1. justme
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    justme New Member

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    naming things in a fantasy world

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by justme, Jan 13, 2009.

    This is my first post, so I will start by saying hello.

    I have a question that I could use some advice on. I am writing, or attempting to write, a fiction novel in the fantasy genre. I have a question about naming things in a fictional world that are named after things in our own world. Let me give an example.

    Say I writing The Lord of the Rings. If I were doing so I would be Tolkien and already know the answer to this, but I am not so need your help. Say I want to write about hobbits eating Swiss cheese, men training German Shepherds, and elves using Greek fire.

    Now we all recognize what each of these things are. If I describe them as they are in the novel the readers will also recognize these things. However, describing them as Swiss, German, and Greek in a world that has no Switzerland, Germany, or Greece seems a bit off. I can always use the generic terms cheese, shepherd, and oil, but the question of correct naming will linger.

    Is it correct form when writing fantasy or science fiction to use real world names for objects that have no fictional counterpart for the sake of simplicity? What do you guys think? Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer.
     
  2. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    This doesn't directly answer your question but I'm puzzled as to why you'd even have things like German shepherds and Swiss cheese (I have no clue what "Greek fire" is) in a fantasy world where such things don't even exist? German shepherds are a breed of dog originating in Germany and resulted from years of selective breeding of types of real/Earth dogs. Swiss cheese is presumably from Switzerland (I could be wrong) and is likely the result of Swiss cheesemakers perfecting the craft. Why would these things exist in a completely fantasy world? The entire history behind them is based on Earth reality, so why would your world have them?

    You could have a type of dog that resembles a German shepherd, or a type of cheese that resembles Swiss cheese, though if neither Germany nor Switzerland exists in your world I would not make use of those terms. I'd just say that the dog is a sturdy, medium-sized working type with pricked ears and black and tan coloring (or however else you'd describe a German shepherd to somebody who's never seen one) and the cheese is whitish and has holes in it. Readers will probably understand, plus, they won't be jarred out of your fantasy world when you use names that have no right to exist.

    In my pre/early-contact American Indian-based fantasy world, I always have to be on the lookout for things like using the verb "rocketed" to describe how something moves, since they didn't have rockets, or using the word "inched," because they didn't measure things that way. Etc.

    (There are exceptions to the rule but these are generally in regards to words that are so common to us now that we've forgotten their cultural background--"slave" coming from the word "Slav," "panic" coming from the name of the Greek being "Pan," etc.)

    In short, no, I would not use terms like German shepherd or Greek fire or Swiss cheese if such things don't exist in your fantasy world. You can find a better way to describe them. (That's just my opinion, but I'd find such things very jarring.)
     
  3. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    For one thing, if you want to be a writer, you gotta be a little more brief in your use of words. What I'm quoting here should just be "fantasy novel" because how many non-fiction novels are there? And we all know that fantasy is a genre. There are very few so-called rules of writing that should be followed all the time, but one that most people agree on is that you should say as much as you can in as few words as possible. Otherwise, your writing seems tedious.

    But on the not of rules, there are no rules of naming things. Then again, why would it be called Swiss cheese, German Shepard, or Greek Fire in a world where these countries did not exist? Why does the specific type of cheese or breed of dog matter, and what's wrong with simply calling it oil?
     
  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    If the novel is a true Fantasy novel, adhering to the standards and norms of said genre, then it is going to be a bit off-putting to the reader to find these real-world terms in the storyline.

    There is a genre referred to as Weird Fiction which is significantly more embracing of novelties like the mixing of the real world with Fantasy and even elements of Science Fiction.

    If you haven't read Mieville, give him a try. His stuff is very much of the Weird Fiction genre.

    Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
     
  5. Trojan
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    Trojan Member

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    I'm currently running a little short on time and so haven't read any of the above posts so whatever I say from this point on may have already been said...

    If your story is set on a fictional Earth then there would be no reason not to use any country you pleased, if not then you are going to have to take sometime out to think of some country names for your fictional planet to replace our own country names otherwise it will be rather strange to the reader and they will never really be able to get lost in the world you have created as they are constantly been drawn back to our everyday planets or countries. Do note that I am NOT saying it isn't possible to lose yourself in a book featuring real places/items/etc.
     
  6. Etan Isar
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    Etan Isar Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to ditto tehuti's comments. There shoudln't really be anything in your story that requires a real-world name, and if you change the name, then the reader won't get it. More later, gotta run.
     
  7. PurpleCao
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    PurpleCao Member

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    I find that in a fantasy world, there's usually races or countries that represent real world places. Such as, Bavarian smoked cheese, i'd refer to as a Dwarven smoked cheese. Dwarves tend to have a lot of inspiration from places like bavaria.

    It's a case of seeing which race and place matches up with where.
     
  8. Leaka
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    Leaka Creative Mettle

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    My problem with always naming what not in fantasy worlds was the explanations of what they looked like.
    Cause Switzerland doesn't exactly exist, it's like...Margrosh Holy cheese, a cheese that is white with holes. And what not.
    I feel like it needs a comparison to swiss cheese.



    But listen to Tehuti, no real named stuff if it doesn't exist ion that world, should be there.
     
  9. Etan Isar
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    Etan Isar Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is true of kinds of fantasy:
    parody/satire
    allegory
    really bad crap



    In response to the op:

    If you want to write about things in our world, then write in our world. That's what it's there for.
    Although "Greek fire" is a fair example; there are other names, including "sea fire".
     
  10. TwinPanther13
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    TwinPanther13 Contributing Member

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    Ok specific types of cheese, dogs, or explosive devices do not need to be named in your story unless a region is known for it.

    It could be a "fragrant cheese", "bitter cheese", "pungent cheese". If it needs a name name it after a region in your story and describe the look of it if it is important.

    As far as dogs go is this story taking place in the usual medieval fantasy setting? If so most dogs would still be closer to wolves in appearance, and some may in fact be bread with wolf to make them stronger. Keep that in mind when you are thinking about dogs in a story.

    Greek fire can be handled easily, just leave it as some sort of incendiary oil. Find synnonyms for that word and there you go. I hope this helps.
     
  11. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    If you want cheese with holes in it, I would just describe it. If you must name it, I would give it a name that fits your world.

    Perhaps the Gala people make this cheese, and it is called Gala cheese.

    Perhaps there was an ancient people on this planet called the Tohal and they were known for lighting oil on fire and using it in battle--Tohal fire.

    But there is no need to do away with general terms like cheese. Although, you might want to give a unique name to alcoholic beverages such as beer.

    Even little things like cuss words you can invent. China Meiville did a great job with this in Perdidio Street Station.

    If the world is too much like earth, is it fantasy?
     
  12. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    What the jabber are you talking about?! ;)
     
  13. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Godspit, Wre, you got that right.
     
  14. Silver Random
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    Silver Random Senior Member

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    It seems like the German Shepherd and Swiss Cheese and such things werent actually valid since they wouldnt be around... but i think that simply saying that doesnt really address the main point of the post.

    I think i understand what the OP is on about (though i may be wrong).

    For example, could i really write something like, off the top of my head, "rendez vous" in a fantasy novel? There have been times when i have thought about writing something like that, which is directly from another language, and thought "No, because [French] doesn't exist in this world, so they wouldnt have this". But when I actually thought about it... that is a pretty ludicrous thought. English is based on languages such as French, and many words that people wouldnt bat an eyelid at could be directly traced back to it. I'm not an expert on linguistics, though i know some people around here are, but i know that to have people in a fantasy speaking English, and for it to have just magically sprung up without its real world foundations, is pretty ridiculous.

    So... what? Should we assume then that it is a translation convention, and that everything being said is actually a different language, but it is being put into English for our benefit so we can understand it? If so, why is it really any less acceptable to call Swiss cheese Swiss cheese, even if the people in the world arent calling it that? After all, they arent even calling it cheese, are they? The word cheese doesnt exist any more than the word Swiss does. :confused: Only reason i can think of is that things that are names shouldnt be used, while words are acceptable. But then where does a name for something cease to be a name and become a word? :confused:

    Okay, so i might have just confused myself :rolleyes: But seriously, where do you think the line is drawn between what is allowed and what is not in a translation convention?
     
  15. S-wo
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    S-wo Active Member

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    I know this is not my thread, but I just want to ask. How would you describe a Hispanic man in a fantasy world?
     
  16. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    I think the goal when writing a fantasy novel is to create a unique universe. Because we are using English to tell the story we need to develop unique ideas. Calling things by different words or constructs helps color that universe.

    A horse can be a horse, but what if instead they road snow beast called Bankeeds? In the snowy areas of the world at least. Bankeeds cool like harry camels with big bear paws, and a dragon-like head.

    Something like riding Bankeeds in the snow makes this universe unique. And there is no problem saying it looks like a hairy camel with large bear-like paws.

    If the desert dwellers in this unique fantasy world ride camels, then what makes the world so different? Because desert elves ride the camels? Wouldn't it be better if they road a different kind of animal? Or maybe they don't ride animals at all. Perhaps they have desert vehicles that run off magic instead of fuel.
     
  17. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Why not just say they look hispanic? Do they speak Spanish, though? Remember that you are narrating in English, so you can compare things in the fantasy world to things we recognize, but if you have a race of people in a fantasy world that speak Spanish or English, I think you should have a good reason.

    Why do they speak Spanish in this fantasy world that is not earth or related to earth? They wouldn't right? Not unless people from that world came to earth in a magic portal sometime in the past and learned Spanish, and then brought it back to their world. They liked the language so much that they made it one of their own.
     
  18. Silver Random
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    Silver Random Senior Member

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    I dont think he was saying they speak Spanish, though maybe i'm wrong.

    Although i am curious as to why you say that for "Swiss Cheese" say "cheese with holes in it" or "Gala (as an example) cheese", but think it is all right to say "Hispanic", when it is based on "Hispania", the ancient name for Spain and some of the surrounding area. Why is using Hispanic more acceptable than using Swiss?

    And about the inventing new things... I agree with what you said. A lot of the best aspects of fantasy worlds are the new things which serve every day functions as you say. But, as with anything, too much isnt a good thing. You dont have to go out of your way to replace everything normal with something fantastic.

    Edit: S wo i too have had the problem of describing people i imagine to be basically Hispanic in a fantasy world, as i dont really know the accepted descriptions of races. I was just going to use a word, Seranissian, to describe them, which is named after the ancient name for the area they come from (much like Hispanic is now that i saw where it came from :O) but i didnt know how to properly describe them initially so people would know what i meant by that name :p. Also, using my name may cause problems because it could also refer to the ancient Empire of that same name, which was one of the largest in history, where as that generally isnt a problem with Hispanic.
     
  19. Etan Isar
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    Etan Isar Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's really no reason not to ride camels. "Bankeeds" make sense because we don't really have a commonly used riding animal for snowy climates. But if we're including humans and horses and all sorts of earth creatures, then camels aren't all that far-fetched.
     
  20. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Same way you would in any other genre, just not using any names regarding a location in the real world. Describe his skin tone, his hair, even facial features if you need to be that specific.

    And a good point to remember is that while we are reading it in English, technically they are probably not speaking English. It's just written that way because that's what the audience can read.
     
  21. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Silver Random, I wasn't saying to call them Hespanics, but to say they look like hespanics. You could also say it is like Swiss Cheese.

    The narrator must understand our world, language, and customes or he/she could not relate anything to us.
     
  22. TwinPanther13
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    TwinPanther13 Contributing Member

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    In this case I believe words like "rendez vous" should not be allowed. I would not call a flat bread in my fantasy novel a "tortilla" or a "crepe". It would be flat bread and if it needed a name I would make one up based on the region. You have french bread, so if your country is called Minloch then it could be milochian bread. Leave as much of the outside world behind as you can and let the reader loose themself in the story.
     
  23. Etan Isar
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    Etan Isar Contributing Member Contributor

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    We're talking about redezvous, as in a "meeting", right? That's technically an English word at this point; and besides, it's generic french anyway, isn't it? So it flies. But especially if you are using third limited or first-person, it wouldn't make sense to say "Swiss cheeze" (and why would you need "swiss cheese" anyway? Why should a fantasy world even have swiss cheese?). The reason is that it throws the reader out of the illusion. "Swiss" is a proper adjective refering to a specific Earth country, Switzerland. So it would be odd to have that. In general, proper nouns and their derivatives don't translate between languages. So in that sense, the cheese, even if it was just like swiss cheese, would have an entirely different name. When writing about a fantasy world, you are basically operating on the convention that the book is translated from another language into English. That's why common words (in the sense of "common" as opposed to "proper") of any language are acceptable as long as the reader understands them, but "proper" words are not.
     
  24. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think so.

    Where the reader notices it. As long as the reader doesn't reflect over it, it doesn't break the suspension of disbelief. What works is what you can get away with.
     
  25. ManicParroT
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    ManicParroT Contributing Member

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    For the love of god, don't call it Swiss Cheese. Don't talk about Hispanic people - you may as well have British people in your book, for all the sense it makes.

    It's perfectly fine to steal ideas and images and cultures, such as swiss cheese or Mexican food or whatever, but you need to layer them over with new names, and ideally fuzz the images slightly.

    George R R Martin does this - he has Greek fire and what not, but he comes up with new names and locations for his cultures, as well as plenty of original content.
    Robert Jordan was quite happy to steal from the real world and make an entire nation of Chinese people, but he doesn't jolly well call them Chinese people. They're from Cairhien, or whatever.

    Incidentally, one huge gripe I have is when characters in fantasy books talk with recognisably contemporary accents, or they have names like Bill and Randy. It ruins the suspension of disbelief entirely.
     

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