When reading a fantasy set in a different (non-historical) world or time, I find it jarring if the characters’ names are old familiar ones from our everyday reality. Why would people in a strange time/place have names like Steven or Julia? Also, why would they use the same words to refer to time or distance that we do? Convenient for the writer perhaps, but too familiar for me as a reader.
TIME AND DISTANCE:
In my fantasy trilogy, The Star-Seer’s Prophecy, I tried to evoke a different world in subtle ways. For example, I avoid using our familiar measures of time. Instead of “minute,” I use “moment.” Instead of “week,” I use “quarter-moon.” Many cultures measure time by that clock in the sky, the Moon. For distance, I just referred to how many days a trip took.
And I had fun making up names and words to help evoke a different world. I used two methods for creating these new words: listening/intuition, and research.
For most of my characters’ name, I start by ‘listening’ for a name, using my intuition. Sometimes, that’s it. I get it on the first try, like Zhovanya as the name of the Goddess in my trilogy. For others, I play around with the sound of the name until it fits the character. And for some, the name evolves as I get to know the character better. For example, originally Kyr’s name was Arik (which I believe relates to an old Nordic word for eagle). Somehow, I didn’t like the hard ‘k’ as the last sound of his name, so I changed it to Kyr (“keer” like “peer”), which to me sounds like the high, lonely cry of a hawk or eagle, and suits his character.
Over time, I noticed that there was a pattern in the way I was naming men vs. women, and changed a few names to fit that pattern, though there are some exceptions. You might check out the Cast of Characters (in Book Extras) on my website, and see if you can detect the pattern. I also ‘listened’ for the magical commands used by the Warrior-Mage, Rajani; for the names of magical potions; and for the sacred chants. (See the Glossary in Book Extras.)
In the case of the evil sorcerer-king called the Soul-Drinker, I found his name through researching the roots of words in the Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto. The Soul-Drinker’s name is Dauthaz, which comes from the Old English and Germanic roots of the word ‘death.’
This is also how I created the name of the land where the story takes place, and the terms used at the Sanctuary. The land is named Khailaz, which is a prehistoric Germanic word, ancestor of our word, ‘whole.’ Adding the suffix –itha to khailaz produced khailitha, the root of our words, ‘health’ and ‘heal.’
From this, I made up the words kailitha (divine healing energy); Kailithana (a priestess-healer); Kailithara (healing work of the Kailithana); Kailithos (one who is undergoing the Kailithara); and Kailithama (sacred chamber in which the Kailithana works with the Kailithos).
I don’t recall exactly how I tracked down the roots from which I constructed Aithané (Listener, Confessor), Phanaithos (Speaker, Divulger), or Phanaithara (Divulgence, Confession). I believe they come from Greek roots meaning to listen, and to speak.
A few other words, I just made up. For example, I derived zhan (life force energy) from Zhovanya.
Now, admittedly, I am not Tolkien, creating whole languages, and races of fantastic creatures. My focus is more on the inner world and healing ordeal of my hero, Kyr, than on detailed world-making. However, I did do my best to evoke a different place/time by creating new words and names, and avoiding overly familiar names and terms.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
As a reader, which do you prefer: familiar names and terms; or new and different ones?
As a writer, what is your approach to evoking a different world?