Names are one of those things I don’t really notice unless they’re wrong. Great names (both for characters and for places) blend into the background, and help create an immersive world and reading experience; bad names stand out like an albino alligator.
When I think of great names, I think of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, which uses a Russian-based language system. The names stem from there: the main character is named Alina Starkov; the world is called Ravka. Not to mention fantasy classics like Lord of the Rings–when you read an elven name in that book, you know right away the character is an elf. I mean, Elrond? Legolas? Galadriel??
You can even tell a good sci-fi book by the quality of the names. I was so infuriated by the main character in Across the Universe being named Amy. I mean–dozens of years in the future, are we really going to be still naming our girls “Amy”? I doubt it.
Names aren’t only important in fantasy or sci-fi, though. In contemporary, a bad name will stand out, where a good name simply helps create and fortify the world. (I could probably write three blog posts on world-building in contemporary and realistic fiction, but I’ll spare you that.) Instead of creating a list of ways to create great names, which would probably be forty items long, I’m going to write a short list of reasons that certain names stand out, and break the cohesive world, so you can try to avoid them.
1. Age appropriateness. This happens the most in contemporary fiction, especially young adult–I think because most writers of YA are older than the audience for which they write (and by “most” I mean “almost all”).
It’s important to remember when writing YA that the teenagers in our books are not the same teenagers we went to school with. They’re a lot younger than us. If you were to write a YA book now, in 2013, your protagonists would likely have been born sometime around 1998. So when you’re naming said protagonists, it’s important to know what names were popular in 1998–when they were born–and not when you were born.
E.g., “Rachel.” Rachel worked for K. A. Applegate’s Animorphs, because Rachel was a little older than I was at the time–meaning her fictional character would have been born around 1985. In 1985, Rachel was absolutely a popular name. But in 1998? No way. In 1998 we got Madison, Emily, and Alexis. (This information is really easy to find. Just Google “popular baby names in 1998.”)
At the same time, if you’re going to name your heroine something like Agnes or Dolores, and you do it ironically–go for it, man. As long as it’s intentional, and your character has a good story about it.
2. Consistency. This especially stands out in fantasy or sci-fi novels, where one name doesn’t obey the same language or cultural rules as the others, such as “John” when everyone else is “Hagvar” or “Gisanna.”
Consistency is key in fantasy or sci-fi naming. In Game of Thrones, most names are loosely based on a name from our world, e.g. “Catelyn” (Cat-eh-lin) is based on Kaitlin; Neddard is based on Edward; and Joffrey on Geoffrey. When I saw “Brandon,” I was immediately pulled out of the universe, because it was an exact, unchanged version of a name in our world. Even “Sam” is a shortening of “Samwise,” not “Samuel,” so a name like “Brandon” really stands out.
Know your culture and your language. Do some linguistics research if you have to; decide what phonemes your fictional language uses, and create names that obey the same rules. (Are there a lot of “v” sounds, or “f” sounds?) I often use an existing Earth culture or language as a starting point to help with consistency–e.g., vaguely Arabic or Scandinavian.
3. Places. Place names are fun because I think you can get a little more creative than with character names; but cultural appropriateness and consistency are still key.
DO: Mix it up. A place name can be a name (I named the country in my MG novel, “Elyris”), or a descriptor (the ghetto in Seekrit Project is called “Rat’s Town”). Pyde Hill. Seamouth. King’s Keep. (These are all place names I’ve used.)
DO: Give the reader a sense of tone and culture. Is the location exotic? Hathaya. Is it a fake town in Wisconsin? Linnville.
DON’T: Introduce new phonemes. If your country or world uses a language like English, don’t name a place inside that country “Abadmavar.” Abadmavar is an awesome name, though, and you could absolutely use it for a foreign, exotic locale.
Remember that a name will be part of your reader’s first impression of your work; shorthand, if you will, to tell whether you have created a believable, internally-consistent world. (Though I still haven’t figured out how that’s like food, but I like it anyway.) So put some thought into it–especially for those names that will appear on your book’s back jacket!