I try not to have any names start with the same letter and try to make sure that the names are actually pronounceable. I also keep in mind that names with as more than 3 syllables are considered long by most Americans. I may still use long names but those less frequently.
Beyond that, I use a couple of techniques to choose names. I write exclusively in fantasy worlds so I prefer not to use recognizably "real world" names. Someone who is acquainted with Basque might recognize some of my names in a recent novel although they are all altered from the original.
The names of my MCs usually just come to me. Sometimes I have to try out different names until one just clicks. For minor characters I draw inspiration from various sources--Gaelic, Hindu, what have you--but usually tweak them in some way. I like names that have meaning of some kind, however. I try to keep them feeling culturally consistent, however. This is for my deep fantasy work, anyway. For my urban fantasy I tend to pick names from different cultures based on their sound and meaning. Usually I have a sense of how I want it to start or feel like in the mouth. I generally avoid generic feeling names, unless the character calls for that.
Similar names _can_ confuse the reader, I think, and I avoid it. However, two of my MCs in my WIP have very similar names, but that was on purpose, because of their life and cultural background, and because one is a shadow of the other.
I choose mostly by definition or resonance--though I didn't think of the process as resonance until David Wolverton pointed it out. I look through different languages, like annepin, but try to discover the meanings. Sometimes, I design the character from the meaning, sometimes I try to find a name that's definition fits the character, when I can do neither to my satisfaction, I take parts of names that make up an accurate description, and feel them out. (In Fantasy.)
In a contemporary tale, I try to find names from multiple resources (again different languages).
Always, though, I try to make the names sound different. I won't go crazy trying to eliminate one of my two "S" name characters--at some point, changing their names is like putting them in protective custody, and will all seem false--but I try to find different textures when I speak/think them: Sven and Shamice or Shammy. Even though they start with the same letter (as often becomes necessary, especially in epic fantasy) they don't sound or feel the same. Oh, yeah, and I don't make Sven and Shammy date. They generally dislike each other enough to group with other characters (protagonists, antagonists).
Also, as with some historical fiction, you'll be limited. Romans, for example only had a handful of given names and surnames--your bound to have to use Lucien or Lucious or Maximus if your tale involves enough people. This is true of other region and time periods, too.
[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited January 12, 2008).]
When I make a name, I find the first word that I can see and change it slightly, such as taking the word level and making the name Levol. All my character names are not common, because of the way that I do it. Some people find the names in my stories to be a bit confusing, but most people seem to like it, because it is different.
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I write mostly near-term sci-fi, so I troll my junkmail folder for plausible names. It's a great place to find some good ones. I just cleared it out tonight but I'll have to post some of them on another day. I also use names of people I've met or names I've heard that I like.
I also suggest avoiding names that sound similar, or LOOK the same. I find that names with the same shape (length included), even if they are made up of different letters can be confusing to me. Brian and Jason are not very differentiated, for example. They look very similar. Jim and Dan. Lisa and Mori. So particularly for characters that need to be differentiated from each other, I suggest looking at more than just first letter when you're considering what to name them. I realized recently that my two MCs in my WIP have names that end in an "a" sound, a typical name-ending sound for a girl (Amanda, Juliana, for example) but still, to have both MCs...I think it's a bit much.
I wouldn't recommend the practice without some good reason. Your prospective readers will be confused enough, so why make it harder for them?
(I remember one TV series---yes, it was the one I wrote Internet Fan Fiction for---where half a dozen or more characters all had first names beginning with "T"---and there were three different characters, one extremely important, two minor, named "Tom." Either it was inadvertent...or the producers didn't care...but, either way, we fanfic writers had a field day with speculation about why this was so...)
1) Jordan didn't use the names like you've shown. They weren't grouped together like that: He didn't switch from Myrell to Moiraine, or have them in the same scene (In fact, I don't think Myrelle was even introduced until after Moiraine died.
2) He poulated an entire, detailed world. The scope of the WoT is huge, and many of those characters are minor. How many characters didn't you name, that those interact with? The Wheel of Time was written over a twenty-odd year period. It grew the entire time--to the point of getting annoying--but there was a huge cast.
3) Not everything that begins with the same letter sounds the same. Sometimes, you have to pay attention to the sounds, too:
Elayne, Egwene, Elaida all sound different.
4) Look at the first book's main protagonists: Rand, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve, Egwene, Lan, Moiraine, and Elayne. Antagonists: Shai'tan, Lanfear, Padan Fain, the Myrdraal, the Trollocs, Damodred, Geofram Bornhald, and Elaida...
The names look a little different in that light, don't they?
quote:The names look a little different in that light, don't they?
Elayne, Egwene, Elaida all sound different. -- still too similar. Annoying to read, especially if they're all in the same scene (haven't read the book, so I don't know - probably wouldn't read just based on the names I've seen).
Sampling from my junk mail filter, of some possible names (I'm always amused by the combinations for some reason.) Oh - and goes without saying, but I won't include those names that are obviously porn spam. Blech.
Delmer X. Delaney (this person gets around, they have multiple middle initials in my junk mail) Dusty Donaldson Ronny Holman Courtney French Reginald Ferfuson Freddy L. Bryan Ingmar Rachel Dallas Walton
One of the ways I find names (my stories are contemporary fantasy, so I use real, human names for the human or wizard characters) is to watch the credits roll on films. There are some amazing names there of all nationalities. If I find something interesting, I'll make note of it. This is particularly fun on British films, where there are so many funny--to my ear, anyway--names.
For the Nano novel I wrote in 2006, we were on the road on the way to my last art show of the year in Massachusetts, an 800+ mile road trip where my hubby drives the whole way (he doesn't like me to drive trailers and that works for me, too!). While he drove, I worked on my laptop writing the Nano novel, which had a large section including some elves. I got stuck trying to come up with some Elvish-type names, so I started looking outside our truck, where I found my inspiration! LOL! So some of the elves' names are based on parts of business names on big trucks, combined with a syllable or two from an exit sign or billboard - they turned out rather well, overall! Oh, and Enya was playing on the radio at one point, resulting in a character named "Enyanel" heehee.
For my humans, wizards and mages, I use American, British, Gaelic and Celtic names mostly (since my novels take place in the US and UK) and use the "Character Naming Sourcebook" to look up meanings. For the bad guy, I looked online for an Old English dictionary and looked through words until I found one that meant "adversary" and made a pronounceable, easily readable name (I hate having to take the time to figure out names in books or stories - I'll slide over them instead - those of you who write long or complex names, take note! I'm not alone in this practice!:> ).
As for names that sound alike - look at "Superman" where so many people have "LL" as their initials! Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor (and on "Smallville," Lionel Luthor - or is he in the comics too?). That's an odd thing to me, but since I'm a huge fan of anything Superman ("Smallville's" my favorite show on TV), I don't get the names confused. A newcomer, though, would probably get Lana and Lois's names confused, at the very least.
The main character's in my novel series are Ethan and Jake Payne. I came up with an idea of what they looked like and what their personalities were like, and the names just came to me. I thought they suited the characters pretty well, but when I looked up their meaning, they also fit the characters' personalities! I was amazed by that.
Trust your ear - if something sounds like it will fit your character, it just might. But look it up too, so you don't wind up giving your virginal heroine some name that labels her (to those who are that educated) as a Jezebel! LOL!
If I remember correctly, George Alec Effinger (may he rest in peace) once recommended getting a copy of the list of Olympic athletes, by country, for any given Olympics, and you will have a great list of ordinary names that go together geographically.
I have never been able to figure out how to get a copy of such a list, though, but I think it would be a great source of names.