One of the questions writers in general – and fantasy/speculative fiction writers in particular – are often asked is this: “how do you come up with all those names?” This is usually closely followed by, “I seriously can’t remember all those names.”
In my experience, that’s one of the things that makes people shy away from fantasy, especially epic or medieval-inspired fantasy, where the likelihood of encountering some good old ‘Murican appellations is fairly low. Sure, some writers like to take names from the classic Big Book of Dark Ages Names (Except for the Weird Ones), which can work if you mix them in proper proportion with the made up variety, à la George R.R. Martin. But it’s tricky, and it depends on what kind of world you’re trying to build. Sometimes it’s appropriate, but sometimes it’s not.
I tend to shy away from using recognizable names. I did attempt it in The Earth-stepper’s Bargain, as an experiment, and I’m not sure it’s something I would make a habit of. I think it can be jarring to the reader to suddenly come upon a character named Bob among all the exotic Z’s and X’s and Q’s that seem to be so popular, and it can give the reader unintended associations, which changes the story. You’re unlikely to have an Uncle Zykquixa that ruined your 5th birthday party by showing up drunk in his underwear and giving you a dead possum as a gift, even though he had very thoughtfully put a bow on its head.
But when you’re going to make up names, you’ve got to be careful. You need to have a theme, or several, if you’re dealing with different cultures. They can’t be too complicated, but they have to be original. And you do have to remember that your reader hasn’t had the benefit of working with those names for months or years, so being clear about your characters is extra important. I read a preview of a story the other day where every single person – every one – had a name that started with a Z. There were like five of them within the space of two pages. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far. It was unoriginal and tiresome, although it was also a story about vampires, so I think that goes without saying (sorry, not my thing).
One of my favorite tools is this online fantasy name generator. I’ve been using it ever since I started TLDTC, when I switched to a Mac and didn’t have access to EBoN anymore (I really miss EBoN). Sometimes it comes up with some pretty wacky stuff, but it’s great for tossing around some syllables you like and getting inspired.
I tend to pick a starting letter I want, or have an idea for the shape of a name in my head, and then I keep refreshing until I find something that catches my fancy, and go from there. And then I Google it, to make sure it isn’t a Malay curse word or the name of a famous African singer I haven’t heard of, because that happens sometimes. Sometimes the name has been used by another author in a work I wasn’t aware of, and that simply won’t do. But it’s amazing how many arrangements of syllables there are that don’t mean a thing in any popular language. It’s kind of awesome.
Another helpful hint that can lend an air of authenticity to worlds that are more or less rooted in the Celtic or medieval European mythos, is to know how common names were constructed, back in the day. You don’t have to be a linguist like Tolkien to get an idea of how that works – there are about a billion lists of names you can find instantly with a simple search. Adding on a familiar ending to a name kind of bridges the gap between completely made up and instantly recognizable.
I’m talking things like -wyn, -eth, -wen, -ert, -ir, -ann, -ryn, etc. Some ones I’ve used: Cerawen, Branneth, Seovann, Calebert, Pridwyn. They’re not so far out there that you can’t pronounce them, but they don’t really ring any historical bells. That gives you an anchor without resorting to the approach of throwing a lot of high-scoring Scrabble tiles in there and calling it a day.
Personally, I find the process to be a lot of fun. All people are defined by the names they carry, whether they’re being reactionary against them or not. It’s an excellent opportunity to impart character traits without being blatantly obvious. There are certain expectations from fantasy names that can add to the story if you do it right. It’s like an old Western, where the bad guy was always the one in the black hat. Evil guys tend to have a lot of harsh consonants; good guys have strong, bold, open-sounding names (and you can automatically make either of them into a girl’s name by adding -ya at the end).
And my number one tip, as long as I’m giving advice? Include a glossary. Always, always include a glossary. There’s no more valuable tool for a reader who’s new to your world.
Her Royal Highness Princess Ackingasyriqua-et’dedo Jocylee von Doranyryn of the Kingdom of Ineunaxyk-Hatyque-Larashmoosya