My name is Derek, which means “leader of the people.” My sister’s name is “Terra” which means earth. Both names reflect our parents’ backgrounds, ethnicity, and popular names of the time period.
When you’re choosing character names for your novel, you can pretend you’re planning out the future lives and success of your children (you are, in a sense!). Is the name so strange that people will make fun of them? Will people have a hard time pronouncing it? Do you want them to fit in or stand out?
There’s no hard and fast rules to naming your fictional characters, but these tips will get you started.
1) Don’t make them ALL plain. Don’t make every character “Dan Smith” or “Chris White”. Mix up the names enough that at least some of them are uncommon enough to stand out.
2) That said, don’t make every name totally weird. This depends on the novel of course, supernatural or paranormal characters may have strange names. But most people have parents – and those parents gave them their name. So you need to think about the conditions of their parents’ background, environment, history, culture, ethnicity, what names were popular doing that era, etc. You need to think if the parents were normal or they wanted their kids to be normal, or if they were eccentric and wanted kids named “puzzle” or “apple”.
3) Don’t have everybody be white at the same time. Don’t pick stereotypical ethnic names to pigeonhole black, Indian or Chinese people, etc. Look up the most common names, and mix them around a bit. Family immigrated to the USA? They might have a common American first name and keep their family name – or vice-versa.
4) Avoid having characters who have names that end in “S”, like “Chris” or “Jess” – this makes things difficult for possessives Chris’s hat, Jess’ mouth. Easier to avoid the issue.
5) Try not to give your characters similar names. If possible, let all their names start with different letters. This helps keep them apart.
6) If it works, it’s kind of fun to use name -meanings to represent the ideas or role your character will play, or express something about their personality. Don’t force it if it doesn’t work, however, and don’t make it ridiculously obvious (like “Vlad Fang” for a vampire or “Dick Star” for a detective”).
For my book I used the Marshall Plan Novel Writing software, which includes a name database with meaning and ethnicity, pretty convenient and handy.