Friday, January 30, 2015

Creative Writing: Tips for Naming Fictional Races

Our world is populated by a wondrous variety of people from different cultural backgrounds; it’s this variety that lends our planet such beauty and diversity.

Our fiction is derived from our reality, and one of the ways in which we seek this derivation is by creating original worlds populated with original cultures and races. Oftentimes, however, the task of creating an entire race of fictional beings can be more intimidating than it appears at first glance.

Today’s writing tip will focus on one simple aspect of race creation: naming your fictional race. We’ll be discussing these seven tips:

  • Re-name an existing race
  • Derive names from physical appearance or existence
  • Derive names from land or territory
  • Incorporate root words from other languages
  • Use ending suffixes to add credibility to your race
  • Consider phonetics and their psychological effects
  • Ensure pronunciation

1. Re-name an Existing Race
Many races used in fantasy and sci-fi are derived from classical mythology and folklore—elves, trolls, dwarves, aliens, titans, sprites, griffons, and so on. If you find that your fictional race is incredibly similar to a pre-existing creature from mythology, you may want to use the traditional name coupled with a “branding word” that sets them apart from the norm.

By “branding word,” I mean a noun or adjective that defines what makes this particular type of elf, troll, dwarf, etc. different than usual. R.A. Salvatore, for example, features Dark Elves in his novels—elves who live underground without sunlight and who kill in order to advance their own power within their realm. J.R.R. Tolkien writes about High Elves (otherwise known as “Light Elves”) which are defined as elves who have seen the light of the Two Trees in Valinor.

You, too, can put your own spin on well-known fantasy creatures, and if you find that your elf-like race is similar enough to be called “elves,” you might want to consider naming them in this manner: Low Elves, Sky Elves, Storm Elves, Sand Elves, Cyber Elves… and the list goes on.

2. Derive names from Physical Appearance or Existence
Some races or creature types will have a very defining trait, and sometimes naming your race after this defining trait can be very useful because (1) it helps the reader remember the name more easily and (2) it embodies what is so significant about said race or creature.

For example, in the anime/manga series Bleach there is a race of creatures called Hollows. Hollows are humans who have lost their hearts, either through despair or some other strong emotion, and have a part of their torso hollowed out as a result. This physical characteristic—this empty hole in their bodies—lines up well with the viewer psychologically. The viewer sees the empty hole, is reminded of the fact that Hollows are missing something important, and have an easier time connecting (and remembering) the name of the race with the image of the race itself.

An identical approach you can take is to name the race after what is most significant about them as a culture. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example, the world is divided into four nations based on what element said nations are able to manipulate. Those how can “bend” water are known as members of the “Water Tribe.” There is also the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads. These race names are determined by what most defines these cultures as people.

3. Derive Names from Land or Territory
Where does your race live? If your novel is based in a fantastical world, chances are your races live in fantastical places (not those found on planet earth). Knowing where your race lives can be an enormous help in determining the name of your race.

Looking at the popular video game, The Legend of Zelda, we see this concept in practice. The race of women, known as the Gerudo, get their name from Gerudo Valley (their homeland). The Hyrulean race gets its name from the land of Hyrule. Nearly every race in this series derives its name from the land in which they live.

Derivation is very common in real life where cultures get their name from the lands in which they live: those in Germany are “Germans,” those in Great Britain are “British,” those in Japan are “Japanese,” and so on.

4. Incorporate Root Words from Other Languages
If you want to name your race something truly unique, but aren’t sure where to begin, then root words can be a good place to start.

Greek and Latin root words can be especially helpful in coming up with an original name for your race, but you shouldn’t be limited by just those two. Looking into the meanings of foreign words and phrases can also be very beneficial. Google Translate can be an excellent tool for this.

Tiger Laguz from Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
Here are some examples of fictional races that derive their names from foreign words and root words:

  • Lutra (Redwall series): a tribe of otters whose name comes from lutra, the Latin word for “otter”
  • Fal’Cie (Final Fantasy XIII + other titles): god-like alien beings whose name comes from the French words ciel (meaning “sky”) and fa (meaning “servant”); their name literally means “Servant of the Sky”
  • Metarex (Sonic X): powerful creatures who take on the form of robots; their name comes from the root words meta (meaning “to transform”) and rex (meaning “king”); literally, “the King of Transformation”
  • Laguz and Beorc (Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance): animal-shifter humans and normal humans; the first word translates to “water” and the second to “birch”; Laguz is Germanic and Beorc is Anglo-Saxon

5. Use Ending Suffixes to add Credibility to your Name
Piggy-backing off of that last point, it’s also a good idea to incorporate natural suffixes into the names of your races. This will give your race a very believable and natural-sounding name.

By definition, suffixes are “word endings that add a certain meaning to the word.” Common suffixes to add to the end of a race name would be: -oid, -an, -ian, -al, -ac, -on, -arian, -ial, -ite, and –ine. Notice how suffixes are added to the end of these race names (suffixes are bolded):

  • Aparoid (Starfox Assault)
  • Ishmaelite (Bible)
  • Spartan (ancient race of people from Greece)
  • Asgardians (Thor)
  • Krogan (Mass Effect)
  • Klingon (Star Trek)

6. Consider Phonetics and their Psychological Effects
I discussed this same tactic when discussing 4 tips for naming fictional characters, but it bears repeating here.

What kind of race is your race? Are they highly intelligent? Dark and mysterious? Cruel and brutal? Simple and unobtrusive? Perhaps all of these at once?

When naming your race, think about what images that name conjures. Certain letters give off certain vibes. The letters k, z, t, d, and r—for example—are all harsh sounds that resemble growling or barking. The letters s, l, h, and y are smoother and more elegant; they slide off the tongue. Vowel sounds are pleasant to the ears and help tie these consonants together to form a picture.

Let’s go back to R.A. Salvatore’s dark elves—or “Drow” as they are more commonly called. When you hear the word “Drow” what images come to mind? The d and r convey that harsh, psychological bark. The o and w combined sound heavy and melodious. The word “Drow” rings like a hollow knell of doom when you say it aloud, and actually makes you frown a bit when lipping the ow phonetic.

Of course, no reader is going to take the time to think about all of this as they read your novel, but psychologically these things do leave an impact. The word “Drow” brings to mind certain images because the human brain process certain sounds within certain emotional and psychological contexts. If you’re trying to name your race something original, consider how the name itself makes you feel—enlightened, relaxed, alerted, somber, etc. That can be a big tip-off as to how well the name “clicks” with the image of the race you wish to convey.

7. Ensure Pronunciation
The last big tip I can give you about naming your races is to ensure that the names are pronounceable by the human tongue. You may have a race of aliens from another planet with an entirely different language, but if those aliens are known as the Rwilo’sawaghzli-obliskae your reader is going to mentally roll their eyes and skip over that name every time it comes up in the story.

I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with having hyphens and apostrophes within your racial names so long as the names themselves are easy to learn at a glance or two. If your reader is skipping over the name every time they see it, then it’s either too long or too complex (or both). This is harmful to your readers because it disenchants them from their immersion within the story.



  1. Good post. I'll have to keep 4 and 5 in mind.

    In my sci-fi, I just randomly came up with the names. I do have one that got changed though. Scall were a humanoid species with green scaled skin, which was where I got the name Scall. Later on, I realized their names are always two syllables with the vowels being the same. Tenned, Hardath, etc. I decided to change the name of the species to Scallan, and their planet is Saddat, which both fits the way they name things.

    1. I'm glad you found some of the advice useful.

      Much like you, these fantasy names usually just pop in my head without my having to do any research or "name creating" using root words. I think it's good to have a few methods to fall back on in case you get stuck, though.

      When you have fictional world-rules, such as the fact that all names have two syllables, it's important to stay consistent. That was good on your part to realize that so quickly and make the necessary changes.

      Thank you for reading! :)

  2. This is a really great post, Casey. Love it! ^ ^ Bookmarking it for future us. :)

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