirit-dancer, who summons the spirits of ancestors or of the natural world to answer her questions. Spirit calling wizards are privy to knowledge and information which normal mortals cannot access.
Your Homework: What do spirit callers in your world do to summon their spiritual assistants? Is their relationship one of master-servant, partners, friends, owner-property, parent-child, or something completely different? Who is the dominant party in the relationship? What dangers exist with this type of spellcasting system? If the spellcaster becomes the servant of the spirit, what happens? What dangers exist for the spirit, and what benefits, to make it return to the spellcaster?
The essence manipulator is a classic mage, shaping an object's raw essence by his spells. Essence Manipulators may or may not have formulaic spells, but they rarely rely upon spellbooks during casting.
The mages from The Wizard of Earthsea are good examples of energy manipulators, as they use the name of their subject to manipulate their essence. Similarly, the sorcerers of the Belgariad series by David Eddiings simply use single-word command to cause the magic to do their bidding.
The inherently powerful nature of this kind of magic makes it ripe for abuse. Consider how dangerous it is to be able to use a creature's essence not only to help the creature, but to harm it. Also, does affecting a creature this way remove it's free will? The Dark Crystal has some potent scenes, in which the Skeksies suck out the very essence of the local inhabitants, to brew potions of longevity for themselves. There's a perversion of the essence manipulator, for these Skeksies know how to access a creature's essence by subjecting that creature to the Crystal, but they do not know how to use that essence for anything but harmful ends.
An essence manipulator can not only transform his subject, but he can also enchant or charm her easily.
Character Background: Essence manipulation is probably an in-born talent, something which may even be hereditary. Nonetheless, essence manipulators must be well learned, in both the skill needed to perform the manipulations, but also in the self-control and responsibility inherent in doing so. Good mages will be highly ethical in their use of this ability, and may have special codes for using their powers. Evil or untrained mages, such as the Skeksies, will be in the position of literally having control over others' free will, but without the ethical or moral dilemmas that such control should entail. They will be just self-controlled enough to manipulate the magic, but will happily use and abuse others to achieve their goals.
Your homework: Determine what method the essence manipulator uses to cast her spells. Does she say a word (a common method), write down her commands, or simply focus or meditate? What kinds of spells can she cast? What limitations, real or imposed, are there on her magic? What kinds of moral and ethical rules has she set for herself, and how are those rules enforced by the spellcasting community? Finally, what are her preferred methods of using her magic? Does she prefer to twist a monster into submission, make it sleep, or shrink threats down to a more manageable size (like 3 or 4 inches)?
Energy wizards use the world's available magical energy to perform magical tasks. By far one of the more common magic systems, these wizards might draw energy from unseen sources, stones, power items, forests, music, blood and sacrifice, or some similar source. This kind of mage works best in an ambient-magic world, in which magical energies are available, though not necessarily accessible to ordinary humans. The "Force" from Star Wars is a classic form of ambient magic, and Jedis are Energy Manipulators (although they are also much more).
Energy manipulators can use the raw magical energy to strike down foes, weave it around their subject in an illusion, draw up protective barriers, and even open gates from one magical area to another (teleporting). Perhaps they can use the energy to enchant someone, although you'd have to come up with some methodology or reason (music would be a good energy source for that, since it is already so enchanting). Energy manipulators may or may not be good communicators, telepathically or long-distance, depending on the nature of magical energy in your world. If a world has a wild, untamed magical force within it, then communication may be too difficult. But if magic is like the "Force," and is tied to all living things, than the slightest push or fluctuation of that Force can be felt by any talented mage, making it a viable and instantaneous communications method. It really depends on whether or not you want communication to be as easy (or easier) for your characters as it is for modern-day email and telephone users.
Character Background: Like the essence manipulator, the energy wizard is usually born with the ability to sense and use the magic available. Similarly, a little education is a dangerous thing for these wizards; an untrained energy mage could easily flatten a castle, lacking the self-control to handle the magical energies himself.
Energy mages are likely to form groups, just as essence manipulators are, based on their ethical views on the use of magic. Uncontrolled magic use is dangerous, not only to the wizard, but to the people around him. For energy mages, it is also dangerous to the source of magical energy, which they must all share. Thus, they might form organizations to regulate the use of this energy source, and to prevent others from misusing it.
Your homework: How much magical energy is in your world? How many people can access it? Is it common, or uncommon? Are there places where the energy is strong and weak, or is it uniform? Are there cataclysmic events in the past which have changed how the magical energy is distributed?
What kinds of things can an energy wizard do on your world? What misuses of the power are there? How are energy mages treated by other wizards (energy wizards or other sorcerers), and what kind of training do they undergo? Do the energy mages organize together to regulate the energy use, or do they jealously hoard magic from each other?
Most of this world-builder's guide is dedicated to building the physical world, and to building magical systems that make sense. But a question was raised to me recently-- how do you come up with names that don't make your readers laugh at you?
Note the question isn't how to name things so that your reader doesn't laugh. One need only read a good Terry Pratchett book to earnestly want to create names that make your readers laugh. Nope-- the question is how to keep your reader from laughing at you, the writer. Because, let's face it, all too many names in fantasy literature are convoluted to the point of absurdity.
So I pondered this question recently and came up with the only answer I was comfortable with; don't invent a name, invent a culture. See, names are the most visible and vocal component of a society, a culture. Humans name everything-- the planet they're on, the things they eat, touch, do, love, hate, kill-- everything. They name each other, and they name the places where they live. And all of the names that humans use are born from our constant fascination with language-- we're always inventing language and have been pretty much since we became homo sapiens.
When you start populating your world with sentient people-- whether they're human or otherwise-- start addressing the question of language right away. It's an awful lot of work to create a whole new language for a culture of people who don't exist, never have, and never will. Tolkein did it-- more than once-- but he was a linguist by training, a genius, and for him, it was a ton of fun. If you love inventing whole languages, then have fun with it. If you're like me and just want to slide in a few new words because they sound "right," then do that. By all means, though, create a lexicon for your fantasy world's languages, though-- if the people of the S'nnari Desert tend to liquid sounds (lots of r's and l's), then any word with a "k" sound should be somewhat foreign to them, or have a particular impact when they say it (as in a curse word). People often say that German rarely sounds "nice," and it's somewhat true-- many hard sounds in the German language give it a much harsher "sound" to Romanized ears. The Star Trek producers were not stupid when they created the hard-sounding syllables of Klingon, either.
I can't suggest too many resources for this, except that Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook has a chapter on sound that is amazing. It's all about the sounds of words-- the differences between vowels and different kinds of consonents, and what effects they have in poetry. Use this, or something like it-- Oliver actually took most of her information from an old primer on language she had lying around her house. Learn about how language sounds.
You can also feel perfectly justified stealing liberally from Earth worlds and languages. In fact, that's what most writers do. In fact, that's what Tolkein did; most of the Lord of the Rings is a re-told version of the Rheingold, but without all the sex.
Most of the time, you'll be writing in your native tongue, and so you'll have automatically "translated" whatever your characters are doing into the language you're writing in. You need to know what your characters' language sounds like only for those words that you want to add in, to give an exotic flair to your world. In general, these will fall into three categories: people, places, and things. Verbs, being very abstract, should not be presented in the fantasy-language unless it's absolutely necessary. Even then, try to make those verbs sound as close to your own language as possible.
One other resource that can be valuable in your search for good names: Baby name books. Both for parents and, now, more generic ones for writers. I have two naming books that I find helpful-- one lists the names by cultural association as well as first/last and male/female names. The other one is a book specifically geared towards naming fantasy characters. [watch this space for an update of the book titles and authors.]
Your Homework: Listen to how different syllables sound to you. Do they excite you? Do you associate a particular sound with an emotion or place or memory? Write down some generic preferences for your languages-- "I want the language spoken by the elves to sound like water, and the language spoken by the dwarves to sound like gravel rubbing together" and then go listen to what those things sound like. Write down the syllables you hear when you run a faucet or sit by a stream-- use those sounds when making up your Elven names for places and people and things.
An interesting thing about fantasy novels is that there are almost always characters with unusual-sounding names doing amazing deeds in far-off unpronounceable worlds. Another interesting thing is that a bad name can ruin an otherwise-decent novel. Think about it-- do you really want to slog through 500 pages of epic storytelling about Ffrinnithelia the Ubiquitous? If you've ever read the Elric Melnibone novels, here's something you may have noticed: most people in the real world call him "El-ric." Why? Because they can pronounce it!
Give your characters names that you can pronounce. Easily. Quickly. And if that doesn't work, make them embarassed enough about their names to shorten them to a nickname. Ffrinnithelia suddenly becomes "Frin" or "Lia." Some families, no doubt, will tend to longer, more impressive-sounding names. Perhaps there are even some non-human races that prefer the more elegant touch of a barely-pronounceable name? But when these folk get into a tight situation, or they come to know someone well, they will drop some formality and use a shortened version of their name pretty darn quick.
In English, a long name is anything with 3 syllables-- very few names have 4 or more. That's a good cue for your own writing; 3 syllables is a long name to the English-reading public, so have a good nick-name handy.
In my own fantasy writing, I tend to prefer short names with a simple combination of vowels and consonants, and I always shorten the hero's name to one or two syllables if I can.
The caveat, of course, is that in many cases it's entirely appropriate for your character to have a longer name. The fantasy world would be nowhere without pompous officials who insist on adding useless syllables to their own names, in hopes that it makes them more impressive to those around them. Or wizards who seek a memorable name or epitaph to add to the mystique of their own powers. And, of course, in any good comic fantasy, you'll just need to have that grab-bag of rambling monikers to play with! Just remember to keep them appropriate: Harry Potter is a success in part because the supporting characters all have names that are appropriate to their two-dimensional portrayals (the Malfoys, for example? "mal" being a latinate for "bad" -- NEW! See the Resources section for a link to a page about Harry Potter names).
Don't forget, of course, that many many many names on Earth are taken from religious figures. The most popular male name in the world is Mohammed, and that's not a coincidence. If your world's culture has a particularly strong spiritual system, then the names found in those theologies should crop up frequently in your characters' world.
And what about those last names? In your comic fantasy, that last name is often the punchline, but what about in a more serious novel? Until the Renaissance, last names were usually taken from the place you were born or came from (Chretien de Troyes), your occupation (or your father's occupation, like "Smith" or "Scribner"), your father's name ("Ericson," and all the Mc and Mac Celtic clan names), or an epitaph you had adopted because of something extraordinary that you had done (William the Conqueror). Many surnames still around today are descendents of those earlier names.
Your character's surname can be something like that-- or you may decide that your character (or perhaps even most people in your world) needs no surname at all. That's fine-- but know before you start writing whether or not your hero is unique for lack of an identifying surname-- and if so, what stigma may come from that.
Your Homework: Who were your hero's parents? Who named him? Pretend you are your hero's father or mother and name him the way they would have named him. If your hero is without parents, or has chosen his own name, picture yourself in his shoes at the moment he named himself-- was he proud and taking on a name worthy of himself? Or was he casting off a shameful past, looking for a name that would be a fresh start?
Despite what Ursula LeGuin may have titled her novel, in most cultures, the word for world is dirt. Whatever your people call their world, somewhere in their far-away past, that world once meant "this dirty stuff underneath our feet."
But what about other names for places? Most smaller places, villages, hamlets, borroughs, and crossroads are named for geographic features that are nearby. So, it's perfectly acceptable to call your hero's hometown "Leftcrook," which once identified it as the crook in the stream that ran left. Did you know that Oxford is actually named for a ford? Fords are important to pre-industrial societies-- they are low points in a river or stream where people and animals can cross without a bridge. The same is true for woods-- "Greywood" might be an appropriate name for a particularly dark and deep (and, dare one hope, haunted?) forest. And don't forget the potential for humor in your namings: one of the great ironies in California is a lake called "Clear Lake," the largest freshwater lake entirely inside the state's borders, and, by all accounts, a murky affair that is not very clear at all.
Aside from geographical considerations, places may also be named after the people who founded them-- or the people who inspired those who founded them. Thus we have Washington, D.C., Rome (after Romulus), and Benden Weyr (in McCaffrey's Pern books). This is very popular for towns that were deliberately settled as towns, and were not settled first as agricultural collectives that grew later. If you have a particularly influential (or simply arrogant) king in your world's past, his name might be imprinted on many places and in many different ways. One village might be called Thorinswood, after King Thorin the Conqueror, while a nearby town is Thorinton instead. When King Thorin was finally ousted, the new regime tried to change the names back, but of course language resists change in interesting ways, so Thorinswood remained, but the town is now "Thorton" instead.
A similar naming scheme is to name things after religious figures. How many cities in your own province, state, or region can you identify as having been named after a Catholic saint? The largest city I live near is San Francisco-- named after Saint Francis, and part of a rich tradition of Spanish missionaries in old California. Again, ask yourself if there are saints or demigods who would be honored most by having a city named after them? The myth of how Athens, Greece got its name is a good example of a city mythology you can create for your own world.
Your Homework: Take out the map you made and sketch in a few names. Do you have a large mountain range? What do the inhabitants of your world think of when they see that massive line of menacing earth? Is there an important city in your adventures? Who owns the city, and what kind of history has it had? Come up with at least 5 places that you might refer to in your story, and write down their names and how big or small they are, who lives there, etc.
Imagine that you're writing along, spinning your story out, tremendously pleased with yourself, and then you stop. Your hero has just sat down for a meal and a fermented beverage of his choice. What's he drinking? Ale? Beer? Wine? Champagne? Yes! Champagne-- he just killed a dragon and wants to celebrate! Wait-- champagne is a distinctly French word! It has no place in the S'nnari Desert! Ack! What now?
Well, you've got to come up with either a different beverage to celebrate with-- perhaps a more humble glass of wine or (for those desert-dwelling dragonslayers) fermented camels' milk (koumiss). Or, you can invent a new word for sparkling white wine. Well, where is your sparkling wine from? Obviously it's not a desert wine-- the carbonation would never hold up well in your arid climate here. Ah, so it's foreign, even to your desert-bred hero! Okay, then. Where's it from? Err..... the north? Check your map-- who lives there, and what kind of language do they use? Well, you find that you'd put a rugged, barbarian warrior-tribe there, but that's okay-- even a barbarian can make a sparkling wine, if the conditions are right. Your barbarians speak a kind of gutteral, Klingon-like language, do they? Well, what would they say after drinking a cup of your sparkling wine? Yep-- you've just invented what the barbarians call "burp-juice," but to your hero's desert ears sounds like "braak-nos:"
Dravin shook the dust off his travel-cloak and crouched in the tavern tent. "A cup of your finest, my host!" The host brought out a fragile bottle of braak-nos, the fabled sparkling wine of the Northern barbarians, and poured him a shining goblet full....
They say that the Eskimos have 500 words for "snow," and no one doubts it-- obviously, snow (and its subtle differences) is very important to Eskimo tribes. What might be important to your world's cultures? Can you imagine that a race of inherently magical creatures might have 50 different ways to describe a magical current? Do your elves know a hundred words for "song?" Do your dwarves have 80 words for "rock," but 200 for "gold?" Think about the many synonyms your cultures might have. Even if your hero never encounters the 200 different ways to say "blood" in orcish, some fifty or sixty might still exist in the place names used by the villages that were once dominated by the orc clans.
Your Homework: You've got a good idea of who your characters are, where they're going, even the kinds of magic they might encounter. As you write, think of two or three little objects that your characters would find alien enough to use their foreign names. Now decide-- what do the people who made those things call them? Go back to your map and your sounds again-- what sounds do you associate with the people, and what sounds would they associate with the object? Finally, is it a common or valued enough thing to have more than one name? And if it is common, might it be used to name places as well as things?
To look at my bookshelves, you would think I were a 13 year-old girl, just getting out of the "unicorns and fairies" phase. My fantasy shelves are filled, double-deep, with wonderful paperbacks filled with wonderful worlds. I revisit these worlds on occasion to remind myself of the great stories and realms contained therein.
Aside from your standard fantasy paperbacks, my shelves also contain a shelf or two of "oversize" hardbacks. These are something between art books and reference guides. They range from a hardbound copy of The Unicorn to D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths (a must-read for anyone interested in Greek mythology). I have books on knights, fairy tales, Mother Goose, and Shakespeare. Some of my books, like Fantastic People, The Ultimate Maze Book, and The Goblins of Labyrinth are guidebooks to seeing how other people and other cultures imagine the unimaginable. I refer to these books infrequently, but I am comforted by knowing that they are at my beck and call, whenever I need a good fantastical creature or villain. They are my bestiary, if you will. And there are all too few decent books in this collection on magical systems.
From Writer's Digest Books:
The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference (Introduction by Terry Brooks). Includes some chapters on magic and paganism, as well as commerce, trade, clothing, castles, and real-world cultures.
Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy Includes a chapter called "The World-Builder's Handbook and Pocket Companion."
World-Building, by Stephen L. Gillet. This is indispensable. It's a GREAT resource for how to make a physical world that makes sense.
Aliens and Alien Societies by Stanley Schmidt. Haven't read it yet, but it should be applicable to fantasy races as well as science fiction aliens.
Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Actually, any decent baby name book will do-- make sure it lists the meaning of the name, alternate spellings, and origins. The Character Naming Sourcebook lists names by country/culture, so you can select names for characters that are from roughly similar cultures to make sense.
The Writer's Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe by George Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier. Another good one for physical world-building, defining where the mountains belong, etc.
Non-Writers Digest books:
A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver -- Good, understandable resource for how words sound. Also useful if you're inventing languages and cultures, so you can write poetry for your gnomes.
Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies. They also have books on life in medieval cities, etc. All-around helpful resource.
All of the Brother Cadfael mystery novels by Ellison Peters are great-- Peters is a trained medievalist as well as a novelist-- her books are often required reading in college history courses.
What's in a Name? The Guide to Harry Potter Name Etymology has some great information on where the names in Harry Potter come from. Go! See how a master storyteller does it!