Naming Conventions and Originality

On way home from my day job on Friday, eager to get home and defend the honour of my map on my favourite message boards, I shared the late night bus with a woman and her two daughters. I was minding my own, catching up on the Dresden Files (Summer Knight, book four) when I overheard on of the daughters start talking about writing. Naturally, I zoned in on the conversation. Here is the snipet that caught my attention.

Daughter: My teacher says my writing is really good.

Mother: That’s nice dear.

Daughter: She says that if I apply myself I will be able to be a professional writer some day.

Mother: -Rolls eyes and shakes her head, as if the weight of her daughter’s impractical dream is settling on her shoulders

Daughter 2: -Laughs at Daughter 1

It was a profound moment for me, on a couple of levels. I had a shocking sense of dejas-vous, as if I’d read this scene from a book the day before. It was a glitch-in-the matrix moment that is still etched clear in my mind’s eye two days later. It was a real life cliche, complete with stock characters, absolutely nothing original about it. And yet at the same time I found it powerful and relatable. It was also personally poignant since I was getting ready to defend myself against a few trolls who were trying to stir up some hate by pointing out that the place names on my map don’t sound original.

I put up a sample of my map on Reddit r/fantasy and r/world-building. About 80% of the feedback I recieved was postive, mostly in the form of upvotes. I recieved some useful criticisms of course, and had some nice interactions where I explained my naming conventions. However a few people attacked me with some pretty vicious stuff. Here is a small sample.

I stole my names from WoW and other video games: Thunder Bluff sounds too much like Iron Bluff, Grandia’s Landing sounds too much like Grandia, the title of a video game.

I stole my names from George R.R. Martin. Marius’s Wall is a rip off of Martin’s Wall (Yeah, I know), Grandia’s Landing is too close to King’s Landing.

These are just insulting, but in the interests of argument I posted the reasons for choosing the names for each every place on the map (I’ll post this at the end of the blog). I also explained how place names in the real world functioned and gave quite a few examples.This did little to stem the tide of idiocy, since the trolls really did not have any interest in reading my explanations. However, I did find the excercise useful and a few people read it and sent some cogent observations/criticisms my way.

I then started responding to each and every troll, pointing out the errors in their reasoning and that if they really wanted to be taken seriously they should not start their posts with obvious insults like stealing from WoW or ripping off GRRM. Engaging trolls is risky business, they tend to downvote in packs and are very prone to raging out of control. They could easily do some temporary damage with bad ratings on Amazon or Goodreads. But I couldn’t back away, I feel the need to defend my work, especially against what I see baseless attacks. Everyone has the right to criticize, but ff you are not literate enough to realize that GRRM is not the first fantasy author to use the wall, or think a name like Iron Bluff is a rip off of Thunder Bluff then I don’t feel the need to hold back when returning fire, especially if I offer a two page warning shot and you ignore it. Also don’t force a poorly thought out opinion on someone and try to pretend you are “helping” them if your comments begin with things that most people would find insulting like accusations of theft. 

Eventually I managed to reduce most of the these threads to a common argument. My names just didn’t seem original enough to them. Sylvanwood is in every fantasy everywhere. The whole Red Hills/Iron Bluff/Emerald Cove description paired with geographical feature thing had been done to death. Places named after the historical deeds of the people in the book is just so passe. One person even suggested that I should google every name of every character and place to make sure that it had not been used by a popular author before. And thus I arrived full circle, at cliche again. 

Originality is often put forth as the purest goal of a fantasy author. Names should be in made up languages that evoke a sense of detachment from the real world. I can see the sense in that. But presenting it as a golden rule is complete and utter bullshit. 

Originality is a device in writing, and like any tool it is very good for some uses, but not so great for others. The Domains of the Chosen, the empire in which Bloodlust is set is an actively militaristic, expansionistic, monoculture. After the Reckoning and the brutal wars for survival that marked the early history of the Domains, remnants of other cultures could only be found in people’s names and in ancient records. Other languages just don’t exist, really. The culture-race identity from Tolkien, is absent from the many races of Krass, wiped away by the empire. Thus all of the names save Krass and a few others are at least partly in english. This represents the attitude of the empire towards culture, namely that there is only one culture that matters. This is perfectly in line with the themes of the story in which the enemies of the Domains often end up as fodder in the death-rituals that are the Gladiatorial games. It is a show of power and dominance in a hostile world that they have been waging war with for a long, long time. 

When I considered place names in the Domains, I considered who was doing the naming. Most places are named when the Legions set up camp nearby or the chosen decide to put something there. In this way I did imitate GRRM a little. I think his names (Highgarden, King’s Landing, The Aerie) make sense because they have historical context. The reconquering Chosen don’t show much sensitivity to the ruins that they recover and reconquer. These are harsh people, often settling or fighting in hostile territory. They want to put their stamp on the place and they just don’t care to come up with a flowery, orginal sounding name for the most part. They want a name that glorifies their actions, that implies ownership and for that clarity is far better than orginality. And when a living weapon of mass-destruction wants to name something Sylvanwood, who is really going to argue with them. After all, Alexander the great named dozens of places Alexandria and even one after his dead horse, Bucephalus. No one dared change them while he lived. Now Imagine if he had the lifespan of one of the Chosen. 

I get the idea of originality, I just don’t think it would convey what I wanted to in this case. The scene of the bus would not have been nearly as powerful for me, if it weren’t so archetypal, so relatable, so familiar. I could have created my own naming conventions. I could also have avoided using traditional fantasy races. But that would not convey the character of the Domains very well at all, would it? 

Attachment: my justifications for each place name on the map, excuse the swearing. 

Krass, Karanoff, Kyrof, and Tavalon are the only names that are not at least part english. They represent places the only places that survived the Reckoning, which is essentially the magical equivalent of a full nuclear exchange. The names are slightly exotic, but similar to some real world languages and place names. Naming them something like Aven’en’dar did not seem genuine to me, although some fantasy fans do prefer that style. Most of the other place names are based around the historical actions of the Chosen. The society is ruled by the Chosen, powerful mages who make a covenant with the people of the Empire. These are people who have the strength to make their mark on the world and I decided it would be remiss of me not to have that reflected in the place names of the empire. Many of these people are still around, centuries later, which is why the names don’t suffer degradation.

Here is a list of each name of that type and a brief description of whence it came.

*Balvuk’s Triumph: Where Chosen Balvuk slew a Dragon. It is now something of a resort/retreat. People can visit the old lair and even see the Dragon’s Skeleton.

*Brighthoof Plains: Chosen Brighthoof, a minotaur, makes his home here. Brighthoof is his Gladiator name, mane of the Chosen were once Gladiators and they often had odd stage names that they get stuck with for years and years.

*Bryndon’s Quarry: Once the largest quarry in the domains, now played out and converted into an arena. Named after Chosen Bryndon who is one of those guys who names everything after himself (Fun fact — Alexander the great named a lot of places Alexandria and even one after his dead horse)

*Dun Mordhawk: Dun is a reference to the grey stone of the hills it is built on. Mordhawk is the name of the Chosen. Likely his arena name since it sounds pretty metal. (Mord=death + hawk)

*Grandia’s Landing: The place where Chosen Grandia and her army made landfall when the Domains started expanding southward.

*Scorpion’s Oasis: Part of Chosen Giselle’s Domain. Her arena moniker was the “Silken Scorpion.”

*Sonarion’s Crossing: Chosen Sonarion crossed into Sylvanwood here, winning a battle in the process.

*Marius’s Wall: Named after Chosen Marius, who held the territory while the wall was built.

*Mazurinhold: The hold of Chosen Mazurin.

*Terlula’s Pride: The city is named after an action that cost Chosen Terlula a great deal.

The other names are descriptive of the places themselves, which is actually rather common in real world names.

*The Boneyard is no town. It is actually the area surrounding Hollowfell where a number of battles have taken place, leaving a huge number of bones. The bones are also part of Hollowfell’s defences, since it is ruled by a cabal of heretical (to the Chosen) Necromancers. (Its not necromancy that makes them heretical, the Domains don’t like magic that they don’t control)

*Brightsand Halls is named for the pristine sands that shine in the sun when Chosen Giselle looks out from her massive palace (the hall part) in the morning. Some people might think the name is stupid but they won’t say it to her face, since she used to be a real terror in the arena and now wields more magical power than most Archmagi.

*Bullstock is a huge town where cattle are gathered and processed.

*Camp Valorous is the place where they train soldiers going to the wall. Try telling them they aren’t valorous…

*Cliffshield is a fortress that was built to guard the nearby sea approach. It is is built on a Cliff and Shields the land nearby.

*Dreadwood is named because it is in an old forest that is still wild in places and has unusual magical properties that creep people out.

*The Dragon’s Green is a fertile area watched over by some dragons who have made peace with the Domains.

*Emerald Cove is so named because it is built near a cove where the water takes on an deep emerald hue at certain times of day.

*Fellwatch is a military camp built to watch over the Boneyard and Hollowfell.

*Hillgrave is so named because an entire legion was wiped out here in an ambush from the hills.

*Hollowfell is a city ruled by some necromancers who are enemies of the Domains. Hollow is a geographical feature + fell is evil. The necromancers of Hollowfell resent this label but they wont come out to discuss it for fear of being destroyed.

*Hornwatch is a fortress built to watch for invasions from Sudra’s Horn.

*Lost Avenholt: An area lost to the Wirn. Was originally called Aven (elf) holt (hold).

*The Lost Expanse an area that is a big steppe/grassland that the Domains that covers a couple of Domains that were lost to mismanagement and beastmen.

*Iron Bluff is named that because they mine iron here and it is built on a bluff.

*Irongrim is an ugly fortress with Iron covered walls (why did he build it out of Iron? Why did he build it on a Volcano? because he is Chosen and does not give a fuck)

*The Promise is the area of land promised to Veterans who survive the first, horrible campaigns as the Domains expanded into the magic-blasted lands after the Reckoning.

*The Red Hills is named for the reddish veins of iron in the hills surrounding the mining town.

*Rivergate is a fortress town that Guards an important river.

*Rosehold is named after the amazing rose Gardens of Chosen Artus.

*Sea of Sand. A fairly common name for deserts. Because sand dunes can look like waves.

*The Sky Isles poke up into the clouds.

*Smallrock is a fortress built on a small rocky outcropping.

*Sudra’s Horn is the northernmost point of the continent south of the Domains, which they call Sudra (south)

*The Sylvanwood Sylvan is a word often associated in fantasy with elves or fey.

*Thousand Tongues is a region criss-crossed by rivers and lakes (more than you see on the map) the rivers are like the tongues of a snake when drawn on maps and there are a lot of them.

*Trapholds: The people who live here are trappers.

*The Trials is an ongoing battle really, it has gone on log enough to get a place name.

As a side note, I was already playing with idea of cliche in Bloodlust. Just look for it 😉


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