Place names, Dragon Age, and originality

Coming up with fantasy place names that haven’t been used extensively elsewhere is an ongoing challenge in my writing life. I don’t want to name my glittering empire after a quiet village in England, after all, but I don’t want to use so many hyphens and accent marks that my names are unreadable, either. So what’s the happy medium?

Well, apparently—at least for me—it’s Dragon Age names. Since a false start on the first game last year, the various place names in DA keep occurring to me when I’m trying to use the fantasy place name generator known as my brain. My fantasy place name generator is pretty flawed to start with—it likes to just throw syllables and bits of various languages together until something sounds right—but to make matters worse, often when something sounds right it’s because I’ve already seen it.

These days, it’s because I’ve seen it before in Dragon Age. Who can blame me? It’s got a lot of great, atmospheric place names. Here, don’t believe me—see for yourself:

Taken from the DA wikia
Taken from the DA wikia entry on Thedas

There’s the empire of Orlais, a world of high fashion where a lady once kept a live songbird in her birdcage-hair, the kingdom of Ferelden, drab and full of dogs, the forbidding-sounding Tevinter Imperium, and all the little places in between and within. Being surrounded by these names as I play settles them in my mind until I (apparently) can’t distinguish them from my own creations. It’s a pain! But it does help me think about my name-creation process, and decide what I like about certain fantasy names and not others.

When it comes down to it, the thing I like about DA names is the simplicity. When coming up with names of places or characters, the realer they sound, the better—assuming the “point” isn’t to set these characters or places apart from human society. But eventually, won’t every realistic fantasy name have been used in some story? There are so many worlds like the DA one: in books, movies, games—you can only put letters together in so many likely ways. So won’t we run out?

I think we will, to be honest, so I try not to worry too much about using the same place names as obscure fantasy novels from the 70s—but it’d suck to accidentally use the same name as some big-name author or big-name game. My process is the following:

  1. Look at a lot of maps
  2. Write down real place names I like
  3. Keep in mind likely additions to place names (“X Castle” “Y’s Reach”, “Z-wood”)
  4. Alter them subtly or throw them together
  5. Google the result!

Creators can always try their luck with online generators too, though I’d warn against comical results like “Fieldbush”. Usually, the answer isn’t in the generated content but somewhere between twenty other options. When I’m writing a story and can’t think of a name, I often write “XXX” in the text to find and replace later. With how long it takes to come up with a good name, who can blame me?

Anyway, that’s my process. I’d be interested to hear what others do to come up with names—and whether they have also been victimised by media like Dragon Age stealing names they would have liked to use. Sigh. Oh well—I guess BioWare got there before me… this time.

[add] I have just been informed by a friend that Thedas is short for “The Dragon Age Setting”—the perfect fun fact addition to this post!

2 thoughts on “Place names, Dragon Age, and originality

  1. I know exactly what you mean! I’ve got a hard time with names for my D&D games in a very similar way as you do with your writing… Making them sound just right is hard and I really would like my players so recognize and use the names.
    When I started playing Dragon Age I did find them to have a good sound to them. Somehow they sound “real”. Sometimes I think that some fantasy authors are just trying to hard to think of original names (and thereby making them far to complicated).

    I also use a lot of names from pre-made settings, like the Forgotten Realms. The easy thing for me is that I use the campaign, so large parts I can just use from what they have there. If you’ve looking for inspiration there, just take a look here: http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/map-faer%C3%BCn

    1. Thanks for the rec! 😀 Yeah, overcomplicating names is the surest way to have characters blur together in people’s minds. I’d hate it if someone called my main characters “whatsisface” and “that one girl”! Although I guess that happens with names from other languages too. I wonder if there’s a good way to repeat the name until it sticks? Maybe introducing fewer characters at a time, and repeating the name often. It’s something to think about!

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