What's in a name? Quite a lot, actually. You probably know the saying "the clothing makes the man"... well, it's the same with names. Unlike real people, characters can get any name you wish to give them, so you should make the effort to give them something that fits - both the person and the story. You don't want to call your fantasy knight Joebob Bumblethorpe III, unless you're writing a parody, in which case it's perfect.
As I mentioned before, I write fantasy, and it's tough for me to come up with names. I kept a list of them, back when I wrote stories in my first world - people, towns, inns, etc. - for when I needed them. They were all right, but they lacked character. If you want to evince a certain culture, a time, a feel for your story, your names need character. Even if you think it doesn't matter, it does. Every world, every city, every setting, no matter where it is, is unique and should have its own names.
For people like me, random name generators are a godsend. YMMV, of course; some people prefer to do their own heavy lifting, and that's great - I tip my hat to you, who are creative enough to do that. My absolute favorite is fantasynamegenerators.com. Over 900 gens, everything from real-world names to fantasy and sci-fi; people, places, things, groups, and even some description generators - you name it, it's either there or in the queue to be made. It takes a huge load off to be able to flip through a few pages of names and pick something you like (and possibly modifying it), rather than have to take the time to think up something yourself. (As a side note, Emily, the site owner, is a really nice lady - if you go over there, drop her a line and say hi - she loves to hear from the people who use her site.)
The great thing about such a huge variety (besides the huge variety, of course) is that you can mix and match names and cultures and races with a lot less effort. Let's take my world, for instance: one of my races, the Vargrim, use dwarven names for their cities, but I use Mongolian names for their people - as it turns out, Mongolian and FNG's dwarven have a lot in common, as far as construction. Both languages work really well because the Vargrim are sonorous - they have large chests, deep voices, and are excellent singers, so their language is rich with deep sounds, long vowels, and rolling consonants.
Likewise, the Ma'jaat, another race, are largely based on Arabic culture. For them, I went with Elder Scrolls Khajiit - their language has Persian and Hindi influences. It evokes the Middle Eastern feel without actually being (overtly) Middle Eastern. Of course, I couldn't use Khajiit names for the cities and nations, so I had to go with Middle Eastern names there, but again - I can pick and choose names that fit the overall theme I've created.
This leads into my final point: If you want to use something that's "close but not quite", there are dozens of pop culture generators that are based on real-world cultures - French, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Oriental, Russian, English, and about a dozen each of elves and dwarves. Go dig through them, and you can find all kinds of cool stuff.
Edit: I forgot something: naming conventions. 99% of the names you see in fantasy are either (first name last name) or (single name), because that's what you see in western culture. The real world isn't like that, though, and neither should fantasy worlds. Besides the "normal" names, you have:
* Surname-given name (common in Oriental cultures).
* Given Name-clan name
* Given Name-son/daughter of-(last name) - Scandinavian and Scots-Irish (-son/dottir, O', Mc, Mac, and nic')
* Given Name-surname-patronymic (Russian)
And of course, you can make all kinds of variations thereof. The Ma'jaat, for example, use <given name> <son/daughter of> <clan name>.
Honorifics (polite forms of address) are also something that can add color to a culture. Eastern cultures are big on honorifics - Japan has a ton of them - but they appear in almost every culture - Mr., Ms., and Mrs., Dr., Esquire... those are all honorifics. Instead of going with the same tired old "master" and "mistress", toss out a <last name>-sen or eare-<last name> (that's "honored" in Frisian, a term that could be used for someone of great age or learning, or simply respect. Google Translate is a great resource.)
* Fantasy Name Generators: 900 generators and counting (despite the title, it covers real-world and sci-fi names too).
I couldn't think of any clever titles this time. These two kind of go hand-in-hand, so I thought I'd deal with them in one post.
I've been working on cultures and nations for awhile now, and it's been coming along, slowly. One thing that helped me was to come up with a "continental archetype" - that is, what type of culture is predominant over a given continent. For example: Ivros, the continent housing the Creuzland Imperium, is largely European - Creuzland is Germanic; it rose to power a few centuries after the cataclysm, when most other parts of the world were still getting their act together. After its collapse, the nations that formed from the ruins would be semi-related - the UK, Denmark, Austria (English, Scots-Irish, Dutch, and German). Down south, where the Vargrim set up shop, their culture most resembles Japan's - a strict caste-based society where men stand above the women; they're very ritualistic and worship their ancestors. Nearby nations are also Oriental - Chinese, Mongolian, etc. The upper rim of the central continent is Mediterranean - French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Turkish. And so on.
Something I learned from Michael Stackpole's books - don't be afraid to mix and match cultural elements. In one of his novels, he had a nation whose people had French names, but the culture was Japanese. Creuzland, for example, uses Russian architecture (it just fit them somehow) and culture. Everyculture.com (link below) is a great resource for mixing and matching.
I didn't really feel like fleshing out every single culture if I didn't need to (I follow the maxim of "don't do more work than you have to"), so I came with the idea of primary, secondary, and tertiary cultures. Primary cultures are those where most, if not all, of the action takes place, or the nation/culture is important to the story. These are the most developed. Secondary cultures, obviously, are not as important - only some of the action (maybe a chapter or two) takes place there, or a supporting character is from this nation, so you'll need to know some minor details beyond the basics. Tertiary cultures are basically just window-dressing. They don't appear at all, or very briefly - someone's passing through, they're mentioned in a book or conversation, or a minor character is from there. These can also be lost or ancient cultures. They don't need more than the basic writeup - a name, location, language, and maybe a few cities.
Here's what I came up with for "cultures in a nutshell" (which can also be applied to races/nations):
* Description: A brief overview of the race/culture/nation - where/how they live, and other information of note that doesn't fall into the other categories.
* Appearance/dress - pretty self-explanatory.
* Names/address - Naming conventions (given name-surname, or vice-versa; given name only; given name + clan/family/city/ship name; given name + "son/daughter of xx").
* Language - name of the language(s) spoken there.
* Customs - births, deaths, special ceremonies (coming of age), how do they treat guests, holidays/observances
* Relations - How they get along with their neighbors/other races.
* Religion/beliefs - gods/no gods/something else entirely, maybe creation myths, if they're applicable
* History - any special events
This covers 90% of what you need for any culture.
When I'm working on this, sometimes I have an idea for a culture in a certain part of the world and come with the nation later, and sometimes it's the other way around. When I was reading through AllCultures, I noticed something - the less advanced a culture is, the less likely it is to identify itself as a "nation". This is not to say that they won't have some form of governance, or a territory with marked borders; it's just that they don't think "We belong to the nation of Ibristia." They'll identify with family or clan first, culture second (as in, they acknowledge that their family/clan belongs to a larger group of people of the same race/cultural inclination). A good example of this would be the Native Americans - all the tribes had names for themselves, they had leaders and rules and territories, but they didn't consider themselves to be sovereign nations, because what did it matter?
Even today, you find clan cultures in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, so don't be afraid to just have a territory marked as "clan lands for xxx", draw some rough borders, and leave it at that. Nomadic and farming cultures are generally going to far outweigh the more advanced cultures in any given fantasy world.
Leading off the above (and something I constantly have to remind myself): Not every square inch of the map has to belong to someone. In fact, it shouldn't. Any race will settle in places most conducive to its survival, leaving the more hostile ones for later, when there's not much else left. This means mountains, deserts, swamps, or even areas with little to no perceived value (plains and grasslands far from rivers or the sea, e.g.) will most likely not be heavily occupied, if at all (it's not to say that you can't have the odd culture somewhere, like the Incas or Sherpas, but it should be the exception, not the rule). Likewise, civilizations rise and fall - the empire that once covered ten thousand square miles once contained a large plain; no one else has the strength to claim and hold it, so it remains populated only by bands of nomads or the odd farming settlement.
Nations tend not to be too large, unless the people of your world have an easy way to communicate/travel over large distances (via magic, magical creatures, etc.). AS evidenced by our own history, however, empires can cover tens or even hundreds of thousands of square miles.
* World Culture Encyclopedia: A list of just about every modern culture on Earth. It's a bit outdated, but a fantastic resource if you just want to browse around for ideas.
Yes, it's another magic entry. Last time I just blathered on about my magic system; this time I want to talk about magic in general. For the purposes of this entry, those who use magic will be referred to as mages, the use of magic is casting, and the end effect is a spell.
There are dozens upon dozens of different types of magic. In her guide Magical World Building, Stephanie Cottrell Bryant describes four basic types:
Sorcery: Also called wizardry, this is the classical magic - chant a spell, draw upon some energy, and get the desired effect.
Divine: This is similar to sorcery, but the source of the caster's power comes from a greater being - divine, demonic, or something else.
Psychic: Psychic powers like telepathy and clairvoyance are generally not considered magical abilities, but there are some series that use mental powers that could be considered magic - Robin Hobb's Wit and Skill are good examples. The power is manifested straight from the user's mind and generally has a limited range of use.
Items: Magic can only be used through the use of specific items. R.A. Salvatore's Demon Wars Saga is a good example of this; casters harness the energy inherent in gemstones to achieve the desired effect. One book I read called Masks (E.C. Blake) had magic as a physical liquid; the only way mages could use magic was if they had some of it at hand, and it would be used up when the spell was cast. I've read a couple sources where magic was too unstable to use effectively without a refining focus (wand, staff, etc.) - and, of course, there are the ones like Harry Potter where you actually need a wand to cast magic.
How common are mages?
Is it like Avatar, where every third person is a Bender, or more like Conan, where magic is extremely rare? Is magic inherent, inborn, or learned? By that, I mean:
Is it endemic to one or more races? There should be a reason why those races are inherently magical.
Are some people born with the ability? If so, who, and how? Is it only passed down through bloodlines, is it random, or is there some other criteria entirely?
Can anyone learn to use it? This is often the case with wizardry - in Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind series, for example, people can be trained to learn the Names of things in order to control them or use their power.
Is your world high- or low-magic (or somewhere in between)? Avatar is a great example of a high-magic world - people have incorporated Bending into their everyday lives like we did with technology, using it to make things easier. Keep in mind two things, though:
1) The tech level for such worlds is likely to be higher than normal, as people will have invented things to take advantage of magic (it really depends on the type of magic here, but basically anything that makes work easier - everything from horseless carriages to communication devices to weapons.
2) There was another thing, but I forgot it. If I ever remember, I'll put it in here.
How does everyone view magic?
For starters, I'll to link to a blog post I found.
I'll just add my own thoughts: People's views of magic will be colored by how magic has been used in the past. Let's hie back Avatar yet again: Benders are common, but people view them differently depending on where they are (talking about Aang's version here): the Fire Nation was a bunch of power-hungry dicks, so people naturally feared them. Contrarily, Earth and Water Benders were well-liked and respected in their countries because they served the people.
In WoT, the Aes Sedai are not nearly as common, and they tend to hide their capabilities from the masses (not to mention they act high and mighty to boot), so the common folk hate and fear them.
Humans tend to fear that which they don't understand. This is why, in low-magic worlds where mages are rare, someone walking down the street with a glowing ball floating over his head would draw all kinds of attention - and not just the "Ooh look, pretty!" variety.
However, as Atsiko (yes, he's a guy) mentioned in his post, if mages in a low-magic world were open and helpful with their magic, people would better understand and come to appreciate them; likewise, if the mages in a high-magic world used their power to oppress the masses, use their powers for their own good, or simply avoided contact with the normals, people would still view magic and mages with distrust and/or fear. It's all in how you set things up.
Magical items. Do they exist?
How are they made (and how easily)? Can any old mage go down to the corner store, buy the components, and enchant a light wand to sell at the market, or are they incredibly rare because the formulae have been lost for centuries (cliche)? Can they only be created by greater beings (read: gods and demons)?
How common are they? Obviously, items that are easier to make are more likely to be more common, but that doesn't mean they have to be.
How powerful are they? Magic items can range from minor potions and glowstones to continent-levelling artifacts.
Who can use them? Are they restricted to those with magical ability, can anyone use them, or are they a mix of the two?
* Atsiko's blog on magic: Some interesting stuff here.
Dragons. The mainstay of fantasy literature, but not something I'd intended to use at first. Originally, the bad guys were going to be a humanoid race who'd come to Venosea through a portal from another world; they'd have the ability to Wield, and they were the ones who'd created the ritual to halt the war, but it had gone wrong somehow and blah blah blah it totally sucked because I realized I'd unconsciously ripped off a race from an episode of Stargate SG-1. I came up with the idea to use dragons sometime later - they had many of the same abilities, but it fit better and actually made more sense.
As for the dragons... unbeknownst to all, the dragons had not vanished or died during the cataclysm, but had ridden out the disaster mostly unscathed. They found that they could change between their human and dragon forms, so they used this to mingle with the new races, imparting wisdom, sowing chaos, or simply gaining new experiences. Naturally, there were occasional sightings of these beings in their dragon form. They came to be revered in many cultures as divine or demonic beings, or simply viewed as mythical creatures like unicorns and sea serpents.
One of the first things the Council did was hunt down and destroy every dragon they could find, thought it resulted in numerous casualties on both sides. Finally, the Council and the (non-insane) dragons came to an agreement: if the dragons stayed out of mortal affairs (at least, overtly) and kept control of their insane brethren, the Council would leave them be. The dragons created an island in a remote corner of the world, thousands of miles from any landmass, and most of them retreated there to hibernate or simply meditate the centuries away, while others remained at large in the world, quietly working behind the scenes, or simply living in isolation.
As time passed, the Chancellors quietly removed records of dragons from the Council's reach, keeping the information to themselves and passing it from one to another. After a couple millenia, dragons faded from all memory and became nothing more than hoary old legends.
Naturally, the dragons will play a large part in this world, but that's more on the plot side of things, and we're discussing world-building right now. Still, like the magic system, I had to mention this so things would make sense later.
(I was going to hold this one until later, but I kind of need to explain it first, so that things that come later make more sense.)
Ever since I read Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World in high school, I've been fascinated by elemental magic. I played D&D for a long time and also designed new material, and I came up with lots of spells and classes and such that used elemental magic of one kind or another, usually focused around a single element.
The initial version of the magic system was rather vague: there were four elements (Air, Earth, Fire, Water), and mages were employed to head off natural disasters or something by manipulating the actual element itself, not energy like WoT. The power for magic was drawn through ley lines (another theme that I thought was cool at the time; they were popular in fantasy, but the Rifts RPG also used the same concept). I did know that, a long time in the past, someone had "broken" magic, separating it into its component parts - i.e., mages used to be able to use all four elements, but now they can only access one. Rarely, someone is born who can use more than one element (originally, it was up to four, but I reduced it to two).
I tinkered with it over the years, adding and changing things as I came up with new ideas. The ley lines thing went first. I was inspired by the second Avatar series to add eight new elements (Storm, Ice, Blood, Wood, Metal, Shadow, Lightning, and Light), which meshed with the "broken magic" concept and helped it to make more sense, and also added a lot more story options.
Magic is genetic - either you're born with the ability, or you aren't. There are outside factors that can affect this - proximity to an elemental node, your bloodline (more Wielder ancestors means a greater chance), and your race (non-humans manifest about three times as often as Humans) - but anyone, regardless of race, can be born with the Talent. It ends up being about 5% of Humans and 15% of the other races (I figure there are 250 million people on Venosea - you do the math).
A little history, because this is kind of the central precept of the world: A few thousand years ago, magic was one source - any mage (called Wielders) could use any element (to a greater or lesser degree; all but a rare few were strong in only one or two elements), and could even combine their effects - holding a sand in the air and heating it with Fire to turn it into glass, for example. Academies were established where Wielders could learn to use and control their ability, but the schools were largely autonomous - each nation had its own, and there was no governing body, so they each had their own standards, curriculum, etc., and each was loyal to its parent nation (and that nation's allies).
One year, a war broke out between two nations. It dragged on for years, pulling more participants into it - those allied to the nations, and some who sought to seize an opportunity to grab power or territory. Eventually most of the world was engulfed in the conflict. Sometime during the war, someone perfected the process to create mindless, soulless constructs called "dragons" (which varied in appearance depending on the creator, but were basically classical dragons) - basically, a mass of elemental matter bound into a form of the creator's choosing. Dragons could only be created via a ritual and controlled by a powerful Wielder, who was linked to it. Even though the knowledge was initially limited to the Academy that first created them, it soon got out through various means, and other Wielders made their own, which resulted in even more destruction.
One major downside to using a dragon (and something no one knew, at first) was that if a Wielder was killed while controlling a dragon, his or her consciousness would inhabit the soulless construct, creating a new, sentient, and effectively immortal being. Some dragons, upon discovering their fate, went insane; others revelled in the destruction they could cause in their new form, and still others simply vanished. Not long after this came to light, the Academies put a ban on the creation of dragons by tacit consent (though this didn't stop unaffiliated individuals from creating their own).
Naturally, this didn't stop the dragons already wreaking havoc. A group of Wielders who opposed the war came up with a new plan - if they took magic away from the people, maybe it would halt the conflict and/or destroy the dragons (since they were sustained by magic). They gathered to perform a ritual during a lunar eclipse to temporarily bind magic, so that they could force everyone to take a step back and possibly negotiate a peace.
The ritual was underway when a group of dragons attacked, disrupting it. The spell went awry and, instead of being bound, magic was shattered into its component elements. The resulting backlash caused catastrophic natural disasters - tidal waves, massive storms, volcanic eruptions. The land heaved, the skies fell, and the seas boiled. This cataclysm, which lasted nearly a month, later became known as the Shattering. When it was all over, most of the world had been reshaped, and nearly 70% of the population was dead. The remaining dragons vanished during the chaos and were soon forgotten.
The elements manifested as "nodes" of invisible energy; they appeared at the site of the ritual and slowly travelled across Venosea, wreaking more havoc as they went, until they settled into places that best suited them. This took another decade, during which magic was highly unstable and everyone learned to mistrust or even fear it for its unpredictable (and often dangerous) effects. Eventually things settled down, magic became stable, and the "lesser elements" began to manifest. To make matters worse, strange beings were born to families lived near the nodes - children who had been altered by magic into new forms. These gave rise to new races - Avarii, Ma'jaat, Vargrim, and Valdameri - which could interbreed with Humans, but not each other.
The next few centuries later became known as the Dark Ages - a time when nations and civilizations were trying to establish themselves, the new races appeared, and Humans came to terms with the fact that they weren't the only race on Venosea any more. Records of this time are few and scattered, and no one's exactly sure how long they lasted (estimates range from 3-500 years). The commonly agreed end of the Dark Ages is the rise of the Creuzland Imperium. Creuzland conquered most of the land on one of the northern continents and created a new empire. The emperors were largely decent rulers, and the people under their rule flourished, which enabled civilization as a whole to recover more quickly.
Fifty years later, Emperor Ranulfus, a Lightning Wielder, sponsored the first Academy in the Imperial capital of Vilsstadt. With magic and the Academies now legitimized, other nations starting establishing new Academies. It wasn't until a century or so after that the current Headmaster of the Vilsstadt Academy came up with the idea to establish the Order - an organization independent of all nations that would oversee all the Academies and magic in general, and would not take part in any nation's politics or conflicts (more on this later).
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