I don’t know about other writers, but I do a BUNCH of research before I name my characters. First I google the name I’ve chosen to be sure he/she isn’t a famous artist, a reviled terrorist, my next door neighbor (whose name I’ve decided to use as the villain of the story), or my long-lost aunt/uncle. This process isn’t as easy as it sounds. Since the advent of Twitter, Facebook and the myriad social media sites out there that list names, I can assure you that, if I can think of a name, someone else has already done so. I’ve even purposely chosen the most obscure names and first/last name combinations that I can think of, and more often than not, someone else already possesses that name. As an example, did you know that someone named “Richmond Stevens” lives in Ohio? Yeah, neither did I. But I do now. And if I wanted to use his name as a very authoritarian member of a council, that name is now OUT. *sigh*
Once I’ve eliminated those pesky “I already have that name and I might potentially sue you if you use it” obstacles, then I turn to “what does the name MEAN”? For example, in one of the stories I’m working on now, my character is a lover, not a fighter. So after some research, I decided to go for the name Caryl. Not CAROL, you understand, but Caryl. Caryl is Welsh for “love,” and it’s perfect for a beautiful, 17-year-old peacemaker. Plus it’s pronounced “CAR-ill” as opposed to the more common “CARE-ul,” and I like a little creativity in my characters’ names.
Next, I use an alphabet chart so I don’t use too many names that start with the same letters. In the second novel I wrote, I named one of the characters Samantha and one of the characters Sam. I assure you that I had a valid reason for choosing the names (see the first sentence of this post), but still, since this wonderful reason wasn’t revealed until later in the story, I could see that readers might have a difficult time distinguishing between the characters, especially since I sometimes called Samantha, “Sam.”
Thus, I took the advice from a speaker at the Oklahoma Writers’ Conference that I went to a few years ago. She suggested that writers list all the letters in the alphabet and write down the character names next to the letter that their names started with. Once I started doing that, I discovered that I really, really, really like the letters “S,” “J,” “M,” and “C.” I actually felt a little embarrassed when I reviewed some of the stories I’d written and decided that if, variety is the spice of life, then my “character name soup” definitely needs a dash of salt! All I can say is … thank heavens for the “search and replace” feature in Microsoft Word.*
Finally, I try out the character’s name in the story. If my brain immediately starts painting a mental picture of the person I’ve just named, then I know I have a winner. But, if my brain snags on the name every time I type it, I have to go back to the drawing board/google search. Thus, the process starts all over again, and maybe Richmond Stevens becomes “Richmond Steveson,” a tall, distinguished, grey-haired man in his 40s.
Or maybe I’ll just go with Richard Simmons?
No, wait. I think I’ve heard that name before. I’d better go check.
* A word to the wise with the “search and replace” tool: make sure you check each replacement instead of using “replace all.” One time I changed the name “Tina” to “Cristina,” which is great, except for it also changed the word “destination” to “DesCristination.” THAT was a little startling on a read-through, let me assure you!