World Building: Fantastical Nomenclature

The other day KidLit quoted yours truly on character: “Relatable doesn’t mean generic.”

Of the dozens of queries I read every day, so many begin with “Susie Q. is your typical, everyday teenager, until..” Hold up, before we get to until, I have to know: why typical? Is anyone ever truly typical? A person may appear familiar from the outside, but once you know their souls (and your reader *should* know your characters inside and out), you find they’re a host of ticks, dreams, influences, and idiosyncrasies. The most memorable characters are full portraits of-  hate to say it-  special little snow flakes. So don’t make yours a drip.

Now. The same rule applies to naming invented elements of your world. Many of you (us) are writing genre fiction: real people with real feelings in unreal circumstances. When creating your villain, magical guild, ancient prophesy, don’t settle for familiar terminology. Chosen one, brotherhood, even the term magic We’ve heard and read these words so many times they’ve lost their shine. J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkein, and George Lucas got away with Dark Lord (which, you know, as a phrase…snore), but your invented terms should be just that- INVENTED, unique to your world and your vision. The reason those three writers can get away with Dark Lord is because they populate their private universes with such original creations. (Personal note: Lavender Brown may be my favorite character name EVOR.)

When I was writing Girl Parts, I knew I wanted a shadowy figure to pursue Rose the robot. For awhile he was just “the guy with the gray hair.” In later drafts, when I understood my story better, I hit upon the perfect name for my villain: Coleo Foridae (sounds Greek, Charlie thinks), A quick Google search will bring you to coleophoridae, a breed of moth that feeds on, you guessed it, roses.

At the Writers League of Texas conference last weekend, a first-time author pitched me her dystopian novel. I hope she won’t mind me divulging a few details. She opened with this phrase: “In the future, children are taken to the Menagerie.” Immediately I was hooked. Menagerie. What a cool word! I wanted to know more. What is the Menagerie? Who built it? What happens to children there? We discussed her project, I gave her some thoughts on the story, then we parted ways. As she left I realized I *had* to run after her. I had one more small, but crucial, note: Her book also featured a cabal of overlords called The Order.  I begged her, please change that name! The Order is too generic, it tells us nothing, but lacks the mystery and shimmer of the Menagerie. The author agreed, and I saw that writerly sparkle of fun in her eyes. She was imagining a new name, one that was hers.

World building can be the fun part of the everyday hell of writing. Your book may have magic in it, but it’s your magic, so give it a name as thrilling as your tale.

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