Waiter! There’s a Smphurphle in My Fantasy Novel: Do's and Don'ts of Made-Up Words

Waiter! There’s a Smphurphle in My Fantasy Novel: Do’s and Don’ts of Made-Up Words

One of the joys writing fantasy is the necessity of creating made-up names for your unique worlds, races, creatures, and technology. However, even the best of fantasy writers occasionally take this to a worrisome extreme when they start slapping made-up names on things that really aren’t so fantastical after all. In Alchemy With Words (edited by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond), Milena Benini elaborates:

The great late Damon Knight … strongly objected to people calling their small, short-tailed, fluffy animals, smeerps—when they could perfectly well have called them rabbits instead…. [I]f you are inventing a world different from our own, by all means call whatever is really different by a really different name. Just make sure you don’t merely call a horse a glymph.

Unless you’re striving for a humorous effect, you’re usually better off using prosaic words even for even your most inherently original elements. The Flaming Purple Smphurphle just doesn’t inspire the same quality of verisimilitude found in the calmer (if admittedly more less intriguing) ondiron, or the even simpler and more versatile flint dagger. Hugo winner David Gerrold points out, in his book Worlds of Wonder:

Occasionally, you may feel the need to make up a new word…. Sometimes you can do this to great effect, but not always…. When you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you will always be tempted to make up new words—especially technical-sounding terms like quadro-triticale and veeble-fetzer…. As a general rule, you should always be wary of inventing new words.

Fantasy authors have just as much responsibility as their less fantastical comrades to ground their stories in a sense of reality. Consider the languages spoken in your fantasy world. How has history and technology influenced the etymology? Why has this particular item gleaned this particular name? If you know why something is called a smphurphle, go for it.

Otherwise, you’re probably better off toning it down to a less attention-grabbing word, so as not to prod your readers’ suspension of disbelief bubbles.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! When do you think it’s appropriate to use made-up words in your stories? Tell me in the comments!

Waiter! There’s a Smphurphle in My Fantasy Novel: Do's and Don'ts of Made-Up Words

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Mic Meguiar says

    It seems all your posts on the AuthorCulture site only allows access to “invited readers.” I would love to read these older posts as I find all your articles very informative. Hope you don’t mind me asking for your assistance to access them!

  2. Writing SF forces me to name future technology. Often the simply descriptive works. A slideman (or woman) loads and unloads spaceship cargo by giving orders to robots that slide it sideways. You can be arrested for a wireover, throwing contraband over a spaceport fence to avoid customs. For more technical stuff I resort to Latin or Greek. Orthodynamics (right forces) is the science of faster than light travel, psychothyresis (mind gateway) is direct computer to brain hookup. I have even got one word from two languages, a teleportal is a “distant doorway”, a teleport device.

    I think my advice would be only to use made up words for made up things.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I think my advice would be only to use made up words for made up things.”

      Sums it up nicely. 🙂

  3. It is sometimes difficult to not use made up words, especially for fantasy and sci-fi where we are beyond the realm of our own world. For creatures where their genetic make up is different to anything we have here on little old Earth, selecting a name for the new creatures can be challenging though adding in a descriptor does help to explain it as long as it’s done logically rather than as a dictionary entry.

    For sci-fi, it is a bit harder. Objects in everyday use now may well have different names, depending on how far into the future it is set. But keeping it in the realm of believability is the key, and avoiding going off what is perceived sensible by giving an object a completely different and unrelated name just because the events are many centuries or millenia ahead of where we are now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Realm of believability really is key, more than anything else. As long as it deepens the reader’s engagement int he story, rather than endangering it, that’s all that matters.

  4. Cassie Landrum says

    I have a couple of made up words in my WIP. One I completely made up (Rumaeleon – an alcoholic-type drink of unknown origin that makes a couple brief appearances. I guess rum might have been the inspiration 🙂 ) The other is an “elemental” that threads throughout the WIP. I created its name by looking at characteristics of known elements and combining the names of three or four, appropriate for my elemental, giving me “Lythanphium.” It’s a mouthful, but I think it works. On the whole, if I make up a word I want to be sure it makes sense in the context. (ie The reaction of the entity drinking the rumaeleon clearly suggests he’s drunk so the reader understands what it is.). I definitely agree, however, that overly creative words can do more harm than good, particularly when used in abundance. A lot of the names I use are archaic, although I create my own as well. Nothing the reader has to think too hard about. That only detracts from the story.

  5. This post is very timely for me as I am embarking on my first fantasy novel. This gives me good advice on how to approach my world building. 🙂

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