NANP: Building Fantasy Worlds One Name At A Time

Joining me on the blog today is Courtney Schafer, author of the adventure fantasy novels The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City, both of them a part of her The Shattered Sigil series for Nightshade Books. I read The Whitefire Crossing last month and I was utterly blown away by it (my review). It is easily one of my best reads this year, even made my September Reading Awards list. If you are looking for a different type of fantasy novel to read, one that is serious and covers some new ground in terms of its magic system and characters and its scope, then The Whitefire Crossing is what you want. This is what Courtney had to say about her world-building in the the two novels.

Building Fantasy Worlds One Name At A Time

by Courtney Schafer

It doesn’t take us long as children to figure out the importance of names.  Soon after my son learned to talk, he went through a phase in which he desperately wanted to know the name of every random person he saw.  Of course he was absolutely certain I should have the answer, since (in the words of James O’Barr, who was further paraphrasing William Thackeray) “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children.”  When I explained I didn’t know the strangers’ names, not without being introduced, he protested in dismay, “But Mommy, then how do you know who they are?”

In that question, I heard the echo of every fantasy story in which true names hold power both magical and dangerous.  Names carry meaning far beyond the simple sounds of the word, meanings built up by both our personal experiences and the greater cultural environment surrounding us.  As such, they make terrific tools for the writer – particularly the fantasy writer, who must simultaneously convey a world different than our own while leaving enough commonalities to avoid alienating or confusing the reader entirely.  Names of people and places can be chosen to hint at similarities to existing cultures as a kind of worldbuilding shorthand, playing on the associations that readers carry with them.

For instance, my novels The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City feature a city that’s a young, brash, lawless place.  An immigrant melting pot, a place where people come in hopes of carving out a new life unfettered by the restrictions of their birthlands – and if they’re lucky, striking it rich beyond their wildest dreams.  The one rule is “profit over all,” and if you’ve got the cash, any vice can be indulged.  Kind of like the early days of Las Vegas…but also reminiscent of the infamous “sin cities” of the Bible, such as Nineveh, in the book of Jonah.  I wanted readers to potentially have that association in the back of their brains, so I riffed off of Nineveh to get Ninavel – and voila!  My city had a name.

(I am of course aware that not every reader will share my cultural background, and so the Nineveh/Ninavel association isn’t at all guaranteed.  But the association isn’t vital to the story, just a little extra shorthand trigger for readers who’ve heard the biblical name.  As a writer, you’ve got to keep the diversity of your audience in mind, and not lean too heavily on cultural associations in your worldbuilding.  Using them as enhancements, fine. Crutches, no.)

In keeping with Ninavel’s rough-and-tumble brashness and lack of established traditions, I gave short, informal names to my characters who are Ninavel natives.  I also chose to make the names Anglicized, without necessarily being names common in American society:  Dev, Bren, Jylla, Melly.  Yet to suggest the amalgam of immigrant cultures within the city, I decided the gods favored by city natives would be “imports” from countries far to the south, and so chose Arabic-flavored names: Khalmet, Suliyya, Shaikar.

Certain of the mages in Ninavel come from an entirely different culture not shared by anyone else in the city, and I wanted to sharply distinguish them from other characters.  For these mages, I went with the time-honored fantasy-author tactic of borrowing names from an existing foreign language – Russian, in this case.  (Why Russian?  I took it all through high school and college, and I love the language.)  So the akheli have names like Ruslan, Lizaveta, and Mikail.  The bits of their language used in the book (ikilhia, akhelysh, zhivnoi) aren’t specifically Russian, but I did use the Cyrillic alphabet to come up with syllable combos I liked, and then “translate” them into the Roman alphabet.

Yet for the young akheli apprentice who is one of my two protagonists, I wanted to highlight the difference between him and the rest of his mage-family, to set him apart as the “odd man out”…and so instead of using a Russian name, I deliberately chose his name to be different yet again.  The Irish name Ciaran is probably my all-time favorite male name (ever since reading C.J. Cherryh’s wonderful fantasy novels The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels) – and so I simply “Russianized” the spelling of the name to Kiran.

But the city of Ninavel isn’t the only important place in the novels.  One of the themes I play with is the contrast between wild, anything-goes Ninavel and the nearby country of Alathia, which has a very rigid, very formal society, complete with myriad laws and an authoritarian government.  So my Alathian characters all go by their last names, which I chose to be long and formal-sounding (but can be shortened to a more familiar form among friends, to keep the long names from getting too unwieldy for the narrative).  Martennan (Marten), Talmaddis (Talm), Lenarimanas (Lena), etc.  I wanted the long-form names to wander a bit further afield from what’s common in English, and so I simply played around with syllable combos until I came up with ones that seemed to “fit” the character in my head.

First names in Alathia are only used by immediate family and lovers (and then only when assured of privacy) – something that gets mentioned in the first book, and I was hoping to actually show in the second book.  But as it turned out, for pacing reasons I ended up cutting all the scenes in The Tainted City where Alathian first names got used, and I didn’t want to just shoehorn them into other scenes where it wouldn’t feel right for the characters.  That wasn’t the only bit of name-related worldbuilding that got left on the cutting room floor.  The double letters common in Alathian last names are meant to indicate specific lines of descent to the country’s original founding families.  But including that tidbit wasn’t important to the story; and I’m a firm believer in not burying the reader in details simply for the sake of showing off worldbuilding.

I’m currently gearing up to write the Shattered Sigil trilogy’s concluding novel, The Labyrinth of Flame.  This book will feature some new and different locations and cultures, and I’m looking forward to the chance to play with names all over again!  The very title of the book has a double meaning.  It refers to a maze of red-rock slot canyons my protagonists Dev and Kiran must travel…and to something else it’s a spoiler to explain (though readers who’ve finished The Tainted City can likely make a good guess!).

Some writers go ahead and write their first draft with placeholders for names, sometimes literally: “They traveled for two hot, thirsty days to reach [INSERT DESERT TOWN NAME HERE].”  But for me, names are such an integral part of my characters and worldbuilding that I simply can’t do that.  Before I type a single word of a scene, I’ve got to know all the names of places and people.  (This doesn’t mean I never change them.  I’ve changed quite a few secondary character names in revision, most often to avoid confusion for the reader.  For example, in The Tainted City there’s a minor character named Jadin Sovarias.  His name used to be Gerin Sovarias, until one of my critique partners pointed out that “Gerin” was a bit too close to “Gerran,” another minor character mentioned in the book.)

But to build a story, as my young son says, I need to know who my characters are.  And for me, names are the foundation.


Courtney Schafer on TwitterWeb.

The next contributor to the series is author Lou Morgan on 22nd October. You can find a full schedule of here.

Posted on October 18, 2012, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. ’m currently gearing up to write the Shattered Sigil trilogy’s concluding novel, The Labyrinth of Flame. This book will feature some new and different locations and cultures, and I’m looking forward to the chance to play with names all over again!

    That excites me! 🙂


  2. Courtney, I really enjoyed the article, and it sounds like our approach to the importance/significance of names in world and story building is quite similar. (High five ;-))


    • Haha, yes, after reading your own article I was all the more eager to read HEIR OF NIGHT. (I suppose similarity in worldbuilding approach seems a bit of a weirdly egotistical reason on my part to get excited about a book, but hey, if we share taste there, perhaps we share taste in other areas that’ll hit my buttons as a reader…can’t wait to find out! 🙂


      • Heir of Night doesn’t need my endorsement really because it IS an awesome novel, but it has it all the same. Definitely some of the deepest world-building out there for recent releases. And in fairness to all recent debut authors (that I’ve read of course), the world-building ranges from “good” all the way to “freaking awesome”. Alchemist of Souls, Miserere, The Whitefire Crossing, Heir of Night, Blood and Feathers, and a ton of others are all down that higher end of the spectrum.


  1. Pingback: October Report « Angels of Retribution

  2. Pingback: Just Arrived: “The Whitefire Crossing” & “The Tainted City” by Courtney Schafer » Helen Lowe

  3. Pingback: Fellow Author, Courtney Schafer, Reads “The Heir of Night” & “The Gathering of the Lost” » Helen Lowe

  4. Pingback: What I’m Reading: “The Whitefire Crossing” & “The Tainted City” by Courtney Schafer » Helen Lowe

  5. Pingback: Best of the Best Part 2 « Angels of Retribution

  6. Pingback: Best of 2013 Part 2a: Books | Shadowhawk's Shade

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: