One of the other things I've been asked is how I come up with names. I can't really help you on the ones that just pop into my head, (get out of my head, you!) but here are five things that I do when I desperately need a name and can't think of one. Also, you get a heavy dose of language theory, and multiple chapters! I have used all of the listed methods, sometimes in the same story, so I can guarantee that they work.
Chapter one contains fun with Semitic names, a rapidly expanding family, and riffs on Conan the Barbarian, people who abuse Scrabble tiles, and plenty of adoptable names. Some of them I invented, some of them I didn't, and you're welcome to them.
1. Baby Name Websites
Yeah, I'll admit it. I go to these a lot for character names – behind the name is my favorite because it will randomly select names from different countries. If you're angling for a true fantasy name, however, don't just pick one: change how it's spelled, or add several names together.
For example, if my random generator says: Siddhartha Zusman, I can pretty much make up the following:
Deharth (Probably a good last name or location name.)
Siddran (Could be a boy's or girl's name – it could be masculine because it ends in a consonant, but on the other hand, if you emphasized the 'an' and made it sound like 'Anne' it could be a girl's name.)
Harthad: (A place name, most likely a town or country, unless you want to name some sort of warrior. It's pretty harsh-sounding, though.)
Idathhar: (I kind of like this as the name of a group. I had to pick apart the name into little bits to get it, though.)
Zasaman: (A name, first or last. See what I did there? I just swapped vowels about.)
Usmar: (Like the above, though I like this for some grizzled old patriarch of some vaguely middle eastern family.)
Zamrus: (Kind of sounds like Cypress, doesn't it?)
Now, sometimes the source can influence the way your words sound. For example, I would be willing to bet that Zusman is middle-eastern in origin, and all the words I got out of it sounded middle-eastern, whereas Siddhartha is definitely from India (think Siddhartha Gautama) but the words I got from it were pretty varied, Deharth sounding vaguely Scottish, Siddran could either be a Norse girl's name or an eastern-European boy's name, and Harthad sounds like it originated in a Conan the Barbarian fanfic.
Zusman actually means 'sweet man' in Yiddish. As Yiddish comes from the approximate area of today's Israel and Palestine, I wasn't far off. But if you took another Yiddish name – say, Miriam – it would fit with Zusman (perhaps he's her husband?) but be instantly recognizable. Perhaps if we named one of their children Raisel, which is also a Yiddish name but less recognizable than Miriam, you'll start to notice a pattern. Even if I name them Zuman, Mirayim, and Rasiel, these minor alterations don't change the pattern.
They don't sound like I'm pulling random scrabble tiles out of my shoe.
You see, the reason that so many 'random fantasy name generators' and keyboard smash words don't work very well is because they rely on randomly picking letters without paying any attention to syllables or phonemes. Now, in English, the distinction between a letter and a phoneme is very fine, since letters were invented to represent phonemes.
You have somewhere between thirty eight and forty four basic phonemes in English, which don't correlate to the twenty six letters of the alphabet. I'm going to take you back to preschool in order to explain, since that's where we learn them. They are as follows:
Vowels: ai, j (we'll get to why it's a vowel in a minute), oa, ie, ee, or, a (short), a (long), e (short), e (long), oo (short), oo (long), u, i (short), i (long), y
Hard consonants: c / k / x, ch, p, b, d, t, g, ng
Soft consonants: s, th, sh, v/f, f, h, l, r, silent th, w
Buzzing consonants: m, n, z / x, rr (the Spanish tongue-roller)
Linguists will probably pick at me for the above arrangement, but the exact classification doesn't matter. All of these sounds (with the possible exception of the Spanish rr) should be immediately familiar to you from hooked on phonics, or its equivalent. Because of this, they're all pronounced exactly how you'd think they'd be.
J is technically a really hard/long i. It comes from Latin, where it strongly resembled a y sound or an ee. For example, in the word Ianuary, the 'I' part just got getting shorter. Try saying EE-an-you-air-ee, and feel your lips with your fingers as you do it. Then say January, and see how similar your mouth movements are on the first part. This is why it's common in the beginning of words, and incidentally why it's one of the hardest single letters to pull off putting in the middle of a word or name convincingly.
The other picky bits are c / k / x, representing the sound in cut, duck, and Xerox, (Xerox = Zee-ROCKS) the difference between f (in off) and v/f (of), and the z / x thing, which is the one in Xylophone. Basically, the letter x does not have its own sound, so it mimics either the c/k hard sound, or z, or the s / hard c sound. Long story short as to why: several of those letters were once one, long before English or even Latin.
In addition to being surefire ways of identifying someone who used alphabet soup to arrange their naming scheme without actually considering how the words would be pronounced, the above phonemes are important as an object example. Different languages have different phonemes. For example, in Greek the x represents a ch sound, while in Spanish, two l's (ll) makes a y sound instead of a slightly rolling L sound, and we've already seen how the J was invented.
Confused? Well, you don't have to be. Picking names or words from the same language to form names out of and only making minor alterations pretty much guarantees that you'll have a decent arrangement of phonemes. And picking related languages (such as Yiddish and Hebrew: Yiddish is essentially Hebrew's cousin that traveled north into eastern Europe,) will widen your name selection without making too many waves.
For example, I'll take our above family, Zusman/Zuman, Miriam/Mirayim, and Raisel/Rasiel. Right, so I like Zuman and Rasiel better than their originals, but I think Mirayim's kind of unsuited to my group. So we have Zuman and Miriam, who have one daughter, Rasiel, and are going to have another child. For the sake of the demonstration, it's going to be fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. Now, we could stick with Yiddish names here, but for the sake of variety, I'm going to randomly pick a male and a female name from Hebrew. Yishai for the boy and Orah for the girl.
Wait! You must have noticed that these two names don't match up very well with the others. A bit of variety is okay, obviously, but if you want to tailor these, now would be the time.
The boy could be Jeshua, which is a name derived from Yishai, or, if that's too recognizable, he could be Ieshay, Eshua, or Jeshai. I kind of like the sound of Jeshai with Orah, but you could easily have them be Jeshai and Sorah.
Right, so we've got mom and dad Zuman and Miriam, and children Raseel, Jeshai and Sorah, and whadda you know? Yep, there's another baby. We're going to demonstrate picking a third language with him, and the language is going to be Arabic. Yes, it's going to stand out, because the other two languages were so similar, but the family has a well-respected neighbor with an Arabic name, and they named the baby after him. Because… because he watched the infant twins for them while Miriam was in labor. Or because he caught a thief that was robbing them of their entire life savings, or because Miriam had a difficult birth and their neighbor, Mehmud the doctor, saved her. There are any number of reasons for naming someone something, I don't particularly care which. Now, some selection should be employed when you've started to build a name bank, especially if you want this family to avoid fairly common names that will distract from the story and pinpoint a spot on the globe.
My random names were Husain Hassan Mehmud and Osama. I reject Osama out of hand because of current events connections, and I pick Mehmud because the other two sound like the kind of names that you'd name an Arabic character if you only knew a handful of Arabic names. Also, Mehmud is memorable.
Zuman, Miriam, Rasiel, Jeshai, Sorah, Mehmud… Now, you could leave it like that. It's interesting. We already have a nice back-story tidbit for why baby boy's name doesn't quite fit with his family. I like it this way. But feel free to make up your own re-arrangement of Mehmud.
For extra fun? Let's rearrange some actual place names from the near middle-east and have everybody live in the town of ThaDerom (It came from HaDarom, in case you were wondering) and name a nearby river the Sehloa (from Siloa) river.