For the past couple of weeks, the focus on the blog has been examining the pros and cons of using IRL settings as a backdrop for your stories and those created from scratch by the author.
This week is a follow-up to the second of the two, diving into one of the most important aspects of your setting: names.
Naming locations in fiction has similarities to naming characters, a process in which there's often a surprising amount of consideration at work. These tips can apply not only to smaller areas like a town or village, but larger regions like countries or continents and terrains like bodies of water or mountains.
As often is the first segment in posts like this, among the things to consider when naming your setting is the genre in which it is found.
Every genre has its associated conventions. Fantasy writers are typically expected to create worlds from scratch, whether that means adding in a magic system, intriguing creatures, or a vibrant kingdom, and the name of their realm is expected to reflect that. The town names in works of historical fiction should be relatively accurate to the time period and region. Horror settings might have innocent and inconspicuous names to create the sense of peace soon to be shattered, or be called something that embodies terror and fright to come.
A post-apocalyptic novel may have characters running around what used to be a small town in France where the locals still refer to it by its pre-apocalypse name despite its being given a ton of nicknames by various groups of survivors, just as a dystopian could be a revamped map of the US and set in a region known as Dakota because North Dakota and South Dakota were merged into one state.
Understanding the tones readers anticipate when picking up a book in your genre can help you decide on the name of its setting.
There may also be some crossover or complete disregard of established “rules” within the genre.
A comical fantasy may weave its mystical and magical elements into the streets of a contemporary city reminiscent of Madrid called Magia. Contrarily, the author could go with something not even remotely related to the world for a bit of irony, like Snakesville in a town where snakes went extinct after a radioactive disaster, or the City of Oceanica for a landlocked region with a population of two-hundred people.
Think about the settings of popular reads within your genre and any you particularly fancy for guidance. What defining features make its genre obvious to its audience?
My settings are usually hybrids blending factual settings with fiction. While I have used real-world locations like London at the core of my stories, I tend to favor inventing towns settled in real locations, like a fictional village in Derbyshire.
When naming locations like this, I’ll often pull up a list of towns within that county and see what patterns exist. Syllable counts, prefixes and suffixes, and lengths can provide some ideas as to what could feasibly exist and what seems too far out of that neck of the woods to be realistic. Sakura City, for example, may not be as believable in England as it would be in Japan.
Even though you’re creating a fictional setting, drawing inspiration from real-world locations can help you in naming it.
Mix It Up With Mashups
Some place names are derived from preexisting locations—sometimes, more than one.
Several books I’ve read from different authors center around places called New Vegas, each exploring a dystopian or alternate reality of Las Vegas.
Similarly, Disney’s Big Hero 6 is set in San Fransokyo, blending the aesthetics of San Francisco and Tokyo.
If you’re using IRL locations as a foundation for your fictional setting, slipping their names into that of your setting can make it easier for your audience to step in and orient themselves because they go in with a sense of familiarity, whether this means the way things are for them now or the way things were.
As writers, we strive for a sense of authenticity. When we invite them to explore the worlds we create, we ask them to suspend their belief and go along for the ride, to believe that at least for a moment, these fictional lands truly exist.
One factor influencing how a reader interacts with this fictional world and believes in it is the name it is given.
But it also relies on how your characters interact with their surroundings. In many ways, your character is put into the role of a guide for your reader’s understanding of the story, whether the story is told directly from the character or from an outside narrator apart from the events.
It’s possible that your character gives their hometown a nickname tourists don’t use, or vice versa.
It may also be that your character uses a name for their world that we don’t, even if it is a place that exists.
Many countries have names in their native language that differ from what they are called in English. For example, India may be called Bhārat in Hindi.
Similarly, names evolve overtime. It might be the result of power changing hands, or language evolving, and other circumstances.
The Last Kingdom displays not only the modern-day name for settings on screen in scene transitions but what they were called in the ninth century. This way, viewers can get their bearings while maintaining historical accuracy.
Another route for naming your settings is to name them after someone, whether they are a figure found in our history books or someone known only to your character’s universe.
America is named for Amerigo Vespucci. Jamestown was named after King James I.
Referencing notable figures can help build the history of your setting, showing what moments of history and values its culture considers important, and the reputation those figures have can be another outlet to explore the evolution of society.
On a smaller scale, this can also work for roads names, parks, and other spots found in your settings. Local celebrities may end up having a street renamed in their honor, while a new playground may be named in memory of a child who lost their battle to cancer. Traditionally, US Presidents are honored with a library in their name after their time in office.
Building The World
Lastly, one source of inspiration I’ve drawn from more than once is the world itself.
What is that place known for? Climate, exports, terrain, and wildlife associated with the region can all be great launching points.
A fishing town might end in "–port" or reference the kinds of fish caught and sold in that region.
The sports teams of a high school in my hometown are called The Whalers because the area was once a thriving whaling district; a few businesses use "Whaling City" in their names. You'll also find Nutmeg popping up since Connecticut is nicknamed The Nutmeg State and Charter after a famous oak tree in Hartford where Connecticut's Royal Charter of 1662 was secreted away to avoid confiscation by the English governor-general.
Consider the traditions and folklore of your story's setting both past and present.
If hunting is a popular pastime or necessity for survival in your setting, mentioning the prey in the name can make it stand out. Foxhunting in Foxbury is easy to remember.
Panem in The Hunger Games is taken from the Latin Panem et Circenses, meaning Bread and Circuses. Basically, the phrase relates to the rich neglecting the dire needs of the commoners and the poor in favor of their own interests, embodying the way the Games are used as a means of distraction and entertainment despite the history surrounding them and the conditions of the various Districts throughout the nation.
Embrace the things that make your setting unique, and what you might want your reader to know as soon as they enter that world.
Settings are as individualistic and unique to a story as its characters, so naming them should be given a similar amount of care. Names sometimes come to writers instinctively, but they can be trickier to pin down. The intricacies of the process can pose a fun challenge, and finding the perfect one can feel like a triumph.
Next time you’re stuck, experimenting with one or more of the above ideas can provide the launching point you need.