People, Places, and Things to Fill Your Fictional World

How do you create a fictional world?

If you write speculative fiction of any sort, odds are good you’ll be creating a world. Science fiction and fantasy are especially prone to unique, author created worlds. If you have no idea where to start, try reading some of the masters. J.R.R. Tolkien and Brandon Sanderson immediately pop to mind as some of the greats. Once you’re ready to jump in, begin by thinking about what kind of world you want to make. This will largely be shaped by the plot you’re planning, the characters you’re creating, and the genre you stick the story in. Everything’s connected, so what comes first? In my experience, the answer is in the names. For simplicity, I’ll be discussing people, places, and things from Redeemer Chronicles 1: Awakening. (Cover change in the works for that series).

What’s in a name?

Your world will be more authentic if you have a system that makes sense. I have a personal preference for names that are simple and pronounceable. Some names pop right to mind and others take me hours. I’m not only talking about people, but also places and objects in your world. Awakening’s set in a fantasy world called Aeris, but I don’t actually name the world until the second book because it’s not really relevant to the first story. In the sequel, I talk about more Darkland creatures than just zombies and Denkari. It took me about two hours to come up with something that fit evil creatures with six legs.

Planet Names Tangent: Names have feelings and they evoke feelings. In a different series, I named the scifi planet Reshner. It got its name from one of the ancient languages featured in that universe because it means “restful place.” For that one, I wanted something isolated, strong, yet supple. For Aeris, I wanted something that is reminiscent of earth yet otherworldly, something soft, and something pretty.

People (and their titles):

Good guys and bad guys usually define themselves pretty clearly by their actions. Their names may come to have special meaning later, but at the start, they should tell the reader simple information such as race and gender. Here are some of the people from Awakening: Victoria Saveron, Katrina Polani, Tellen, Jackson Castaloni, Marcus Polani, Huntsman Daniel Saveron, Alec Castaloni, Markesh McArn, Sara Andari, Huntmaster Oren, Huntsman Shadow, The Lady, and Supreme Huntmaster Jordan Lekros. From that list, can you tell who’s related to whom? Can you tell approximate rank for some of the people? One of these is an immortal, can you tell which? Does a character have a nickname? Depending on who’s talking to the character, they may or may not. Katrina refers to Victoria Saveron as Vic. The Lady refers to her as Victoria. Here’s a picture of her courtesy of my friend. If you want to see the whole sketch, you’ve got to be on my mailing list.

First, let me tell you a bit about the three main people types. There’s the Arkonai, the Saroth, and the Bereft. The Arkonai and Saroth both have access to magic, but the Bereft do not. Arkonai are ruled by the Arkonai Hunting Guild, which is overseen by the High Council and the Supreme Huntmaster. Those with access to the Gift (magic) tend to become Guardians, Healers, and Seekers. The Saroth are ruled by the Tariku League and tend to become Destroyers, Minders, Shapeshifters, and Conjurers. The Bereft cannot access magical Gifts through conventional means, though they can still use certain scrolls prepared by Minders or Conjurers.

The Arkonai sometimes have last names and sometimes do not. They mostly speak with a vaguely British accent. The Saroth tend to have Italian names. The Bereft often speak with an Irish accent.

The Magic System Tangent: As I described the people types, you probably picked up on the seven magic schools: Healers, Seekers, Guardians, Minders, Destroyers, Shapeshifters, Conjurers. Although the titles have stereotypical meanings, not everything is what it seems. As with all Gifts, it’s the application of such that determines where the person falls on the good/evil scale.

Golden rule for magic systems: it has to make sense. One of the most freeing things about scifi and fantasy as genres is that you can do just about anything, but it has to make sense. This holds true for everything. For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series has an awesome magic system that is based on metals. (Okay, so maybe I just think it’s wonderful because I’m a chemistry geek.)

Places:

Cities, regions, and villages are probably going to have different names. These names are going to be responsible for defining the character of the place. Don’t forget to fill your world with mountains, rivers, forests, and lakes as well. The Northlands are run by the Arkonai, they have city names like Bastion, Cardeth, Urdik, Resilience, and Aridel. Caramore is run by the Saroth. Some of their cities are called Dominance, Jorash, and Outreach. The Bereft mostly live in villages such as Coldhaven, Bright Hope, Coolwater Creek, and Serene Hills. There are other general places such as the Ashlands and the Badlands.

Nature should also be represented in your world if applicable. If you’re doing a futuristic science fiction about how we destroyed all the natural forests, well, then maybe you have something like preserves or domes. Awakening takes place is a middle ages of sorts. The forests are slowly being developed but only by individuals not corporations with machines. Victoria Saveron and her friends start out in the Karnok Mountains and travel to Coldhaven.

Balance the Things in Your World:

Choose objects that fit the world and avoid things that would be out of place. That sounds simplistic, but it’s actually very important. You want to mix familiar with the unfamiliar so people can follow what it is. For example, I mention blueberries and baydonberries. Blueberries exist in our world, baydonberries do not, but they’re described as being mostly the same except that they have little white flecks in the fleshy part and have wonderful “cleansing” abilities (ie. they make you puke, etc). My characters carry around waterbags instead of canteens. They fight with daggers and bows and arrows, but also lightning.

Many objects will be small details to flesh out the world, but a few will be absolutely critical to what you do. Here, a familiar object: bracers take on special meaning. Vic wears magical bracers because she would turn into a zombie if she didn’t.

Creatures: Once again, you want a balance of familiar and unfamiliar. This story started on a dare, so it has zombies in it. I’m typically not a zombie fan, but here, they fit the world. It’s a beautiful, wholesome place struggling with corruption from the Darklands. There are rabbits and deer and squirrels in the forests, but there are also Denkari, rogue spirit warriors with the power to kill in a dozen different ways. Travel by horse is common. Shapeshifters can take on the form of dogs, birds, wolves, snakes, bears, panthers, and dragons, so naturally, these creatures too have a place in this world.

Conclusion:

When creating a world, strive to make it relatable yet unique. Fill it with people your readers will want to get to know. I’m sure to take a lot of care with the main character’s name. Do the same for the people, places, and things that make up the world this person inhabits.

Thanks for reading!

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6 thoughts on “People, Places, and Things to Fill Your Fictional World

  1. Thanks so much for this, Julie! 🙂
    I’ve got a question, if you don’t mind.
    I know that you said that characters names should give basic info at the start, then can take up meanings to the readers over the course of the story.
    But how exactly do you pick a good name for a character? One that stands out, but has meaning behind it?
    Names are one of my favorite parts of speculative fiction, but also one of the place where I have the most trouble. Personally, I LOVE when authors give their characters distinct names that stand out, fit the character, but also have a meaning or purpose behind them.
    C. S. Lewis often did this, such as with “Aslan” being the Turkish word for lion. J.R.R. Tolkien did the same, “Samwise” being an Old-English word for “half wise”, and all the Elves’ names having meanings in their own languages. (For him it was a bit different, though, since he made much of the languages that his characters’ names were from.) Many of the names from the Star Wars universe also have important meaning, just the name “Skywalker” portrays the idea of a hero, without being too outlandish. “Padme” is derived from an old Sanskrit word, Padma, meaning lotus flower. And in the animated series, Star Wars: Rebels, we see a huge amount of symbolism and purpose in the names: “Hera”, the name of true leader of the group and often the mother-figure to many of them, is Greek, meaning “protector” or “warrior”, as well as being the chief Greek goddess and protector of married women and their families. “Ezra”, the Jedi apprentice in the series and generally the main protagonist, has his name drawn from the Biblical prophet, and means “my helper”; it’s fitting that he’s the reason the Jedi-in-hiding of the group finally comes back to the path he had abandoned long before, as well as helping the various other members of the group to grow past their initial issues. Ezra’s last name is “Bridger”, chosen because this show and character helps to “bridge the gap” between the time periods of the prequel films and the originals.

    So all that rambling comes back to this: is it a good idea to pick the names in this manner, and if so, how do you go about it? Do you just flip randomly through baby name books until you find one that fits? Or should you stick with a specific language or time period?
    Or even just randomly jumble letters together until you get something that sounds about right, and give it a fictional meaning?

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    • Hi, great questions. It depends on the series. For example, in Devya’s Children (YA, scifi), the character “project” names came from a selection of what they mean in other languages. ie. Ashlynn = “dream,” Reeve = “dream,” Varick = “protector, defender,” Malia = “calm, gentle” etc. And yes, most of those I got from scouring baby name sites :-). For Redeemer Chronicles 1: Awakening I did a mixture of made up names and ones with meanings. ie. Victoria = “victory, triumphant” – she is the Chosen Redeemer, but I also loved that her nickname, Vic, could also be short for victim. She’s not really sure what it means to be chosen. Other names from the series are Tellen, Katrina, Jackson, Callen (from book 2), Oren, and Markesh. The Arkonai tended toward one name instead of two, though that wasn’t always true. For planet names in other scifi/fantasy series, I usually do the jumble letters and get to a phonetic feel for the word. ie. Vic’s world is called Aeris (the word has a pure, simple, earthy feel to it to me). Hope that helps. Feel free to ask follow up questions. Is there a particular name you’re struggling with?

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      • Not necessarily a particular name, but pretty much names in general. And yes, that helped a lot! Thank you so much!! 😀

        I do have another question along the same line as the first: I know you said for planet names you would make something up until it felt right. Do you do the same for locations inside the worlds? Are they made up, or do they tend to mean something?
        Also, with species/race/creature names, what do you generally do for those? Once again back to Tolkien, he tended to use mostly animals that already existed in “our world”, such as eagles, thrushes, foxes, etc. though he also had the giant wolves of Isengaurd, which he named “wargs” (I believe this was also drawn from Old Norse). In Star Wars we see all sorts of names for creatures, everything from Lothcats to gundarks. Lothcats are basically just cats, very similar to ours Earthen kinds, that live on Lothal, while gundarks don’t really have any sort of Earthen counterparts. So the names are rather indicative of the animals.
        When it comes to species/race names is when I have the most trouble. I think it has a lot to do with whether you’re choosing to use a rather conventional, already existing race (like Elves or Dwarves or Nymphs), or are making one up for your specific world (like Twi’leks or Chiss or Drefids.) Generally I’m trying to make up my own races, or at least create an alternate name and slight variations on pre-existing races, like elves that are somewhat primitive with a Native American based culture.
        How do you go about creating the names for your creatures or races? Is it pretty much the same as your character names?

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    • @Elvenpadawan. (Love your handle btw) Sorry, it won’t let me reply directly to the last post.
      It depends on the world. For the one I’ve been tinkering in most recently (Aeris), yes, the names follow specific patterns based on the people type. There are 3 main people types in that world – the Arkonai (huntsmen), the Saroth, and the Bereft (villagers). The characteristics of the people type sort of dictate the names of their dwellings. ie. The Arkonai (audio has them with British accent) are reputed to have a bent towards “lighter” magic schools. They value honor, strength, etc. The cities under their control reflect these values ie. Bastion, Resilience, Aridel, Cardeth. The Saroth (most names tended to be Italian in origin) tend toward the more arcane magic schools. They’re a little more isolationist. Their two main cities are called Jorash and Dominance. Villagers/Bereft (those without magic; audio gives them Irish accent) have quaint, hopeful names like Coldhaven, Bright Hope, Coolwater Creek. So, it’s a mix of made up and “normal name with meaning.”

      K’s are very useful letters. I tend to use them a lot with strong names.

      Ah, creatures. That’s an interesting topic. One evil creature took me like 2 hrs to name. I wanted something pronounceable but fierce. I settled on kitsarue. As for process, part of the reason it took so long was l was googling actual names (nothing worse than coming up with a cool name only to realize it’s a curse in a different language :-). The rogue spirit warriors are called the Denkari. Again, I was going for strong but slightly forbidding. A name that could be whispered in fear or railed against. Er, does that make sense?

      BTW, the second book in Redeemer Chronicles is almost ready for a beta reading call. If you want in just go to my website, sign up for the spec fic list then email me….or just skip to email me 😉 That’s the one with the most names and such. No pressure. Happy to just chatter on here.

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  2. Great post! Also, yay for a fellow Brandon Sanderson fan! Have you read any of his books besides Mistborn? (If not, you definitely should!)

    I like what you said about mixing the familiar and the unfamiliar. It’s good advice, but I don’t think I hear it very often. That said, I could just be forgetting what I have and haven’t heard before.

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    • I have heard the first 2 audiobooks in the Stormlight Archive. Those were seriously long but decent. What’s your fav Brandon Sanderson book?
      I just know that I stop reading when every other word is something strange to me. That might make me miss some great books, but I can’t help it.
      Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any other questions.

      Like

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