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April 13, 2010 10:40 AM   Subscribe

Help me name and describe these creatures in a story I'm writing!

I'm writing a fantasy story where the main villains are a faction of barbarous mutants. They used to be human but after many generations of exposure to a toxic substance in the air (they live short lives but breed like rabbits) they have adapted to the climate, while also suffering grave deformities like the loss of limbs and the growth of new ones in strange places, even primitive wings.

They have their own civilization of sorts that outsiders (my protagonists) aren't aware of. They communicate, though their language is made of only grunts and shouts. They've adopted a master-race ideology about how they're the next step in human evolution, and they believe non-mutants are hindrances to progress. They have an authoritarian leadership structure centered around a charismatic dictator. They're not exactly telepathic but they've developed an ability to follow and relay his orders that approaches hive-mind responsiveness. They're united, fiercely industrious empire builders, and efficient killers. They raid and slaughter entire villages in the middle of the night.

None of my protagonists have seen inside their borders, so they have no idea how intelligent or organized the creatures really are, viewing them only as indiscriminate, inhuman monsters. So while the creatures are hideous and evil, they're also greatly misunderstood, and underestimated.

I need more words to describe them. I need adjectives and nouns, both from my protagonists' perspective and from a more accurate point of view. I'm also looking for a good made-up proper name to give the creatures, something appropriately folklorish that my heroes might call them. If it helps, my protagonists do share a common ancestry with the creatures, though I haven't yet decided if they know that. There isn't very good record-keeping in this fictional world of mine. :-)
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Think about your protagonists in a wider sense, since they are the ones doing the describing. How long have they and their culture been interacting with these mutants, do they know about their origin, have there been notable events in the past, can they make easy comparisons to other things in their life/culture, etc.

For example, when the Vikings encountered the native Thule people in Greenland, they called them skrælings. "The origin of the word is not certain, but it is probably based on the Old Norse word skrá which meant "skin"; and as a verb, "to put in writing" (written accounts, such as the Icelandic Sagas, were put on dried skin in Iceland). The Inuit, both Thule and Dorset, as well as other indigenous people whom the Norse Greenlanders met, wore clothes made of animal skins, in contrast to the woven wool clothes worn by the Norse."

In other words, the Vikings looked at these strange new people and named them after one of the first things they saw that marked them as being different -- their clothes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:50 AM on April 13, 2010

For names, you could go with Asuras, here's some Wikipedia pages on Hindu and Buddhist approaches. The difference between the two might allow both groups to call them Asuras meaning rather different things.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:51 AM on April 13, 2010

If they've developed a master-race ideology, they would have to communicate beyond grunts and shouts. Consider making them psychic or having some kind of electric-signal communication, perhaps a remnant culture? Which would explain a master-race ideology.
You could start out by using a word like "Drone", some translations are Drudge, Threno, Dirge,
posted by parmanparman at 10:54 AM on April 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by poppo at 10:54 AM on April 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Well, if it happened today, I could see the media describing them in relation to the toxin that mutated them... Uraniots, for instance, which is a mash up of uranium and idiot (since they're perceived as dumb). Maybe over time the word morphs into something else, such as cajun deriving from arcadian. So... Rannuits, eventually, maybe.
posted by wwartorff at 11:01 AM on April 13, 2010

Great feedback so far!

My protagonist is also the narrator, and speaks English (or maybe the story is translated from her native tongue, which doesn't exist in the real world). The name I choose should probably be derived from existing English words. I started by calling the creatures "cripples," as their deformities and lumbering motion is their most notable characteristic. But I don't think that word goes far enough to distance "them" from "us." I need something less sympathetic.

My characters have a limited grasp of science. Their diet includes a nutrient that prevents them from suffering the effects of the toxic air. If they stop eating it they will transform into the creatures, but are not likely to survive for long after the change since they haven't evolved a tolerance to it like the others have. So I guess they are aware of where the creatures originated, though they're not sure why they haven't all died off, and assume they are just barely surviving instead of thriving.

Generally speaking though, they don't know much about their past apart from oral tradition.

As for the grunts, they are nuanced and articulate grunts and gestures. My protagonists can't see any meaning in them, but it's actually a fully functional language capable of expressing abstract concepts.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 11:03 AM on April 13, 2010

They are Hinterlanders.

And they are Hobbesian.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:05 AM on April 13, 2010

I should also add, my protagonists are transitioning out of a dark age, in the early stages of an enlightenment. There is science, but it's rudimentary. They don't fully understand why the mutations occur, apart from a simple cause-and-effect explanation ("they don't eat the spices we eat, so they become monsters").
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 11:05 AM on April 13, 2010

So basically they're Reavers in a fantasy setting?

I'm with Cool Papa Bell: you have to decide what your protags will notice about these people first. He already pointed out clothes. You could also go with "lack of clothes."

Another example is the language they speak. The word "barbarian" is originally onomatopoeic, reflecting the sound of a language one does not understand. So something like "babblers" or "grunters" is an approach you could take.

Perhaps your protags will notice first their behavior: the killing and so forth. You could look at words that describe their behavior, and corrupt them as though they've been passed down for generations, such as Mordrirs (murderers).

If their overall nasty appearance is their key defining characteristic, "uglies" (or a corruption thereof) might work. "Repugs" (from repugnant)?

If they feel that they are a lower class of being, something derived from "low" or "less" or "under" could work. A thesaurus will come in handy here.
posted by kindall at 11:14 AM on April 13, 2010

I need more words to describe them. I need adjectives and nouns, both from my protagonists' perspective and from a more accurate point of view.

One thing you might want to focus on is doing less telling (as in "these are really scary mutants with such and such traits") and more showing. For example, if they "raid and slaughter entire villages in the middle of the night" you can probably be more effective in characterizing them by describing their effects in detail (burned down huts, disemboweled bodies, etc.) than you can by coming up with adjectives to describe them directly. With monsters, it's important to let the reader's imagination do most of the work.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:19 AM on April 13, 2010

How about stumpies? It's derogatory and refers to the limb problem that seems like it would be one of the first things noticed.
posted by Eicats at 11:23 AM on April 13, 2010

Wendigo might work. Monsters that resemble men, but aren't.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:23 AM on April 13, 2010

kindall: Ooh, I hadn't made the Firefly connection. I guess they are kinda like Reavers. Interesting observation. I like your other ideas as well.

burnmp3s: I totally agree with showing more than telling. What I'm really looking for is verbiage for my characters to use when referring to the creatures, in conversation. Like "Don't go through the forest alone… there have been [monster] sightings in those parts lately." Only I don't want to keep saying monster, and I need some generic descriptors too.

Eicats: I like that angle on things. I'll do some brainstorming in that direction, for sure.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 11:28 AM on April 13, 2010

If the main thing that's notice so far is the grunting, and that they seem wild, unorganized, maybe something derived from boar or pig? So boar-men -> boromen; boar-folk -> borofolk; or boar-mutant -> bormutts (or pigmutts or whatever-mutts)
posted by mikepop at 11:42 AM on April 13, 2010

"Mutts" by itself could be a good term if you choose to have the protags aware of the common ancestry. "We're the pure breed, they are the mutts." (That this is not actually true ain't never no-mind.)
posted by kindall at 11:59 AM on April 13, 2010

Maybe over time the word morphs...

Had no idea til I read this from wwartorff, but I think "morphs" itself would be a good name for them.

Not only does it describe the process of their origin (if you wanted not to make it instantly obvious to a juvenile reader you could spell it 'morffs'), it carries with it the idea of dysmorphic, and it refers obliquely to what may be the aborigin of this trope, Wells' "Morlocks."
posted by jamjam at 12:21 PM on April 13, 2010

Their diet includes a nutrient that prevents them from suffering the effects of the toxic air. If they stop eating it they will transform into the creatures, but are not likely to survive for long after the change since they haven't evolved a tolerance to it like the others have.

From this I would assume that the fact that they are breathing the air unaided would be the most salient factor from the Protagonist's culture. From their ungainly/best like description previously I would guess they probably have a very labored, raspy, snort like breathing. I think a name based on that could be interesting (this is assuming that their breathing IS in fact labored, not something they have evolved around... up to you)

Possible Names:

Rasper. Raspers. Rasps - if their breath has a constant raspy/weazy nature, perhaps that is very loud especially in large numbers, this could be good.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 12:27 PM on April 13, 2010

Bogeymen, ghouls, demons, harpies (the ones with wings), fiends, goblins, boggarts... something like that maybe?
posted by ephemerista at 12:30 PM on April 13, 2010

DetonatedManiac: Well, the mutations don't occur from breathing the air, but I like the angle of describing the non-communicative sound they make. Because they're constantly at risk of losing limbs, I'm picturing them as skeletal, somewhat frail. I bet their joints are constantly creaking as they move. Which could be an advantage (or a terror) for my heroes too, if they can be heard approaching before they can be seen. I'm going to ponder on that idea for a while.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:38 PM on April 13, 2010

Riffing on my idea above. Perhaps superstition has it that if you breath the air your lungs turn black. Thus the creatures are called "Black Lungs" or "Blungs" for short.

Or maybe you could go for a more metaphorical connection. "Death Lungs" or "Dead Lungs" in that breathing the air means death to most normal humans. (and "Dungs" might work if it is not too comical).
posted by DetonatedManiac at 12:38 PM on April 13, 2010

How about "Mutters"? It works on a number of levels - morphing from a shortened version of the word "mutants" or "mutations" as well as referring to the way their language might be perceived as "muttering." Adding in kindall's reference to "mutts" versus pure-breds is an added bonus. I also like that it reminds me a bit of mud and Morlocks.

"Don't go through the forest alone… there have been Mutter sightings in those parts lately."
posted by platinum at 12:41 PM on April 13, 2010

Oops, missed your comment on preview.

Ok, so I'm a bit confused you said:

If they [protagonists] stop eating it [and breath the air unaided] they will transform into the creatures. But still the "mutations do not occur from breathing the air"

I'm guessing that the death from the air occurs, but it spurred mutation for these creatures to become what they are (is that what you mean?).

But you did say that "they will transform" which may be just a myth (IE protagonist's culture believe when they die by breathing the air they are risen as these skeletal creatures, probably a fate worse than death) but it definitely points to an underlying fear your protagonists have, which is that though they think these creatures are definitely lesser than they are and separate, the protagonists fear they might TURN INTO them.

Anyway, this is more a meditation of the essence of your creatures, not what to call them (forgive me if I am over stepping). But that fear from the protagonists culture IS real, then it would probably surface in the name, in 1 of 2 mutually exclusive ways.

1) The name would reflect overtly cultural realization that the separation is thin, and spur the Protagonist culture strive to separate themselves from the creatures in more meaningful ways (actions, attitude toward creatures, cultural aspirations)

2) The name would be an unconscious otherization on every level possible. It would basically establish (on a linguistic level) that no matter what "We" can never be like "them". "we" are ALWAYS better than "them".

You could keep going down that rabbit hole but I'll leave it there.

...Sorry for delving so deeply into your writing for you... but I find your premise a good fertile ground. I'm interested to see where you go with it. Good Luck!
posted by DetonatedManiac at 12:58 PM on April 13, 2010

Thanks, DetonatedManiac. These are definitely some themes my story will explore! I don't want to spoil (or jinx!) too much of the plot here, but the basic idea is this:

A catastrophe occurred long, long ago. No one knows the details of what happened apart from folklore, but everyone knows how vital it is to eat the special nutrients regularly, if they want to survive. If you go even a few days without them, your body begins to weaken and practically decompose while you're still alive. Your ligaments lose their cohesion and your bones become brittle. You can't live long like that.

Somehow, these other creatures have found a way to survive without nutrients. In the present generation, they are severely deformed from birth. They have evolved in unexpected ways to cope with their predicament. And a new culture and civilization are emerging as a result.

Hope that clears things up a bit. I am trying to be a little vague, y'know, in case I ever get published. Wouldn't want this thread to give too much away. :-)
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:34 PM on April 13, 2010

I bet their joints are constantly creaking as they move. Which could be an advantage (or a terror) for my heroes too, if they can be heard approaching before they can be seen.

posted by bettafish at 1:39 PM on April 13, 2010

Sound like the weird and spooky thing about them is that they are surviving their mutations even though they should be dead. So they are... the Living? The Undead? The Undying? Zombies?
posted by No-sword at 2:13 PM on April 13, 2010

I bet their joints are constantly creaking as they move.

The medical term for this is crepitus, which could be corrupted into a worthy name, such as "crepts." Has echoes of "decrepit" which is also descriptive of the creatures, and also indicative of a perceived superiority.
posted by kindall at 3:58 PM on April 13, 2010

Historically people tend to name enemy outsiders after animals in order to dehumanize them. Calling them "Bunnies" could be a gallows humors nod to their reproduction rates and precious resistance. Not the proper term used mind you, but it's good to think about slang and racism and dehumanizing terms.
posted by The Whelk at 5:36 PM on April 13, 2010

And if it's a pre-science world, think about how people who lived in say, the edges of the middle ages tried to think about things they never encountered before. They used the booked they read (or heard of) and tried to rationalize things based on that. If the word for them was, say "bunnies" in the past and they forgot why they called them that, they could be looking at old books which describe rabbits and going "well, they say rabbits eat nothing but carrots and destroy fields, so these creatures are they them cause they don't eat the right things and destroy things." People LOVE "just-so" rationalizations for things.
posted by The Whelk at 5:45 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here is a question, has anyone from the Potag's culture tried kidnapping these creatures/mutants and feeding them the right spices/herbs/whatever? Even if it doesn't work, it could be a good background detail to follow, and lead to a good name , maybe some people call them "The Hopeless" or such, cause they can't even be reasoned with or given help.
posted by The Whelk at 7:30 PM on April 13, 2010


More seriously, I like Wendigo.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:10 PM on April 13, 2010

The Whelk: Good question. Most of the protagonists lack the numbers or resources to try something like that. They spend their time fleeing and hiding in difficult-to-access places. Since the creatures always travel in groups, it's not feasible.

However, there is a sizable resistance movement growing. The main character of my story isn't part of that group initially but will get involved with them later. That seems like the sort of thing they might try. I'll need to think on it and see where it might take the plot.

I like your other points too. Lots of brainstorm fodder. I love the gallows humor but I'm not sure if I could make an unassuming name work for villains that are meant to be as threatening as possible. Maybe it would work for a single offhanded remark or a joke, if not as a regular label for the creatures.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:51 PM on April 13, 2010

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