Names of places sometimes change, which can happen for several reasons. We don’t have to worry about what the place was called before unless desired.
One of these is an event that creates the current name. If a shipwreck happened there, the ship’s name might have renamed the place. A named weapon fired from that location could be the source. A nearby land feature can be the source of a disease named; Ebola was named after the Ebola River near one of the initial breakout sites.
Being conquered often results in a new name connected to the conquerors. An obvious example from Earth is the litany of cities named Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered them. He could’ve named them after a god or hero, too. This is one way to create a name in a region, where that name is unlike those already there; sometimes these new names stay long after the conquerors are gone, though this seems more likely if occupation lasted a number of years; otherwise the conquered might just switch back to the old name.
The opposite is also true – the name of a place is given to an event, like a battle named after it. In SF, we might have an item being built here, like a well-known ship, weapon, or device named for the town of origin or mass production.
Another type of event is weather or other natural phenomena. A well-known example would be Winterfell from Game of Thrones. On Earth, places have been named Hurricane, Rainbow Springs, Frostproof, Waterproof, Cyclone, Snow, Tornado, Summer Lake, and Winter. The more literal names are less artful than something like Rainbow Springs and can suggest we didn’t put much effort into them.
One option is to name a place after a character or a surname. We see this on Earth all the time with names like Jacksonville or Harrisonburg. Other examples include the Cook Islands (named after Captain James Cook), Dominican Republic (Saint Dominic), and Seychelles (Jean Moreau de Seychelles). This can be done from villages all the way up to countries. We can add requirements, such as the person needing to be royalty before a place can be named after them. For more ideas, look at this very long list at Wikipedia: http://bit.ly/PlaceNamesPeople
The main issue with naming places after people is that it means inventing another character; we probably aren’t naming a location after someone who’s in the story we’re telling. They’d have to be pretty old, for one, but it also makes things a little odd. However, if we’ve invented gods or other legendary figures (as discussed in Creating Life, The Art of World Building, #1), we can leverage those names here. This is one area where building a world used for our entire career, rather than only the story currently on our minds, has an advantage, because we’re more likely to have invented people we can repurpose. We might want to do an alternate version of their name to avoid confusion between the place and the person; using prefixes and suffixes (see the next section) makes this easy.
If we’ve already invented place names, we can retroactively decide these were people. We don’t need to spend much time developing them as characters, as a line or two in our notes can suffice. For example, “Kierdon is named after the knight Kier Moonbright of Illiandor, who exemplified honor and valor at the time of the town’s founding, for his heroic sacrifice at the Battle of Hestia, where he saved the crown prince at the cost of his own life.”
For what reasons do we name places after people? In addition to heroes, legendary figures, and important discoverers and political figures, we often use religious saints. If people embody a positive character trait, such a person may be chosen in a show of optimism about the quality and character of the location’s citizens. This trait needs no basis in fact. Those with both good and bad characteristics will exist in every location, so this is a technique we can use to quickly invent past priests or wizards in our world.
Adding Suffixes and Prefixes
Some names are based on a surname, which can be more obvious when we’re familiar with that surname, such as Washington or Jackson. This familiarity doesn’t exist on invented worlds. While we can certainly use such names without alteration, we can also alter them with either a familiar suffix or prefix from Earth or one of our invention.
The examples below can spark imagination:
- Ville (Jacksonville)
- Burg (Harrisonburg)
- Sted (Christiansted)
- Caster (Lancaster)
- Chester (Manchester)
- Avon (Avonmouth)
- Burn (Blackburn)
- Don (Abingdon)
- Den (Willesden)
- Ford (Stafford)
- Gate (Helmsgate)
- Ing (Reading)
- Mere (Windemere)
- Ton (Hamilton)
Doing this in fantasy or SF might result in places names like the following:
We can also combine words, whether we leave a space between them or not. For example, East Haven and Easthaven both work well. This lets us take two somewhat ordinary words and fashion something unique from them. More examples include Black Hollow, Broken Shield, Hero’s March, Goldleaf, Ironforge, Oakheart, Raven’s Nest, and Silverhelm. A partial list of source words is here (and don’t forget to use colors, directions, and plants and animals, either of our invention or not):