“Real World” Names
There are a great many resources available for picking character names for “real world” works of fiction. If the characters have a known ethnicity in their makeup, you can go to Google and easily search for those specific names and surnames (e.g., German names male or French surnames). Most sites will remind you if there are unique grammatical nuances you should know about, such as putting the surname before the given name, adding the mother’s surname after the father’s, or changing the final vowel to indicate gender. If your characters are multi-ethnic, or have lived in the United States or Canada for a long time, it’s possible their names are a mishmash of Anglicized foreign surnames and given names that may be completely made up or transformed into nicknames.
You can look up the most popular male and female names for many years in the lists maintained by the U.S. Social Security Administration (see http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/). A Wikipedia site (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_popular_given_names) offers currently popular names for other countries around the world.
“Created World” Names
But if you are creating new creatures, new countries, new worlds, or new dimensions, you may need to invent an entirely new naming system for your story. Here are some questions that might help you structure your protocol:
- Is there a modern language (or two) whose rules you could modify for your world? For instance, many Spanish names for women end in the letter A, and the names for men often end in the letter O. Would a similar rule work for you?
- What titles and forms of address will be needed in your new world? For instance, the highest elected official in the U.S. is addressed as Mr. President, and a judge is addressed as Your Honor, whereas an English man who has been knighted is addressed as Sir plus their last name. Is there an existing “real world” hierarchy you could alter to fit your needs?
- Is there a generic label such as Mr., Mrs. and Miss to use in polite conversation? Is age a factor in the use of such labels?
- If your names have meanings (e.g., in Latin, Donna means lady), what are they and how/when are they selected for a person – at birth, at puberty, after some event or feat?
- How are family names passed on – through the mother or the father? Or are surnames something that is either earned or selected by the individual?
- If names are spelled in a special way to indicate an ethnicity in your special world, what are the rules? Will your readers be able to easily recognize and pronounce these names?
A general rule often mentioned in writing workshops is to make each character’s name begin with a different letter (or at least a different sound). Andrea and Angela are too close in length and spelling for a fast read.
I would add to that a rule that is just for made-up worlds: Don’t make your character names so exotic that the reader is either annoyed or confused and ends up skipping over a lot of them because they have no idea how to pronounce them. (If you have to put a pronunciation guide in the back of the book, you’re probably getting way too exotic.)