Sometimes writers spend more time stressing over what to call a character than they did naming their own child. Authors want their character to have a name that will draw the reader as well as identify the character. It has to sound right. Maybe it implies social status, ethnicity, age, some aspect of the character's personality, or maybe his or her occupation.
We all would like to come up with character names that stick in our heads or just seem perfect for the "person": Hawkeye Pierce, Magnum, Rockford, Mike Hammer, Daisy Mae, Scarlett, Hannibal Lecter, Mrs. Maxim de Winter, Atticus Finch, and on and on.
Authors have multiple copies of Baby Naming books. Some have phone books from different cities. Others keep lists of names they read or overhear. Others buy books designed to help writers or to explain the origins of names.
Some authors choose the protagonist and antagonist names before they ever begin writing, and that name becomes so ingrained with the character that it would be unthinkable to change it. Other authors choose character names, but may change them multiple times, looking for that "perfect" name.
Some names sound "old;" some are new and modern. You can look up statistics for what would have been your character's birth year and find out what were the most popular names given to children in different countries. Also, you can find out what various names mean and decide if that particular trait fits your character--or you can go in the opposite direction and choose, say, for a tall, strapping football hero, a name that means "timid and meek." Keep in mind that all these resource books are nice to have handy, but you don't have to pay to find names. Go to the library, pay attention to movie credits, search the phone book, look in your children's school directory or the church roster, use the Internet, read the lists of political candidates, scan the obituaries in the paper.
As an editor, I recommend writers avoid names within the same novel that sound similar (unless you have some underlying reason for doing this). It's even best to make sure two names don't begin with the same letter (lessens the chance the reader will get the two characters confused) or sound (such as Clarissa and Karla). It’s a good idea to avoid using the names of your friends or family, real life politicians or neighbors (unless that person has, for example, won a raffle to have his/her name in a book).
Usually, it’s not easy to decide on character names. If you just can't decide, try throwing out possible names to your critique group. Sometimes, it helps to hear how other people "see" your characters.
author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its eleventh year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.