How do you come up with names, for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)?
Most of the time, I slap a name on a character and hope it works.
In my misguided youth, I thought I could create names like JRR Tolkien. After many pseudo-Tolkien names, I realized that I do not accurately create languages. I also realized that names reflect the culture, so I determined that rather than force awkward names on my characters, I should work on creating cultures and family traditions. My hero of The Continent has a Roman name (Livius) despite not being Italian because it’s something his family has done for generations.
My names are often allusions to other works or people–I have a current character named McGoohan for Patrick McGoohan, who played Number Six in The Prisoner. Another character is Bradbury, for Ray, author of Fahrenheit 451. Sometimes, as in the cases of McGoohan and Bradbury, these allusions work. Other times, they border on the ridiculous. I named a character Orlando for Shakespeare’s character (and also Orlando Bloom, because I was thirteen when I came up with this character). It didn’t fit, and the poor guy wandered around with an uncomfortable name until he happened on one that suited him. That name was Geoffrey (for Chaucer).
Some characters, like Geoffrey, ‘name themselves’. They stumble about with names that don’t fit until, somehow, they find one that fits. A more recent character (gasp, a female!) was stuck with Louisa until she asserted herself and said, “Listen Beth. My name is Penelope.” Which is just better for her.
My most commonly used name at the moment is Simon. My RAF story has a primary character named Simon Reed, another Simon (surname: Drake) is currently in search of a story, and a few more have Simons as secondary characters (and Simon is one of Geoffrey’s middle names).
For fictional places, I use allusions as well. In The Continent‘s original form, it took place in a solar system that had been populated, primarily, by Italians (why not), so the planets were all named for regions of Italy. The cities and towns were transferred onto the planets as well. Kind of weak, but I thought it would work. Of course, the names should change a bit, to reflect the changing language (as Haarlem became Harlem and so forth).
I’m trying to name an English country house right now. It’s not a terribly big house, a cottage, really. I’m kind of thinking Shangri-La, but that’s just cliche.