Creating believable names for fictional substances (like medicines & drugs)

From Rick:

One of the challenges writers face can be making up fictional identifiers. We rarely have problems with inventing character names. For place names, we have to exercise some caution to avoid potentially disparaging references. If a character stops at a familiar fast food chain store to grab a meal, we have no worries. However, we can’t use that particular establishment as a front for something illegal.

We don’t run into a problem using a real city, but using real smaller governmental units (such as towns or villages) as a place for illegal activity will almost certainly present a problem. The same problem applies to using specific locations and the names of real businesses tied to a specific location.

We generally are fine when using an alternate universe or a non-Earth or fantasy setting. I can’t say with certainty, but I suspect that if you create an alternate reality or alternate history scenario where the main business of some national chain traffics in illegal substances, you’d probably be okay.

I’m not sure the McDonald’s Corporation would take too kindly to be depicted as an international drug cartel even in a fictional universe. On the other hand, if ALL of the famous fast-food chains dealt in criminal trades (or if these activities were not considered criminal in this alternate reality), then you’d be okay because this sort of thing has been done before.

However, the needs for fictional identifiers don’t end with names. Sometimes we need numerical identifiers such as street addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers. Back in 2014 Scott and I did a series of three posts on how to make up various personal identification numbers in fiction without getting into trouble.

To find these articles, use the SEARCH box on the blog and enter “personal identifier” and you’ll see all three posts.

Sometimes we also need to create fictional substances. This can present a challenge because we must be mindful of several factors. In years past, sci-fi writers created names for metals and elements with sometimes reckless abandon, but the careful writer today needs to be mindful of the science involved. If you make up a name for some compound that is scientifically impossible or that doesn’t follow the conventions of scientific naming, you’re going to look stupid to your readers. If you say “uranium chlorine” (instead of uranium chloride) then any reader with even a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry will lose confidence in your abilities as a writer.

If you’re writing a story based in our universe, you must remember that all of the chemical elements are the same throughout the universe. Something like copper will certainly have a different name on another planet, but it’s still copper and has the same physical and chemical properties. You cannot create a new element and disregard the known science.

Now, this doesn’t prevent you from creating some new metal that’s a combination of or modification of existing elements. For example, in the movie Star Trek IV (The Voyage Home) engineer Scottie mentions something called “transparent aluminum.” At first this might sound an impossibility to some science-minded individuals, but we’re never given the details of what it actually is.

In fact, if you do a Google search, you’ll find that “transparent aluminum” now exists.

But let’s get to the central purpose of this post. The inspiration for it came from a writer friend who needed to make up a couple of drug names, one for a blood-pressure-reducing medicine and one for a cholesterol-lowering drug.

When it comes to making up names for medicines and drugs, we have a lot of (but not unlimited) leeway. At first, you’d think that you could invent any name you wanted, but the problem with that involves trademarked names, and in this writer’s story, a question is raised about the legitimacy or quality of these mentioned drugs. Compounding the problem of name selection is that there are so many drugs and over-the-counter medicines and supplements on the market that finding a name NOT in use can become extremely challenging, especially because we’re dealing with worldwide markets.

My writer friend proposed using LoFat as the name of the cholesterol-lowering medicine. But a Google search I did showed that name already being used. In an effort to help out my friend, I came up with several possible names for the drug: Reduchol, Cholstat, Cholestat, LoChol, Statchol, and Recholes. Guess what? ALL of these are the names of existing products!

Further complicating the drug name issue is that most drugs have two names: the generic name and a brand name. For example, Viagra has the generic name sildenafil. The generic drug acetaminophen in the US is called paracetamol in the UK. It goes under the brand names of Tylenol and Panadol. If you dig deeper into medicines that lower cholesterol, you’ll find several types of drugs, and if you look at those that lower blood pressure, you’ll find an even larger list of drug classes.

Here are some references about inventing drug names:

INVENTING A DRUG NAME

FICTIONAL DRUGS OF LITERATURE

EXTENSIVE LIST OF FICTIONAL DRUGS AND MEDICINES

Do a Google search of “fictional medicines and drugs” for more help.

In the case of my writer friend, who is working in the modern world with what are supposed to be legitimate (but still fictional) drugs, coming up with a convincing drug name can prove a challenge. Granted, readers who don’t possess a scientific or medical background may not notice or care that the drug doesn’t sound genuine. The real challenge for a writer is to convince those readers who do pay attention to such details that the writer did the research to get it right.

The writers of movies and TV shows don’t always get their science right either, and many times I’ll catch them in scientific inaccuracies or in stretching the science. Sometimes they do this for good reason, such as to prevent certain dangerous information from getting into the hands of the public. The TV show MacGyver (the original series with Richard Dean Anderson and the remake with Lucas Till) frequently stretches or omits things, presumably for the safety of viewers. In your novel, for example, you probably would not want to give instructions on how to make a bomb.

But look at it this way: Even though most of your readers won’t be aware of inaccuracies, the one reader/reviewer who does know the difference might leave a damaging review. On the other hand, consider how nice it would be if one of your reviewers notices and mentions that you got it right. That could help with your sales because it tells your potential buyers that you’re a writer who digs into the details and that they can trust you tell the story well.

—Rick

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