Have you ever read a book that was full of stuff you’d never heard of? By stuff, I mean made-up names for places or things in the author’s imaginary world. Maybe you were reading SciFi. Maybe it was fantasy. Maybe it was another genre. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is whether or not these made-up words took you out of the story. Did you have to think every time you came across the word? Did you have to remind yourself what it meant before you could picture what was happening?
Nothing bugs me more than made-up names that make no sense and, therefore, cannot be remembered. I’m not referring to character names here. It’s the reader’s job to keep up with the book’s players, though I will say that becomes a challenge when everyone’s name starts with the same letter. For example, I love Stieg Larrson’s Millenium trilogy. I really do. But almost every person in the story has a last name that starts with a B, and when you’re an American, sloppy speed reader like me, keeping them straight is a big fat job. A similar book is Dr. Zhivago. So many P names. There was no spotting the first letter and knowing who’s in the scene. I had to concentrate, which, now that I think about it, wasn’t such a bad thing and could be why the author did it. Way more likely, though, the names were simply appropriate for the time and location of the stories (and I should quit whining and stay tuned in).
But I’m not here to blog about that or to criticize any author’s nomenclature. I mean, who am I to do that? What I do want to do is praise the writer’s I’ve read who got it exactly right. In other words, all their made-up words work because they make sense.
I’ll start with Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. First, I want to say right out that I think Collins is brilliant. What a tale she has spun. Love, hate, fear, loyalty, betrayal, death, victory. It’s all there, and the amazing thing? It’s so easy to step into the world she made and feel what her characters felt. I give full credit for this to her skill in weaving together things we know with things we can barely imagine. And her nomenclature is a big factor in this.
For example, if you read the word trackerjacker in the appropriate context, it is very easy to guess that you’ve just met a killer insect. Tracker in a deadly situation such as Katniss’s is definitely ominous. Paired with jacker, which brings to mind yellow jackets, it’s downright scary. I hate to be stung by anything, okay? So I cringed when I saw trackerjacker. It couldn’t be good. It just couldn’t be. And it wasn’t.
Another example from the clever Collins is mockingjay. We know what a mocking bird is and what they do. We’ve all seen and definitely heard blue jays. By combining mocking and jay, Collins has given us a noisy bird that taunts the players or tributes as they’re called (in another stroke of genius). According to Merriam-Webster, a tribute is something you say, give, or do to show respect. Another meaning is an exorbitant charge levied by a person with power of coercion. While tribute isn’t a made-up word, it’s the perfect choice to describe the citizens from each district who have to fight to the death. President Snow, the leader of Collins’s fictional Panem (the perfect name for this ravaged country, by the way), pretends that the tributes are simply showing respect by participating in the Hunger Games. The tributes know very well that participation was never optional and the ending will not be pretty. One word; two shades of meaning; readers who get it.
I could detail more instances of Collins’s clever choices, but I want to move on to the Queen of Nomenclature—JK Rowling. I know I’m not the only reader fascinated by her creativity. There was a much-publicized lawsuit over an unauthorized Harry Potter lexicon containing all the made-up names of characters, ghosts, spells, and critters in her series. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes or break the law. What I want to do is point out how her made-up names usually makes sense in that they conjure an image based on familiar allusions or root words.
Honestly, there are so many that I don’t know where to begin. I’ll focus on my favorite terms in no particular order. First is Diagon Alley, the magical place where Harry shops for school supplies. Diagonally, itself, makes me think of something that isn’t straight, something sideways or askew. When she split the word, it became perfect for a street just a little out of the ordinary. Directly opposite to the fun of Diagon Alley is the danger of Knocturn Alley. Nocturnal equals night equals dark equals scary stuff. No explanation needed for the shady area where the not-so-nice wizards hang around. A third favorite is Dementors. One look at that word, and I knew I was about to encounter some bad, bad dudes.
Then there are the spells. Alohamora to open doors. Expelliarmus to disarm an opponent by sending his wand flying. Cruciatus to inflict excruciating pain. And let’s not forget the wildlife, those wonderful animals with their perfect names. Hippogriff, grindylows, blast-ended skrewts for example. So easy to imagine because of Rowling’s inspired word choices.
In addition,many of her characters have names that match their personalities—Luna Lovegood (big hearted girl who’s just a little loony), Professor Gilderoy Lockhart (he’s gilded, a fake), Severus Snape (definitely severe and not a little snaky). The list goes on and on.
I have a series of paranormal books that have some made-up names for things. In particular, one book, Wolf Way, was about a fictional Native American tribe. Since I didn’t want to disrespect anyone, I tried to avoid all Hollywood clichés, beginning with the name of the tribe. I didn’t want to use a real tribe that might be insulted by a mention. So I dissected actual tribal names and shuffled until I came up with Quantauk, which I then Googled and didn’t find anywhere. Of course, that was years ago. If I Googled again, the result might be different. The bottom line is that I came up with a word that reminded me of Quapaw or Mohawk, well known tribes, without actually using (and accidentally disrespecting) anyone.
The point of this blog? I think there’s a good way to create your fictional world and a not-so-good way. While the creativity and fun of making a new word cannot be denied, don’t get carried away. A glossary isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially in fiction. It never hurts to link a new word to something the reader knows. An instant mental picture can result, which makes the writer’s job a whole lot easier.
Bio: Linda Palmer has been writing for pleasure since the third grade and has letters from her teachers predicting she’d be an author. Though becoming a writer was never actually a dream, it was something she did naturally and eventually with intent. Silhouette Books published Linda’s first novel in l989 and the next twenty over a ten year period (writing as Linda Varner). In 1999 she took a break to take care of her family. She learned that she couldn’t not write, however, and began again, changing her genre to young adult paranormal romance. She has twelve full-length novels out as e-reads and in print and there are always more in the works. She also has many novellas and short stories available. Linda has been a Romance Writers of America finalist twice and won the 2011 and 2012 EPIC eBook awards in the Young Adult category. She married her junior high school sweetheart many years ago and lives in Arkansas, USA with her family.
Link to Wolf Way: http://tinyurl.com/q2hcfkz
Photo credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / dizanna