Naming Your Fantasy Creature

Written on April 6, 2016 Tagged in: , , Categorised in: ,

A squirrel with horns

Now that you’re knee-deep in creature design, you’ll have to name the thing. And when naming a fantasy creature, a good one can be hard to come by. Kinda.

As with creating any type of new word, we need a steady base to begin our work. If you have a language that you’ve toiled away to create, you’re already ahead of the game. Maybe. Depending on who is naming the creature, it may or may not be necessary. We’ll get to that later.

Using Real-World Languages

I’m an English-speaker, which gives me a certain set of sounds that I use every day. I was also a Spanish major, and that increased the range of what sounds “correct” to me. If I go back further, I’ve always had friends who speak other languages, too. I was never proficient in any of them, except maybe French and Polish.

Each of those real-world languages help me mash sounds together in new ways. If you have friends who speak a different language, sit them down and make them speak it to you. Once you’ve heard it spoken, emulate it. Try to learn it at a basic level. Even just a few words can go a long way.

A tiger, laying down in the sunset

Tigers, Bears, and Bunnies

In English, words take on a personality of their own. When little kids act like tigers, you can hear the attitude of the tiger in the word itself.

“I’m a tiger, rawr!”

So for us, the word tiger sounds like what a tiger is. And I don’t mean the kind of animal that lounges around at the zoo. I mean the animal that stalks around the jungle.

The word bear is a lot more round. Yes, grizzly bears are serious animals. So are polar bears. But black bears and koala bears exist. As a collection, bears aren’t as scary as tigers. And the word bear isn’t as scary as the word tiger sounds.

Lions are another example. The word sounds strong, but not harsh. When you look at a lion, you think, “lion is a fitting name for that animal.” But lions are also equal parts regal and lazy. “Lion” feels strong, but it feels more like an animal that would walk up to you and eat you, not stalk for hours.

The other big cats are well-named, too. Jaguars are a bit scary. Cheetahs aren’t as scary, but their name sounds fast. The word Ocelot just sounds cool, and a little bit dangerous. If you’re a small animal, it sounds a bit more dangerous.

If you don’t need something that sounds fierce, look at things like birds. Robins, Bluejays, and Cardinals are all middle of the road. They’re not cutesy, but they’re honest. Crow and Raven are darker birds, and their presence is more ominous. The way their names sound convey exactly that.

An eagle, looking all seriousEagles are serious hunting birds, so are hawks. And when you read those names, you feel the strength of them. They’re both in the raptor family, which has a lot of edge to it as well.

When you hear the word kitten, or bunny, you feel the word. It’s soft. As the animal gets older, we call it a cat, or a rabbit. Both are less fuzzy and more mature names. But the words still have some fur to them, they’re not sandpapery words.

This isn’t something that just happens in English either. Tigers are “tigres” in Spanish. Bear becomes “oso”, which also sounds more playful than dangerous. Kitten is “gatito”, which becomes cat, “gato.”

Names can even be a bit comical, too. Take the platypus, for example. It’s not a joke, but it has a strange sound to it that you don’t see in other animals. Which, I’d argue, is what makes it work.

We don’t tend to use irony when we name things, either. There’s a reason Grizzly Bears have their name. Tigers aren’t small ferret-like creatures. Robins don’t swoop down and carry off children. Condors could, if they got dead-set on it. But their name supports it as much as their giant wings support them.

Fantasy Creature Names From J.R.R. Tolkien

With the real-world stuff out of the way, let’s look at some of the decisions made by other authors. We’ll start with the obvious choice, Tolkien.

Wargs

A grey wolf, looking just to the right of the camera

When Tolkien named something, he went all out. While I would have said that the goblins rode wolves, he opted to call them Wargs. In phonetics, you don’t have much room to go upwards from “wolf”, but Tolkien found it. Warg.

But if I’m not mistaken, wargs are bigger than wolves, so it works out. The selling point is the “rg” at the end. It gives the word more bite. The change from “o” to “a” cleans the phonetics up a bit. “W”, I’d suggest, is a versatile letter that gives the word a bit more darkness up front. You might argue that “water” starts with “w”, and it’s not scary or dark. But if you’re not afraid of the water at some level, you’ve never thought too hard about how many ships the ocean has consumed.

Nazgul

Or take the Nazgul. Throw a “g” and a “z” into anything and it becomes menacing. Rabbit to Razbig, for example. Now you’re not going to take that word serious because 1. it’s based on the word rabbit and you saw the magic of getting to Razbig. and 2. it has the word “big” in it, which just seems weak. But it’s an example. You get the idea.

To me, the interesting thing about the word “Nazgul”, is that it’s not all that harsh. Not in the grand scheme of things anyway. Words that start with “g”, “t”, and often “k”, are aggressive. They go into the guttural range.

But Nazgul is an interesting word. It starts with a “N”, which is a middle-range sound. It’s not weak, but it’s a bit round.

The “z” in the middle of the word takes the edge from the “g”, which makes it a smoother sound. When you say it, the sound becomes a softer thing without losing the strength of the “g”. Spanish plays with this, too, in that a “z” takes on the sound of an “s” in English sometimes.

With the “l” at the end, the word terminates with some strength as well. Nazgu would have sounded incomplete. Nazgut would have been a strange sound, too. That “t” would have made it a more abrupt ending. Something like Nazgur might have worked, because you can drag out the r sound. But to me it feels more unpolished than the “l”.

And keep in mind what Tolkien was naming here. They were also called “Ringwraiths” elsewhere. They were fallen kings who stuck around to hunt down the missing ring. It’s scarier than a vampire on some levels. But the name never crosses into “over the top” range. If Tolkien had lost his mind and given them an aggressive name, their formal regality would die again.

Fantasy Creature Names of J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter)

It seems like a more modern source for creature names might be appropriate. J.K. Rowling feels like a solid choice, especially since the tone of her work is much different. It’s worth noting that a good number of her creatures are existing creatures. That also seems in-line with her story, because it takes place in a skew of our real world. The use of pre-created fantasy creatures or mythological creatures gives us something with which to connect.

Dementors of Azkaban

So the obvious word here is “Dementors.” Including the word “dement” immediately gives you an idea of what’s going on. Dement means “to make mad, or insane.” That’s a clever trick, too. If you can strike the meaning into the reader’s head by using similar words or the root of a word, you likely should.

But the second important word is Azkaban, which stands alone as a location in the Harry Potter story. This isn’t a post about naming locations, but in this case the word rolls into the name.

Azkaban has a few interesting parts to it. “Az” gives it a smooth and dark sound. If the word had started something like “Ar” it might have worked, too. (Think “Arkham” from Batman. But “Arkaban” would have sounded like a Batman rip-off.) “Atkaban” could have worked, too, but the “t” chops the name up, and so it doesn’t flow quite as well.

Looking at the middle bit of Azkaban, we have that “ka” sound. The closest thing would have been to replace it with “la”, I think. Which would have made it “Azlaban.” The “l” smooths the middle of the word out a bit more, which in my mind lowers the intensity of it. The “k” makes the phonetics pop, though a “g” would have accomplished almost the same thing with Azgaban. But it’s worth mentioning that the word “Azkaban” isn’t far from “Azaban.” That “ka” sound makes it sound more lively.

At the end, we have “ban.” It’s almost interchangeable with things like “lan”, “ran”, or “gan.” The “b”, in this case, rounds the word out. It also keeps it away from real world names like “Kyrgyzstan” and “Pakistan.”

Each of those three parts play to the middle of the range of sounds. We don’t find anything like “dr” or “gr”. There’s nothing too guttural. If the word had used three of those sounds, it might have been too much. With three sounds that lean toward the darker side of neutral, it gives the word a consistent sound.

Dugbog

The way I understand it, Dugbogs are magical animals that appear like dead wood. They crawl around and eat smaller creatures and sometimes bite at the ankles of humans. Not at all comparable to Dementors of Azkaban. They seem to be more like the Chihuahua of magical creatures.

This word, to me, gives a good connection with the voice of Rowling’s work. Her voice, in general, has a lot of playfulness to it. And I’d argue that’s the spirit about her work that people love. Dugbog has that.

The two similar sounds give the name a sing-song quality, which on its own takes away the seriousness of it. A Nazgul with the name of a Dugbog just doesn’t command the same level of terror.

“Beware of the Dugbog!” just sounds like a laughable thing to say. But, if you were a young wizard, venturing out in sandals, the warning might be a serious one.

But on its own, the “dug” sound feels a bit more playful than most things. It’s not as harsh as “grug”, or “zug.” And it’s not light, like “Dy” or “Da.” (Dabog would have been a terrible name, by the way.)

“Bog” gives us a sense of habitat, and with that habitat comes a feeling of swampiness. She could have gone a bit more serious with something like “bol” or “bor.” Or a bit lighter still with “bah” or “fal.”

With respect, if we wanted some more serious variants, we could change things up with:

  • Dulbor (which has an “angry gnome” feeling to it.)
  • Zuglag
  • Dumfal
  • Grugmar

Again, with respect, if we wanted to create variants with a lighter sound yet, we could have:

  • Fairbog
  • Duffnuff
  • DugBug (This one is close to the original, but it was worth mentioning.)

I’d never suggest that her choice in Dugbog was wrong or that these are better. (Some of the alternates are pretty bad.) The suggestions are for academic reasons only.

Naming Your Creature: AKA – Putting It All Together

I’m going to pick some random attributes, for better or worse. If I were to do this for a story, I’d spend a whole lot longer on this. But, it should be enough to give you an idea of the process that I follow.

Our Story Needs Another Big Cat

This first creature of ours is feline, but it has small tusks like an elephant. It lives in a savannah-like place, so the markings fall somewhere between a cheetah and a leopard. The cat relies on its size to hunt, so its paws are larger and it has a more solid frame than a cheetah. If you saw it in a zoo, it doesn’t have the same awe-inspiring profile that a lion does. But, it is big enough where it would scare you to death out in the wild.

So it’s not a magical creature, it’s a skew of something we know already. I’m likely to look at the names of other big cats as a way to get started.

Ocelot it is!

Immediately I could change the “oc” to an “es.” Not because “oc” is wrong, but just to play with it. I went with Ocelot because it’s the coolest cat name ever. I could add another “s” to that as well, making it “ess.” That lengthening of the phonetic could make it too serpentine. I’ll just watch that.

If I changed the last set from “ot” to “ok”, I’d have Esselok. If I liked that, I’d remove that second “s” for sure. To me, Eselok sounds and looks better than Esselok.

But the “el” feels out of place there. If I remove it, I’d have Essok. I like Essok, but I’m not sure it’s right for this animal. This animal is bigger than Essok sounds, too. To me, Essok has a bit of a bird-like feeling.

With the number of vowels in that word, I could stand to rough up the front of the word a bit with a “g”. That would make it Gessok. I could even vary that a bit to make it Gessorn, though that feels to me like something in the antelope family. (That’s most likely because “orn” is close to “horn”.)

Backtracking to Essok, I think perhaps a “t” might fit a little better. That gives us Tessok. I like it, but it doesn’t have much of a feline angle to it anymore. Tessuar would be a bit too direct for my tastes. I’m starting to think that “e” is messing me up, so I’m going to switch it to an “a”, for Tassok. If I wanted darker and more canine, I could go with Tolkien’s “warg” and make it “Tassorg” or “Tasarg.” That sounds a bit too over the top any which way.

Tassok. Now, I’m feeling a little bit stuck at this point, so I’m going to pause and consider who is naming this animal. If I wanted to give the word a more indigenous flare, I could call it a “Tassuk” (Pronounced like “Tas-ook”.) And while I don’t think that’s right for this one, I can borrow from it to land on “Tashuk.” If I want a little bit more variance, I could go to Trashuk. But hey, there’s “trash” in that word, so I’d move it to Trushuk or Thrushuk. Those are a bit much, so Tashuk it is.

It’s possible that I’d wake up in a week and turn Tashuks into boars or sea creatures, but for now, that works for me. Always give yourself time away from the word before you set it in stone. Although, I’m not doing that for this blog post.

Naming a Magical Creature

So we went from Ocelot to Tashuk, but what if I just need to pull a magical creature out of a hat? Let’s make this creature short and furry. Picture a top-heavy animal that’s shaped a bit like an upside-down pear. It has broad shoulders, thick arms and legs, and a pair of deer horns. It walks upright, too. If you saw this animal in the wilderness, you’d want to give it a hug. (Just mind the horns.)

I’d want to start with a light sound, something playful. Maybe I’d give a “j” a shot. “Je” seems like a reasonable place to start.

Je-ne could go a bit toward the playful side of French. Though I might change the spelling to Jehne for some visual interest. It also guides the reader in the pronunciation a little. They could pronounce it “Jen”, but that’s okay.

In thinking about it, I could stop at Jehne. But, in my opinion, that sounds too serious. Jehnerel has a pleasant sound, I could have used it for a bird of some sort. A “f” to make, Jehnefel, lightens the word up a bit more. I think that’s a good thing for this creature.

I could inject another vowel into it, something like Jehnefeil. But that’s just a mouthful. The “ei” also tints the word toward sounding like “fail.”

Jehnefel is sounding like a good place to stop. If I don’t, I’m going to over-complicate it. But again, I’d let this one sit for awhile before I committed. It’s also a good idea to use the name a few times in the story to see how it fits with the tone.

Obvious Creature Names Can Be Good, Too

If everything around you had a bizarre name, nothing would feel unique. There are also ranges that we get to play in when we name creatures. Cat is a pretty common word for us, it doesn’t feel exotic. Impala does, though I’d assume it’s the opposite if you’re an African who lives by Impalas. (I’ve never asked an African who lives by Impalas to find out.)

A bear in a bank of snow

But look at something like the Flat-Faced Bear. It’s a bear, or was a bear before it was extinct. We could have called it yet another name, but it was a bear. Adding “flat-faced” to the front of it makes it a specific type of bear, but keeps the reference of what it is. The same goes for black, polar, grizzly, and brown bears.

What I’m getting at is, we don’t have to rename everything. Sometimes the best thing you can do is call something an arctic fox because it lives in cold places. If you went with the Tushuk idea above, you could make it a Red Tushuk. You know, because it’s brownish-red.

You’ll find examples of things like “Greater Kudu,” “Thompson’s Gazelle,” or “Great White Shark.” But you can get even more creative than that. Take the dove for example. It’s a pretty bird, but changing it to “Mourning Dove” gives it more interest. “Mourning Tushuk” even sounds interesting, though I’d never use that.

Commence With The Naming of Creatures

You have options. Naming fantasy creatures is all about putting the right syllables together. So go on, get out there and name some things.

Whenever you create a new word, be it a character’s name, a creature type, or a place, put it into Google. It would be embarrassing to name a serious creature after an exotic flavor of ice cream by mistake. As it turns out “Tashuk” is a village in Iran.

The next post in this series will be on the habitats of creature design.

If you liked this, try one of these other topics I've written about:

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