Everyone has a different process when it comes to writing. Some build the world first and bring characters in later, some build worlds around their characters, and still others simply write and attempt to capture their ideas before they disappear into the ether. At some point in all of these processes, three things can be taken as truth: you will have a world, you will have characters, and you will have something resembling a plot (or at least a very twisty idea of one).
If you have characters, then you must also have names for them.
Think about it. In our world, names have their own significance. They can tell you how old a person is (by how popular the name was in their year of birth), or where someone’s from. They can indicate personality; people with self-given names tend to name themselves as they perceive themselves. Place names are even more indicative– they can point to major events in history and have meaning to the people and culture that named them.
So, if names have such a significance in our own modern world, then they should also have such meaning in your high fantasy, your space opera, your world of hive-minded cyberpunk frogs, whatever.
There are several different ways to go about naming a character. Does your character have a particular power, ability, or affinity? Look up names with a similar definition. Was your character born in a specific time period either in US history or strongly connecting to it? Try the Social Security Name Database and look up popular names by the character’s year of birth. Unsure? Get out a phone book, go to a cemetery, listen to and watch radio and television news, anything in any media that might produce interesting name combinations.
If you’re looking up definitions of names, then you’ll want to have a baby-naming resource of some kind. Baby-naming books are easy to find; mine was on sale for $3 at my local Borders, and if you don’t want to buy one, then odds are there’s one drifting around in a parent’s or a friend’s house that isn’t wanted. There are also websites out there such as BabyNames.com and Behind the Name. The first one is your standard baby-naming site: it allows you to search by meaning, gender, nationality, et cetera. Behind the Name is specific to surnames, but it’s a fairly comprehensive database and I’ve found it very useful in the past.
Say you have a mage with an affinity for weather. You might look up names with meanings such as “storm”, “rain” or “lightning”. If that mage is living in a modern day or alternate US history world, you might use the SSA database to discover what names would have been popular at the time of your mage’s birth. Play with it; write down a few different names and try them on for size. You can always change the name later if you want to or if other changes in the story require it, so have fun!
Speaking of changing names later, there are times when fiddling around with names is more trouble than it’s worth. If, for example, you simply can’t figure out what to name a minor character and it’s holding up the rest of your story, then give that minor character a placeholder and move on. Eventually, you’ll have to give that guy a name, but in the meantime, don’t worry about it. That’s what editing is for!
When making up names, just try to keep it in the realm of plausibility. Let’s face it, nobody’s going to be able to pronounce a name over a dozen syllables, and it’ll slow your readers down trying to figure it out. Try, instead, combining or shortening names that already exist in the world–your readers will thank you for going with Lisevelyn as opposed to Liselrinadetrevelyn, and it still sounds fairly exotic and fantasy world-ish. If you simply must have a character with a long, unpronounceable name, give them a nickname. Maybe Liselrinadetrevelyn goes by Lisel, or Lis, or Lyn. All of these are good names, and unless your character is a completely pompous, self-important person, she’d probably go by a nickname anyways.
Overall, when you are naming characters, keep in mind that names are particularly changeable when you’re editing. If you give a character a name that doesn’t fit for any reason, you can change it and probably should. Until it’s on a tombstone, a name is just a word that a person uses to describe themselves.