Names have power…
One of the things I love the most about creating new worlds is figuring out what my naming conventions will be. Sometimes they are loose, but not very often, precisely because names and how they are used help set the tone for a story.
First and foremost, they point you to characters who are strong or weak. For example, most of my heroes have names with begin with a hard sound in English: K or T. They’ll have one somewhere in their name if it doesn’t begin with it. Corran, Hawkins, Crow, Resolute, Victor, Kai… I could go on. I also, for a reason unknown to me, also favor the letter N for hero names: Nolan, Neal and, in the current books, Nathaniel. (Even Corran ended up with an N, since he was Rogue Nine…)
Often a character will have his true name, and then a call name, or the name I used most often in the book. Nolan, from Talion: Revenant, got called Talion a bunch, so his call name had a T in it. Owen Strake (who has a twofer in his last name) is often called Captain Strake, so he picks up that K sound. That hard sound suggests toughness for a character, and I like that. Helps me fix the character in my mind.
There are other bits of name games that can be played. One thing I don’t like in a lot of novels, especially fantasy novels, is that names are just a mishmosh, drawn from every culture haphazardly. I like them to be grouped the way, um, gosh, they are in life. In At the Queen’s Command I made a couple choices in this regard. The Mystrian colonies are populated by people from Norisle. In Norisle, most folks have a family name that is a place name of some sort: Langford, Rivendell, Harrington. The folks shipped off to the colonies were often rebels and criminals, so they adopted new names in the new world. Hence they have last names like Woods, Bone, Strake, Baker, Branch and Cask. I decided to name them largely after nouns, sometimes after occupations and occasionally a bit more exotic, but just by reading a character’s name, you’ll know the side of the ocean he comes from.
I also get to have fun with the names. Seth Plant is a simple man on the edge of civilization. He has a small farm. He also supplements his income by being a grave digger. (Yes, the pun was quite intentional. These are things writers do to amuse themselves.)
At other times names are symbolic. Nolan means, “no land,” and the character was one whose nation was destroyed and whose family perished along with it. Victor Davion was conceived on the eve of his father’s greatest victory, hence his name. Also from the BattleTech novels, Kai Allard-Liao got his name from John Steinbeck’s spelling of the name of King Arthur’s brother, Kay (Cay, Cai, etc). This is why I pronounce it Kay, when most folks use the Asian pronunciation of Kye. I named him that because, like Sir Kay, he’s stalwart and reliable.
The use of names can be a very strong technique in projecting a sense of order into your world. When you’re putting together a setting, take some time to group names so they are familiar. Think about honorifics that can elevate a person in class. Think about how you change a name from male (Steve) to female (Stephanie) or child (Davy) to adult (David) to familiar (D or Dave or Big Dave or the D-man). Just by using different names you can suggest a whole world of relations in a very subtle way that most readers will miss consciously, but will pick up subconsciously. It gives your work more depth, more layers, and will make readers come back for more.