This rant is based mostly on experience with amateur fantasy online, and some of my own writing. A professional author can usually succeed in making me accept the most ridiculous character names (although certainly not always).
1) Don’t base the name too closely on your own.
This has two reasons, and maybe three. The two I think are most important are risk of too much character identification and violating the structure of your world.
Imagine that your name is Kelli, and your character is Kelly. How separate is the character in the book going to be from you? Are you writing someone utterly distinct in personality? Are you able to detach yourself enough to know when the character needs tweaking? Even worse, are you tempted to introduce experiences from your own life, no matter how poorly they fit, just because you feel that a character named Kelly should have experienced them, too? (That was what I did with my first character, whose name was very similar to my own).
Next, does the name Kelly really fit into the structure of your world? If everyone else has an Old English name, it won’t. Nor will it if every other female has a name ending with -n or -r. It irritates me when I see a creator who has carefully built up naming traditions otherwise breaking one of her own reasons, just because she can’t stand to sacrifice that precious name.
Finally, as the less important reason, it won’t win you any points with critical readers, especially those aware of Mary Sues. I know that I would raise my eyebrows if I was reading a book by an author named Elaine and the main character was Ellayne, even if I didn’t believe that she was Sueish. Many authors put a bit of themselves into the characters, but masked. Proclaiming that the character is, in fact, you denies that masking and can seem like asking your readers to enjoy your adventures rather than the adventures of a fantasy character. It’s not the best choice.
2) Don’t make the name too long or too alien.
Yes, I know that your character Xiwyliipoliopion absolutely has to be spelled that way or you feel no connection with him. Yes, I know Liialaara is your teenaged self. Tough cookies. You have a choice in cases like that between connection with the character and connection with your readers.
No one enjoys having to pause and stumble every time they get to a character name, or skip over it altogether, the way they would read words in a foreign language. Character names are often foreign in fantasies, but, just like words such as amigo, they should be recognizably foreign without folding, stapling, and mutilating the phonological constraints of English. We’re supposed to get to know these people and value them as friends. Long strings of vowels, apostrophes and capital letters in weird places, overuse of X, Q, J, and Z, starting words with extremely odd consonant combinations (such as mt), and making the names too long altogether will make your readers retreat.
In the case of an author’s own work, you may need other judges. I’ve been able to pronounce long names I used perfectly after some practice, but had others tell me they didn’t understand them or found them overwhelming. If just one reader complains, you probably don’t need to worry. If everyone is telling you that they can’t remember how to spell Liialaara in between one reading and another, you have a problem. (Unless you’re doing a parody; I have a character named Lusirimonalata whom I rather enjoyed using).
3) Avoid unfortunate coincidences as much as possible.
I had a reader who understood Greek tell me that the name Teridona, which I gave one of my characters, meant “tooth decay” in Greek. This kind of thing can be easy to laugh off, especially if it fits the story or if it’s a language that you’re unlikely to encounter, but it’s another thing altogether when you know the language and have no excuse for not checking the name. It’s like naming a heroine Chlamydia when you speak English natively.
Don’t go overboard with this. If you get too paranoid to name a character anything pronounceable, it’ll show in the ridiculousness of the names that follow. But do run Google searches, and do check dictionaries, and if your character’s name sounds like it might mean something in a language you don’t speak, go and ask someone who speaks that language.
4) Make sure your character names fit the tone of the story.
It does not make sense to name your heroine Raven when she’s supposed to be sincerely bubbly and cheerful and happy. Yeah, there’s always the great excuse of irony, but I’ve read too many stories where the author claimed that and then I saw no trace of it.
Honestly sit down and ask yourself if the name fits. If people are calling you on it, chances are that whatever ironic or reverse impression you intended with the name didn’t come across, and you’ll need to work more on showing that. If you intended nothing of the sort, and simply didn’t notice the enormous contradiction, then have the guts to admit that to yourself and change the name.
Always be careful when naming a character after a thing, be that thing an animal, gemstone, virtue, or action. A heroine named Dancer who is clumsy could be ironic; if she’s whiny and sullen as well, it’s less likely to fit any way at all. I am incapable of taking a heroine named Rainbow seriously, after Rainbow Brite and the complete lack of relevance that such a name usually has to the story. All the clever, red-haired Foxes make me throw up, and names like Faith, Hope, Charity, usually wind up casting their bearers into the bind of being shallowly ironic or relentlessly conformist.
If you do choose a name like this, try to choose one that’s rare—I can’t recall a heroine named Birch, or a hero named Stoat—or work on establishing an impression that could fit the name while not following the stereotypes. (In a way, it’s a shame that names in fantasy usually tend to be significant; I have known many people laboring under similar names in the real world who simply refused to let the names define them and did what they wanted without worrying about it).
5) Don’t make nicknames cutesy.
It drives me nuts when the heroine’s name is something like Kalandra, which is about right, not too long, and the other characters insist on calling her “Kali-babe.” Or, even worse, when the author thinks she’s being “clever” and connects the nickname to something else, in this case Kali, the goddess of death. I think that joke would work once, perhaps. After that, I would try to stab a pair of scissors through the page when another character cracked a joke about “the Goddess.”
This is a list of words that should never, under any circumstances, be combined with a fantasy nickname:
STOP IT, for the love of all the gods there are.
A related problem is the author coming up with a nickname that has no obvious connection at all to the character’s main name. If her name is Laradia and the other characters call her Emily…huh?
6) Adapt the name to the other names around it.
It makes no sense to have the character named Tito, and his parents be Helga and James. Yes, fantasy steals cultures from the real world, including names, but it makes no sense to blindly mix and mesh two cultures together. Your readers will bring their real-world sensibilities to this, since you’re using real-world names. If there are English, French, Spanish, and German names all existing together in one place, you’re going to have to come up with a complicated history of invasions to explain it. It’s much easier just to use a certain set of names for a certain people. (Tad Williams does this well in his Osten Ard novels, where the characters that have English names do so because their King came from a culture that used them, and it was decided that people born in the vicinity of the castle would have their names modified to that, or whatever was closest).
Never forget when you’re planning out your social and cultural history, which many fantasy authors do, that those invaders or conquerors or settlers or traders or immigrants will carry their language along with them. The linguistic dimension of history is often neglected, but there’s no reason it should be. And if half of your characters have names with long strings of vowels and the others almost no vowels at all, I will want to know why.
Finally, going back to point one, you’ll have to decide how attached to your main character’s name you are. If you absolutely can’t imagine changing it, but it’s Spanish-sounding while everyone else has a Germanic name, then you’ll have to change the culture. Vice versa if you like the culture too much. It’s better than having a character who sticks out like a sore tooth.
There’s no reason for most of this nonsense with names, except that authors get too close to their work and forget how Krystalynne sounds to someone who doesn’t know and love the character.