Names have power. There's a reason that this concept is widespread across many different cultures and societies. A name suggests a history, a meaning, a story. Names do the brunt of establishing a fantasy world for the author, when used correctly and carefully. While you'll need names for people, places and things in your story, today I'm going to talk just about naming your characters.
The correct name can define a character, while the wrong one can create an incorrect first impression for the reader. Novelists who set their stories on Earth and in the real world don't face the kind of pressure fantasy novelists do when it comes to characters. As a frequent reader in addition to a writer, I expect the fantasy novels I read to have different, exotic names, because those names help lift me out of my world and place me in a new one.
Of course, that can make things difficult. Coming up with suitable names can be time-consuming and difficult. So I've got three tips to help you out:
1. Use your in-world language(s). If you have a language built or are planning to construct one, your names should be consistent with it. I frequently create names directly out of my language by picking the meaning I want for the name based what I know of the character. I named one of my dragon characters Vae'khel, which breaks down into bright ("vae") cold ("khel"), because she's pure white and makes me think of ice.
2. Use baby name books. Pick maybe one or two cultures and choose lesser known or more medieval-sounding names from them. This is a great way to get believable names that still sound unfamiliar. For instance, I named a major character Alastair. That's a for-real, actual name but it's uncommon enough to fit into a fantasy world.
3. Use a fantasy name generator. Sounds like a cop out, and in a way it is, but don't knock it. It can get you out of a tight place. I do this primarily to help with last names, which I find to be much more difficult. I had to resort to a generator to get Alastair's last name, and it led me to Vargas. Some generators will let you choose consonant and vowel sounds, etc. If you're clever, these names can then be cannibalized into your language to provide fuel for method one. Here are a couple I've used in the past: Name Generator #1, Fantasy Name Generator.
Typically I spend one or two hours researching names and pull all the ones I like into a Word doc or a spreadsheet. Then I hang onto it so that I'm prepared for the next time I need a name. I have sheets compiled years ago that I'm still using, and there are always several sheets of names mixed in with my supplementary novel materials. Eventually, you may run out (I have) and have to go looking again, but it's still preferable to looking every single time you need to name a character.
What about filler words, you ask? For when you're not sure what name you want to use, but still want to keep writing?
A lot of times I just use random combinations of letters, like XXX, but I don't usually have more than one or two unnamed characters at a time and they tend to be unimportant characters. If you've got a major character who's unnamed, then I would definitely pick a generic name to use as a placeholder. I've done this before, using the common name David until I came up with a better name. Using simple letters or number can dehumanize a character and have an impact on the way you write their actions and dialogue, so I try to avoid it.
Still struggling with your names? Leave me a comment and ask a question!