One of the many perks of writing sci-fi/fantasy (besides all the money, fame and shaving cream endorsements…wait, wrong business…never mind…) is coming up with cool imaginary names. Names of characters, names of places, names of planets and kingdoms and dimensions and monsters and spells and weapons. The trick is coming up with names that don’t sound ridiculous, that aren’t carbon copies of names other authors have used, and that fit the tone of your setting and story.
Now, sometimes you can go really hog wild with this process. Coming up with names is tricky, and sadly there’s no sure fire way to make great names just pop into your head, because different things work for different people. There are lots of online random fantasy/sci-fi name generators out there; I don’t tend to use those, personally, because I like to manipulate modern words into something that sounds fantastical, or else the names just come to me…usually when I’m not trying to think of any. (The Bone March from Blood Skies, for example, came from me misreading the name of a department store called Bon Marche. That happens to me a lot.)
Whatever your approach, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
Proper Names & Language: If you have a fantasy realm based on, say, ancient Japanese legends, you may decide to have all of your fantasy names from that region sound Japanese. (Or base your language on ancient China, ancient Egypt, or ancient New Jersey…do what you like.) This gives you some framework to work from, and you can take some basic words from a language your readers may not be highly familiar with and play around with them to create something exotic sounding. (One popular example of this is naming characters “Krieg”, the German word for ‘war’.)
You may decide to have your names reflect the attitudes and/or stereotypes of the culture you’re writing about. Warrior people tend to have short and brutal sounding names, for example, while a culture known for its diplomacy may have more melodic or pleasing names.
To keep things clear you may decide to set rules and conventions and follow them strictly. I decided that the Jak’taar from Dead Planet, for example, use apostrophes in all proper nouns, which means names like Dar’rak and Rak’deen are common, and in the long run that helped me distinguish them from the other races in the book.
Another trick is to have specific words mirror our modern language in some oblique fashion so you can paint character traits for the reader. A man named Cryptos, for example, may either be a necromancer, a mortician, or just never give straight answers.
Generally, you want to avoid just throwing random consonants together…at least not without making sure they sound good. Always be sure to say your invented names out loud, and be prepared to provide some sort of pronunciation guide to help your readers out. Yes, your wife will look at you funny when you’re walking around talking in what may sound like Darkspeech or Klingon, but it can mean the difference between “Nazarathos” and “Naghijulhgihuh”.
Locations: Half of the fun in coming up with location names for both fantasy and sci-fi is inventing dramatic identifiers to clearly mark what sort of place you’re talking about. In fantasy, every location has a nickname, or else their proper names sound like nicknames. Frodo didn’t have to throw the ring in Mt. Mohaska…he had to throw it in Mt. Doom. Mt. DOOM! (I’m pretty sure the mapmakers didn’t call it that to draw vacationing backpackers.)
It’s a fantasy tradition (reinforced by fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons) to come up with cool sounding names for locations that plainly tell the story of what the place is about, and often the trick is to come up with a) a neat and intimidating sounding descriptor and then add it to b) a location type. The two parts don’t necessarily have to go in that order, but the end result does have to sound cool. Nightfang Spire. Black Ice Well. The Bastion of Broken Souls. The Temple of Elemental Evil. You get the idea. Often these aren’t the proper names for these places, but they’re the only name the places are actually known by, so they might as well be.
With science fiction, there are a couple of different ways you can go. On the one hand you can take the fantasy approach and give a planet, star system, etc. a very Earth-centric and human sounding name to describe how it’s regarded by characters in the story; this is often the result of human/Earth characters not knowing or understanding the proper name of a place, so they ascribe a name which makes sense to them (which, as with the naming of fantasy locations, allows the author to paint a very specific mood). Examples of this naming method are planets like Pandora, Banshee, or Jericho. These names may have some deeper meaning in the context of the story, or just sound cool, which is just as important. (Oh, and when in doubt, throw a number after the planet’s name, so Pandora becomes Pandora 11, or Jericho becomes Jericho 3. Normally this means the planets are part of a group in a solar system. More important, it sounds like “official” sci-fi.)
When In Doubt: My golden rule when coming up with fantasy names is simple: if it sounds cool, or looks cool, go with it. You can always fill in the details of a name’s etymology later. Look to fantasy and sci-fi authors whose work you enjoy reading and see how they name things, at the conventions they use with their own fantastical creations. You can even borrow from them, maybe not actual names but the feel of names, the cadence of the language and rhythm. Fantasy and sci-fi are about taking us to places we’ve never been, and a huge part of that is the language, the names, the sense of fantastic conveyed by locations and creatures we’ve never encountered (and, at least with most fiction, never will).
So when in doubt, go with your gut. If it’s cool enough to pop into your imagination, it’s cool enough for you to share.