Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Waiter, There’s a Smphurphle in My Fantasy Novel!

One of the joys writing fantasy is the necessity of creating unique names for your unique worlds, races, creatures, and technology. Even the best of fantasy writers occasionally take this to a worrisome extreme, however, when they start slapping made-up names on things that really aren’t so fantastical after all. In Alchemy With Words (edited by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond), Milena Benini elaborates:


The great late Damon Knight … strongly objected to people calling their small, short-tailed, fluffy animals, smeerps—when they could perfectly well have called them rabbits instead…. [I]f you are inventing a world different from our own, by all means call whatever is really different by a really different name. Just make sure you don’t merely call a horse a glymph.

Unless you’re striving for a humorous effect, you’re usually better off using prosaic words for even your most inherently original elements. The Flaming Purple Smphurphle just doesn’t inspire the same quality of verisimilitude found in the calmer (if admittedly less intriguing) ondiron, or the even simpler and more versatile flint dagger. Hugo winner David Gerrold points out, in his book Worlds of Wonder:


Occasionally, you may feel the need to make up a new word…. Sometimes you can do this to great effect, but not always…. When you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you will always be tempted to make up new words—especially technical-sounding terms like quadro-triticale and veeble-fetzer…. As a general rule, you should always be wary of inventing new words.

Fantasy authors have just as much responsibility as their less fantastical comrades to ground their stories in a sense of reality. Consider the languages spoken in your fantasy world. How has history and technology influenced the etymology? Why has this particular item gleaned this particular name? If you know why something is called a smphurphle, go for it. Otherwise, you’re probably better off toning it down to a less attention-grabbing word, so as not to prod your readers’ suspension of disbelief bubbles.
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16 comments:

  1. Yes! Thank you for this post, I have to admit I get tired of trying to figure out what a "flipopple" is, especially if I might have missed a word as my eyes glazed over while reading the "detailed" description of a butterfly. Granted, it can be used to "contrast cultures" if you have two groups meeting for the first time but I feel myself beating my head against the wall when I don't have an engineering drawing associated with it.

    Great post, I like this and will have to keep an eye out for that in my own writing!

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  2. Loved this advice, Katie. I agree that when you first start writing, the freedom to create new words is tantilizing. And when coupled with the freedom of imagining new critters and technology, we can go way too far too fast. I still hang on to the license to create words for sound effects and from time to time my characters will make up words they use for explitives. Does that count?

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  3. Damon Knight is my short story hero. His book Creating Short Fiction is like my Bible, not a page hasn't been marked up with highlighter and various colors of ink.

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  4. Great post! As a reader, I get tired of trying to figure out unpronounceable names or places in fantasy books. When a made-up word is too much of a tongue-twister, it takes the reader out of the story.

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  5. Fantasy writers do have an obligation to keep the invented words to a minimum. In alternate world fantasy, I make up character names, so I try to keep the names of magics, places, monsters, and organizations all English words.

    To make up an example, the Blue Blades would be more memorable and interesting than Tar-Vaeleth.

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  6. Yes! And if an author of *any* genre is going to use a unique name often, please make it pronounceable! If I wanted to struggle over names, I'd lose myself in the lineages recorded in the book of Numbers.

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  7. @Leiffy: This is one of those gray areas where I think we're often able to see the fault in others' writing more easily than our own. In our own writing, we're convinced we're just being clever. I've definitely been guilty of this myself.

    @Carol: I admit I see both sides of the subject when it comes to made-up expletives. On the one hand, it's a marvelous way to get the "grit" of a saying across without offending sensitive readers. But, on the other hand, so many of the made-up expletives I see in spec fic seem like blatant (and obvious) replacements for our real-life garden variety. When the characters go around saying "frakking" or some such, it's not hard to figure out what they're *really* saying. To work, the words have to be a logical and organic outgrowth of the world and its language, instead of just replacements for words found in our own language.

    @Phy: Love those kinds of books!

    @Cherie: When I was a kid, my dad would read to me. I remember one story in particular which featured a character named "Schruyghmle" or something like that. We tried and tried to pronounce that name, then finally gave up and just called him "Scrymie" for the rest of the book.

    @AE: Great example. A few made up words go a long way toward establishing verisimilitude in a fantasy setting. Too many, though, and the suspension of disbelief bubble starts getting stretched out of shape.

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  8. @Linda: Hah! I have to admit I'm weird: I get a kick out of going through Numbers and trying to pronounce all the names.

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  9. I am currently reading a fantasy novel that does this to no end, though in a slightly different manner. Humans are called "tumanhofers". And the names are ridiculous... One of the characters is introduced as "Graddapotmorphit Bealomondore of Greeston in Dornum". The rest of the book he's called "Bealomondore". There is also "Beccaroon", "Gladyme", "Librettowit".... I think the book would have been much improved if the names weren't so difficult to slog through. :-P

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  10. Wow. Unless the book is deliberately trying to achieve a humorous affect, that's crazy!

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  11. Which, unfortunately, I don't think it was! It kinda makes me think the author assumed all fantasy names had to be 4 syllables and impossible to pronounce. :-P

    I think that is the scourge of most beginner fantasy novelists (though I don't know if this particular author is a beginner), that all the names have to be made up (no actual real names), crazy, random words with 2 vowels and 37 consonants...

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  12. And don't forget accents and hyphens: Gastro'-niph'o-lus the Great.

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  13. Good thoughts here. I've been working on a fantasy for several years and I have this creature that I'm trying to figure out a name for. The poor beasty has gone through several handles and I still haven't settled on a final one. One of these days it will come to me, but you can bet it won't be a Smphurphle. ;D

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  14. Well, at least I was able to help you eliminate one more!

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  15. What good advice! I hope all aspiring SF/Fantasy writers come read your entry. Oh, and maybe some of the old hands as well.

    When I wrote "Seabird, which takes place on a distant planet, I felt like animals should be at least a bit different from those on Earth. After all, they lived millions of miles apart. I changed their physique a bit, but I rarely gave in on their species names.

    Early in the story an Earth woman, visiting this other world, sees what she first believes to be a horse. Knowing a bit abut horses, she picks up on differences, especially in the hooves, the shape of the spine & the tail. However, the Narentan people don't call these riding creatures "Camemules". Just "horses".

    I think the only animal name I invented was "vartha" for a kind of black leopard--but that creature was named after one of my cats. ;-)

    On the other hand, I messed up quite a bit in "Seabird" with character names. By the halfway point, I had dubbed fully three male characters with names that all began with "Na". It's not just convoluted names that can get us in trouble with our readers. Also ones that are short but too similar.

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  16. I like what you're describing a lot. It offers both a grounding in our own reality and a sense of alien differences, all at the same time. And, as for character names beginning with the same letter, that one's a problem universal to all genres!

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