Creating a new world means creating new names: proper nouns for people and places, common nouns for invented things. Sometimes the name might even come first. More than any other kind of writer, a fantasy writer needs to be good at naming. As with everything else, it helps to love what you have to do anyway.
Tolkien is the master, and you can see the love that goes into every name in The Lord of the Rings. Famously, Tolkien invented the languages of Middle Earth before he invented Middle Earth itself. Gene Wolfe (Book of the New Sun) is another master, and so is Australian fantasy writer D.M. Cornish (Monster Blood Tattoo). The best way to learn the art of naming is to see how other writers have managed to come up with names that are so evocative, so unexpectedly right.
At the other extreme, there’s a website that supplies an alphabetical list of tens of thousands of possible fantasy names. I won’t give the address because I hate the idea that naming could ever be such a soulless operation. (If someone would list all the names already taken and used up, names to avoid, now that would be handy.)
Another pet hate: fantasy names that are just syllables thrown together without rhyme or reason, as though any combination of sounds is as good as any other. Worst of all, the pseudo-exotic combinations full of ‘k’s and ‘y’s and ‘x’s, often with hyphens and apostrophes arbitrarily tossed in. No! Every language has its own rhyme and reason, and names in that language must follow the same rhyme and reason.
My favourite example is the English word ‘butterfly’, which started life as ‘flutterby’. When you think about it, ‘flutterby’ makes excellent descriptive sense, whereas ‘butterfly’ makes no sense at all. Butterflies aren’t flies and have nothing to do with butter. But try saying ‘flutterby’ a few times, and it’s slow and fumbling on the tongue. By contrast, ‘butterfly’ is neat and snappy with an easy flow. The right sound took over from the right meaning.
Names don’t have to be obvious to sound right. A word like ‘butterfly’ is downright odd. In Lord of the Rings, Emyn Muil, Nurn and Ephel Duath are all unusual, yet plausible.
D.M. Cornish almost makes a principle of the unexpected—‘Proud Sulking’ as the name of a town, for example, or ‘fiasco’ as the name of a small case or bag used to carry cosmetics. That’s playing with fire, and I wouldn’t dare do it myself, but, yes, the names have the right feel in spite of their standard associations. It’s as though ‘fiasco’ could have been and should have been the name of a small case or bag used to carry cosmetics!
Unlike an arbitrary collection of syllables, a good name sticks together and sticks in the memory. To pluck an example out of thin air, ‘ngambo’ is a non-English combination, but it’s perfectly pronounceable. I believe that any invented language, like any real language, has its own natural logic of sounds, and it’s the job of the writer to discover that logic. A name has to ring true both in relation to its language and in relation to the person, place or thing that it names.
Translation into foreign languages can change the feel of a name and create problems. My French publisher emailed me recently about Verrol, the male lead in Song of the Slums. It turns out that 'Verrol' in French would associate with the French word 'vérole', which would be pronounced in the same way. Unfortunately, 'vérole' in French means a pox! Not at all the way I want French readers to think of my character!