The Structure of the World, and Names in the Desert

I have about finished up the last of my big short stories for the project I’ve been working on, and now that I’m not focusing on that I’ve had a little more opportunity to work on the novel that I’ve had on the backburner for now. Like I’ve said previously here, writing and editing those shorts for a couple of months has been a good way to get back in shape after a long break from writing, and I’m approaching the novel in better shape than if I’d dived right back into it.

One of the big things I’ve started paying attention to is naming conventions. Prior to this a lot of my work has been very westernized, or secondary world fantasy with wholly made up names. The names have come pretty smoothly as a result of that, in the former they’re the kinds of named I encountered on a daily basis back in Maine and in the latter I’d come up with a couple of rules to stick to and formulated names around that. I’ve tried for something with a little more verisimilitude in this piece, and it has necessitated a lot of research. Research, map making and charting out the history of the setting.

Now, worldbuilding can frankly be a little cancerous if you let it go out of control. Tolkien set a high standard and his influence can be felt across most of the fantasy genre, but he was also a trained linguist and historian and wrote his backstory as a series of guidelines for himself. No wait come back I’m only going to write a brief thin about Tolkien this time, I promise. The worldbuilding of Middle Earth was built to facilitate his languages and add weight to the naming conventions of the setting. That’s fine. That worked out extraordinarily well and gave him historical events to reference within the text, migration routes of various cultures in the setting, so on and so forth. He used every scrap of what he created to enrich the story for the audience.

skullgate.pngMost of us are not Tolkien. If you attempt to build a world with that much depth, you will end up with a 600-page setting bible and a hastily written opening paragraph next to your bleached skeleton, propped up at your writing desk. People will be able to reference your carefully charted currency conversion for six different elven cultures, unless you are writing an economic thriller and doing a version of The Wolf of Wall Street but with boisterous dwarven stockbrockers doing lines of mithril powder off scantily clad halflings while they rake in fortunes from insider trading of rare, enchanted wood from the depths of the forest and come under scrutiny from the dragon lord’s investigatory scryers…

…actually, that sounds like a pretty good book…

…But yes, keeping the worldbuilding to stuff that will actually have an effect on the story has been key, and actually goes contrary to what a lot of writing groups I’ve been part of recommend. To me, a lot of the worldbuilding now comes in that very rough, first draft. Throw out all the names and cultural stuff you want just to get it down on paper, and then go back and play with it and make it all work properly. That’s what I did with my not-Ottoman-Empire piece, I threw down a bunch of cool mythological and historical stuff that sounded cool, and then I picked it all out, worked it into a timeline outside of the text, and then in a later editing pass I tweaked the exposition to fit that timeline a little better and disclose the information to the reader in a more organic way.

I will put in one caveat – I like it when people impose strict rules on magic in their setting and then adhere to them throughout. That is something where I think that doing a lot of external writing can be hugely beneficial, because you’re kind of playing with the laws of physics when you add magic to your story and it’s a good idea to have some other, higher laws in play so it doesn’t read as if you’re pulling new deus ex fireball solutions out of your ass on a regular basis. If your wizard can only cast six spells in a day, there had better be a really good reason behind his casting a seventh, there should be consequences in-world, and there should be clear foreshadowing or aftereffects demonstrating how that was even possible.

One element of worldbuilding I’ve put a big focus on has been naming conventions and structure. My favorite example of someone doing it right is George R R Martin. If you jump in headfirst it looks like a bit of a mishmash, you have a combination of contemporary names, older anglo-saxon inspired stuff, and straight up invented fantasy. It actually makes sense though. Westeros is larger than Greenland and has seen multiple waves of settlers from other regions, but were unified for several generations under a pretty standard feudal arrangement with porous borders between the lords’ realms. There would be a healthy exchange of names and terminology there, even if each individual region had a particularly dominant culture or group that maintained a strong identity and naming convention from the immigrants that founded it. The more archaic sounding names are definitely concentrated in some areas like the western holdings under Lannister rule, which I imagine is a deliberate attempt by the Lannisters of Casterly Rock to maintain identity and remind others of the venerable age of their house, and in the North where the Andal invasion never managed to completely displace the First Men. The wholly made up names come from groups outside of Westeros proper and still adhere to their own conventions, names drawn from Valyrian almost all replace the long “a” with “ae” as a pretty straightforward example. Lots of “rys” too. Doesn’t have quite the depth of the old Eldarin tongue mutating into various offshoots as the elves became regionalized and developed multiple subcultures across Arda, but it’s perfectly serviceable and a recognizable pattern in naming. It makes sense inside the universe and that’s the important thing.

So, I took that approach and have spent the last several weeks brainstorming how to create a world where you can have names and terminology drawn from Mesopotamian conventions coexisting alongside more contemporary names from Arabic, Highland English, Slavic and Germanic backgrounds, and not have it feel like a scramble. Oh, and taking place on a planet with only two continents and a few scattered islands. Lots of research on the evolution and spread of language, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself even as someone who really only speaks English and Rammstein lyrics. Now, I had the advantage of overt supernatural influence and godlike beings walking free in this setting so there’s a little more leeway than I would be afforded trying to do a strict 1-1 cultural translation. What I came up with was that one continent was home to these beings and they adopted and kept the terminology somewhere in the realm of the Babylonian-Assyrian meld (basically Akkadian), and the only figures who still use it are the immortal or extremely long lived beings from that era. Another region continued evolving into something like Aramaic and then into the other semitic languages from there, which is how I justify the Bedouin-inspired groups I have. The other, more westernized stuff is a result of communities carrying fragments of the ancient language with them in the wake of a near extinction level event that broke apart what had been their unified culture (my Atlantis, I suppose) and each one evolved differently in relative seclusion from each other with occasional crossbreeding from traders and the rare waves of immigration or intermarriage. Once I had them all established I could sweep them up under a pantheon of powerful beings who’d allow them to keep their naming conventions but impose a more unified language on them in the interests of imperial growth, and from there they start colonizing other regions with a big emphasis on port cities and cultural melting pots stemming from better trade routes.

It’s pretty rad. Even if I wasn’t doing it for research, it’s still as fascinating a topic as any genre story I’ve read, primarily because I’m a stodgy 80 year old professor stuck in a 30 year old’s body. I like how interwoven the earliest texts are with mythology, to the point where you really can’t separate the two and have complex accounts of pottery branding in the antediluvian world juxtaposed with stories about immortal god-kings walking the earth using enchanted maces to slay mountain-sized snake monsters.

By the way, if anyone knows of good history sites or books that touch on these topics, particularly Bedouin culture and preislamic Arabia, by all means feel free to drop me an e-mail or comment recommendation. It’s not a subject I learned much about in university, most of my background is in the World Wars, neo-imperialism and medieval Europe with an emphasis on the UK, France and various Baltic raiders. I did a couple of presentations on the Ottomans but for the most part this has all been self-taught and self-guided and it’s a prickly subject to research, when I hit up the bookstore I feel like every decent history book I find is bookended by a handful of thinkpieces on terrorism or thinly veiled islamophobic screeds. I’m pretty good at spotting sources that heavily biased but I very much appreciate suggestions that cut down on my having to dig through the muck to get at the diamonds.


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