Naming Your Fantasy Creature
Now that you’re knee-deep in creature design, you’ll have to name the thing. And when naming a fantasy creature, a “good” name can be hard to come by.
As with creating any 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 specific 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 helps me mash sounds together in new ways. If you have friends who speak a different language, sit them down and make them speak it for a while. 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.
Tigers, Bears, and Bunnies
In English, words take on a personality of their own. For example, when little kids act like tigers, you could figure out what a “tiger” is by the way they say the word.
“I’m a tiger, rawr!”
Or you would at least have a good idea.
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 dangerous 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 frightening as the word tiger sounds.
Lions are another example. The word “lion” sounds strong but not harsh or scary. When you look at a lion, you think, “lion is a fitting name for that animal.” But they’re also equal parts regal and lazy. So the word “tiger” is less fitting for a lion. (A Kenyan friend of mine once told me a lion could chase you up a tree and wait for ten days for you to die or fall out of the tree. So I reserve the right to change my mind about the “tiger vs. lion” statement I just made if that should ever happen to me.)
Feel free to insert your favorite “lion around” joke here.
The other big cats are well-named, too. Jaguars are a bit scary. Cheetahs aren’t as frightening, but their name sounds fast. The word Ocelot just sounds cool and a little bit dangerous. If you’re a small animal, it’s even a bit more dangerous sounding yet.
If you don’t need something that sounds fierce, look at things like birds. “Robin,” “Bluejay,” and “Cardinal” 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. Their names convey years of sentiment, mythology, and mystique.
Eagles are large hunting birds, so are hawks. 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.
Side note: How cool does the word “raptor” sound?
When you hear the words “kitten” or “bunny,” you feel their tone. It’s soft and cute. 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 cuteness to them; they don’t go from fluffy to sandpaper.
These situations don’t just happen in English. Tigers are “tigres” in Spanish. Bear becomes “oso,” which also sounds more playful than it does 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 exactly, 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. You can imagine a billed animal saying the word “platypus.”
We don’t tend to use irony when we name things, either. There’s a reason Grizzly Bears have their name. Elephants 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.
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 in “Warg.”
But if I’m not mistaken, wargs are bigger than wolves, so it works out. The selling point is the “rg” sound 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 at the start of the phonetic.
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.
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 seriously, because:
1. it’s based on the word rabbit and you saw the magic of getting to Razbig.
2. it has the word “big” in it, which just seems weak.
But it’s an example. You get the idea.
To me, the neat 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 on the more aggressive side. They go into the guttural range.
But Nazgul starts with an “N,” which is a middle-range sound. It’s not weak, but it’s a bit round.
The “z” in the middle takes the edge away from the “g,” sound. That gives the word a smoother sound. When you say it, the sound softens without losing the strength of the “g.”
Spanish plays with this, too, in that a “z” takes on the sound of an “s” sometimes.
With the “l” at the end of “Nazgul”, the word terminates with some strength as well.
“Nazgu” sounds 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. If pirates had named them, it would be perfect. I’m kidding!
But to me, it feels more unpolished than the “l.”
Keep in mind what Tolkien was naming when he called them “Nazgul.” They are “Ringwraiths” elsewhere. They were fallen kings who stuck around to hunt down the missing ring because a major villain had them as slaves. (Basically) 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 picked some aggressive word, their formal regality would die again.
Fantasy Creature Names of J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter)
It seems like a newer source for creature names might be appropriate as well. J.K. Rowling feels like a solid choice, especially since the tone of her work is much different than Tolkien’s. It’s worth noting that a good number of her creatures are existing creatures of myth. Her story holds a lot to our real-world because it takes place in a skew of our own. The use of pre-created fantasy creatures or mythological creatures gives us something with which to connect faster than Tolkien’s. You have to explain what a “Warg” is, but I don’t know anyone unfamiliar with unicorns. I’ll skip the typical stuff and go for the things she made up.
Dementors of Azkaban
So the creatures are called “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 smart trick, too. If you can strike the meaning or traits of a creature 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.
The last phonetic is “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 sounds plays to the middle of the range. 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 tone.
Too much of a similar tone or feeling can make a name feel overdone or less interesting.
The way I understand it, Dugbogs are magical animals that look 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 compared to someone like Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. And I’d argue that tone is part of what people love about her work.
Dugbog has that.
The two similar sounds give the name a sing-song quality, which takes away the seriousness of it. If you swapped “vampire” with “Dugbog,” it wouldn’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.
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 (To me, that feels more Sci-Fi probably because of the “z.”)
Again, with respect, if we wanted to create variants with a lighter sound yet, we could have:
- Fairbog (The fairest swamp creature of them all!)
- DugBug (This one is close to the original, but it was worth mentioning.)
I would 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 more substantial, and it has a larger 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 serpent-like.
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 larger 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.
I would probably wake up a week later 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 with a bit of an upside-down pear shape. 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 hug it. (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 fine.
In thinking about it, I could stop at “Jehne.” But, in my opinion, that sounds too serious. (And it’s lame for me to pick something in the first stab while explaining the process!)
“Jehnerel” has a pleasant sound. I think it could work for a tropical bird. Adding an “f” to make, “Jehnefel,” also 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” sound also tints the word toward sounding like “fail.”
Jehnefel sounds like a reasonable place to stop. If I don’t, I’m going to over-complicate it. But again, I’d let this one sit for a while 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.)
But look at something like the Flat-Faced Bear. It’s a bear, or was a bear a long time ago. It’s extinct now. 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 Tashuk idea above, you could make it a Red Tuashuk. 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 Tashuk” 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 dangerous 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.