Constructed Nouns in Fantasy: An Orc by Any Other Name Would Smell Just as Bad

Character and place names in fantasy fiction can be a headache. A friend of mine once quipped that the surefire way to write a great fantasy novel was “to have a dark-lord, a wizard and make every fifth word unpronounceable.” Sadly, it was J. R. R. Tolkien who got the ball rolling on this trend, if unintentionally. Yet we can’t blame Tolkien because what he did was and is very original. The man was brilliant and loved languages; he created more than twenty (!!!) of them out of his passion for philology. What you see in The Lord of the Rings is just a small sample of that work. He was simply reflecting the things that he loved in his writing, and that is a perfect place from which to craft your art.

It was those who either loved The Lord of the Rings or wished to emulate its success that kept snowballing things to the point that extensive invented languages (along with “fantasy races”… a topic for another post) are today considered by many a “requirement” of fantasy fiction. I have seen so many would-be authors become swallowed-up in fantasy world-building and language crafting that their stories are lost in the morass, or they move on to something else in frustration… All because they feel that it is “required” for their fantastic world. I’ve been lost as a part of that legion in my own past.

Simply put, I am not Tolkien. I don’t have his insight, knowledge or passion for philology… And it’s likely that you don’t either. Nor should you; Tolkien’s passions were his own and shouldn’t be used as a standard that fantasy writers have to live up to. They might not and do not have to be your passions. Nevertheless, you would be amazed at some of the guides for writers I have found imply the opposite.

I do want my stories set in another world to have something that feels unique and alien in their prose on occasion, however. Something to show that it isn’t our world, speaking in our own language. It’s just that spending years learning the art and science of constructing languages before I can write my story just isn’t on my agenda… So what’s to be done?

I’ve seen two major schools of thought on constructing words for imaginative fiction. Many authors create “fantasy sounding nouns” by mashing existing words together to form compound words. Examples: Dragon + Dale = Dragondale. Rune + Claw + Dagger = Runeclaw Dagger. “You must take the Runeclaw Dagger to Dragondale!” It’s not an entirely bad method because it’s easy and the results are usually grammatically consistent so long as you don’t mix different languages. However its ham-handed overuse has made it a tired trope in fantasy fiction, and if you write about a Dragondale you can rest assured that so have many others.

Art by fey-fae-whatever
Art by fey-fae-whatever

The second major method that I see used a lot to create “fantasy nouns” is gathering sounds together until you have something that works for you. Or use a random name generator to punch out words until you find one to use or modify. Then you can have Ellel, Beorthwy , Thrinarv and Gwindore save the The Magocracy of Linevriand! This method isn’t entirely bad either, but if you are looking for grammatical consistency it isn’t going to be found with it alone. Its overuse also leads to the “every fifth word unpronounceable” problem.

My current strategy for constructing nouns is kind of a mixture of the two methods above. Sometimes I’ll start beforehand knowing how I want a word to sound (harsh, soft, short, etc.) and craft the sounds to reach that end. Another frequent trick of mine is to find a real world noun from a language or culture that matches in whole or in part what I’m going for in my imagination. I’ll then change and modify the name until sounds good and feels unique. For example, if I envision a city that has a Dutch feel, I’ll do some research on cities in the Netherlands and then pick a few names to extrapolate from, or a Dutch surname or other Dutch language source.

Sometimes, I will take words that I have modified or created and compound them into a composite word, but I try to avoid doing this with straight English. If I don’t even have an inclination of where I want to start with a noun, I’ll browse lists and word generators until something catches my imagination. Then I’ll work and play with it until I’m happy with the way that it sounds; until it fits.

I minimize problems of grammatical consistency by using my constructed nouns sparingly where I can. If it’s a sword, I call it a sword. If it’s a cinquedea sword, I call it a cinquedea. To that end I use my constructed nouns mostly for character and place names, and not so much for mundane objects unless they are special or unique things/creatures. Another tactic I employ is describing how a language sounds without going into the specifics of linguistic detail. I’ll use things like “…there was an exchange of guttural consonants between the trio” or “‘Are you injured?’ she asked of him in the rhythmic meter of the language.” I let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.

I try to keep my constructed nouns short too, three or four syllables at most if I can help it. I enforce this personal rule doubly so for character and place names that I am going to be writing a lot! The warrior’s full name might be Axelmitronyral, but if I’m writing (or even just reading) this story he had better go by his nickname “Axel” 99% of the time. Following this rule will not only save you typing time (It does add up when you write a name hundreds of times in long fiction) but it will also help you to avoid the “every fifth word unpronounceable” problem as well.

Here are two examples from my work so far on The Pool of Sacred Stars:

First, I created the name for my protagonist Oris by punching the “B” out of the Russian name “Boris”. That’s it… I just liked how it sounded and it fit him.

Second, there is a hobgoblin weapon called a grhi in the story. A nasty thing “best described as the offspring of a scimitar and an oversized serrated cleaver.” it had its name inspired by the Gurkha and their famous signature weapon, the Kukri. I worked the sound of it until it matched the feel of the hobgoblin language I had in my head (that being mostly harsh sounding guttural consonants).

These are the tools I have in my writer’s toolbox at present to create “fantasy nouns”. Feel free to barrow or modify my concepts as you wish, and if you have any tips of your own that would like to share please feel free to add a comment. Take care and keep writing!


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