Last week we talked about book titles. Your job doesn't end there. All those characters that populate your book deserve names that complement them, are appropriate, and distinguish them from each other.
As with the title, I find it impossible to work on my characters until I have their names in place, and those names feel right. My main characters come first, naturally. My hero and/or heroine (protagonists) must be fully identified, having a name that both they and I are satisfied with. I'll usually try out several names until I settle on one that feels like a good fit. I play with it, write a few experimental lines of narrative and dialog, try it out until I'm convinced it's going to work.
My Ideas File is full of character names that at one time struck my fancy. Recently I saw a clip on TV of a man standing beside a drop-off, with a sign beside him that read CLIFF EDGE. "What a great name for a character!" I thought, and Cliff Edge went into my Ideas File, to await the day when I'll be able to use him. I don't see Cliff as a main character. Certainly not the hero. But he might be the hero's devil-may-care best friend.
There have been a few occasions when I was a few pages into writing a book and I realized a character just wasn't working. That'll happen if the name doesn't resonate. In that case it's back to the drawing board, and once a new name is chosen the writing usually goes more smoothly. I've never gotten far into a book, however, and made a name change. Unlike Margaret Mitchell, who called the heroine of her famous novel Pansy. The publisher felt the name wasn't strong enough for the character, and so Scarlett O'Hara was born.
Make sure the characters' names in your book are different enough from each other to avoid confusion. Don't, for instance, name the two neighbor boys Billy and Bobby. Don't give your twenty-something heroine an outdated name like Gertrude. Unless, of course, you work it into the story that she was named after her mother's favorite aunt, always hated the name and won't answer to anything but Trudie. I once read a novel in which almost all of the characters had first and surnames that seemed interchangeable - David Roberts; Richard Mason; Patrick Stewart; Morgan Thomas. It drove me nuts. But worse, I had trouble keeping the character straight.
To use "Gone With the Wind" again as an example -- Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, Melanie. All great names, and each one reflects the character perfectly.
Simple names work well for minor characters. You don't want them to overshadow your hero and heroine. Science fiction requires that your characters have otherworldly names. Romance novel heroines usually have trendy names, or names with unusual spelling. Is your hero the strong type? Then don't call him Percy! Does your heroine live in the period of the Bront' sisters? Avoid naming her Madison or Zoey.
I keep a couple of baby naming books on hand to browse through when naming a new character. A good one not only contains a wealth of both old-fashioned and contemporary names, but often includes the origin of the name as well, which is helpful when writing a family in which heritage is important. The phone book is a good place to search for your characters' last names.
Avoid ending your character's first name with the same letter that starts the last name, as they tend to run together. Try saying the name Cletus Splucker out loud and you'll see what I mean. Speaking of Cletus, you might also consider avoiding names that end with "s." It's a small point, I know, and totally up to you, but you might have a difficult time of it later when writing the possessive form of the name. One one occasion I named a character Bess. When writing the possessive, Bess' never looked right, and Bess's wasn't much better. Worse yet, I found conflicting rules on which was correct. I renamed her Carol.
And last but not least, say your characters' names out loud to avoid awkwardness or one that's unintentionally funny. Unless your heroine is desperately on the prowl, you don't want to call her Anita Mann.
"The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes."Agatha Christie