Take a look at a writer’s names, and you can predict how well they write. Are the names dull and strewn with unusual letters? Shamelessly borrowed, like Mycenae and Illyria? Or have they become an end in themselves with no relationship to the back story? The fact is, coining names is a minor art in itself, and, like all aspects of storytelling, takes practice to do well.
You can choose from lists of names in a modern setting. No one expects originality with realism, and lists of popular names are available online for many countries and eras. Digging into the original meaning of names, though, is likely wasted effort, that will be only appreciated by one in ten thousand readers. Avoid, too, the lists of fantasy names online — they’re fine for gaming, but why risk using the same name as half a dozen other writers? Besides, the lists are rarely fine examples of the craft of naming. I remember one that was so impoverished that it suggested Brassica — the Latin word for cabbages — as suitable for dryads. I can only imagined an exceptionally dowdy dryad with that name.
Similarly, be wary of adopting typos, mashed-together keystrokes, drawn Scrabble tiles, or any of the other half-seriously suggested methods for randomly coining names. The problem with such tactics
is precisely that they are random, and languages are not. If you do discover a usable name at random, it will be an accident.
All true languages have a consistency about them. English, for example, makes infrequent use of Q, X, and Z, while northern Germanic languages often use “sk.” Every language will also have its own distribution of diphthongs like “str” or “th.” And don’t forget diacriticals — English may make little use of accents, but a modern word processor gives access to a complete list of characters, at least for western European languages. Just be sure that you know how to use them. An apostrophe, for example, in English means letters are left out (yes, even when used as a possessive; originally, the possessive ending in English was “es,” but today we omit the “e.”). But when other languages are written with Latin characters, an apostrophe can indicate a glottal stop, so be sure you don’t just throw one in without knowing what sound you are indicating. You’ll only look ignorant.
To be believable, fantasy languages should have their own patterns. If you are a linguist, you can invent your own patterns; there will always be favored sounds, and sounds that are rarely used in any language. For the rest of us, a quick and dirty way to create the appearance of patterns is to choose half a dozen words from a real language, and rearrange their syllables to suit yourself. In this way, you can quickly create psedo-French, pseudo-Malaysian, or any other pseudo-language of your choice. If you want to be more elaborate, use two or more languages to draw your random syllables from.
Alternatively, you might try a poetic approach like Lord Dunsany and E. R. R. Eddison did, manipulating sounds n the hopes of creating the impression you want. For instance, to my ear, “Jolgoth” with its sonorous vowels suggests a hulking, Conan-like character.In the same way, I borrowed Haulteclare, the name of the sword carried by Charlemagne’s fictional paladin Olivier for the vaguely French name of Alteclare. Then, naturally, I named Alteclare’s captal Tolivier, just as an Easter egg. To provide other names, I borrowed syllables from Old French.
Once you have names ready, you can add to their plausibility by the way you distribute them. The names of people and places often reflect the movements of people, so that in England you can tell where the invading Vikings settled down by the place names. In the same way, you can cluster place names to create a sense of history, and name characters from each cluster in a pattern. In my own case, the most western names are derived from the syllables of Frankish and Old English. Further east, the inspiration for names is Middle English, and in the utmost east, the names sound like those of the American West, reflecting a mass pattern of settlement.
Whatever method you use to coin names, be prepared for a high failure rate. Even though I’ve been coining names for years, I still reject four or five coinings for everyone that goes into a dictionary of names. Moreover, dozens of names that go into my dictionaries will never be actually used. I will only ever chose a few, but I can be sure that I only use the best of the best. The result, I firmly believe, is greater realism, and the satisfaction of practicing the art of names properly.