Characters are something like children. They have personalities. They can be stubborn, willful and inclined to go their own way. They don’t like to listen. They, also like children, have to be named.
I’ve always been fascinated with the meanings of names. In high school, one of the few things I bought outside of Star Wars expanded universe novels was a baby name book. I did get teased about whether or not there was something everyone else should know quite a bit. That book also made the rounds of my class at least once a month. I took highlighter to the different name origins. The pages are falling out and yellowing and I still have that book and use it.
Some writing advice people say to just name a character, the meaning or type of name doesn’t matter. Anyone who has read a Mary Sue story with an overly long, purple prose name would say differently. I disagree with this. Names are important. Your parent doesn’t just slap a name on you. My name has family meaning. It’s been in my family several generations. Naming a character who is important to your story and the story revolves around can carry the same weight. (While I don’t view my characters as my children/babies, I know some writers do. They’re more like my friends who live in my head with me.)
Naming a character can one of the easiest or one of the hardest aspects of character creation. It is one of the first steps of individuality. It gets them beyond just being male or female with a check mark of what type of character they’re supposed to be. They are no longer he or she, but they are “name.” And hopefully, as a writer, you really like that name, because you’re probably going to end up typing it a lot.
I like to say naming a character is somewhat instinctual. Usually, there is something about a name that draws to me as I’m looking through names and goes “that’s this person.” And sometimes, it truly is that easy and I don’t think about why I like that name until later. In fact, one name of my novels I was using as a placeholder, went to find another name and realized no other name fit as well as the placeholder did. Not to say there aren’t reasons for choosing names.
Sometimes, I choose a name simply because the name is pretty. I like the sound of it. Cultural context, what it means, or character background doesn’t matter, because the name is pretty and I like it. So there.
Other times, it is a lot easier to go by the meaning of the name. This is usually important if the name of the character is supposed to have some sort of significance in the story. The meaning of the name could give some clue into the personality of the character, a like or dislike. For instance, Mariel of Redwall is a young female mouse with warlike tendencies. One of the possible meanings of her name is ‘rebellious.’ Or, sometimes it is just easier to name a red head something that means “red haired.”
There is nothing wrong with using a name to fit in with a ‘culture.’ This could be using a name that is distinctly French, German, Arabic or Hebrew and so on. The hippies of the sixties created their own culture of words as names, such as Apple and Sunshine. Christians are part of a ‘church’ or ‘biblical’ culture. They are more often going to use bible names. There are certain names that are often associated with upper crust Southern families like Montrose or Cameron.
Or you can choose the name to contrast with the predominate culture of the book. This is a good way to show that the character might not ‘belong’ or ‘fit in.’ Or they had really odd parents who didn’t fit in. So, the character may love or hate their name depending on whether or not they want to be part of the culture in the book.
Sometimes, you have to consider the type of character you’re naming. If they are the everyday type of character that you want the reader to relate to, then you need to choose an everyday type of name. These are your Tom, Dick and Harry’s. Dave, Bill, Sal, Ted, Bert, Jack, John, Bob and Ed are also common ‘everyday’ type of names. These are the type of names that you’d run into in every walk of life and every income bracket. Some of these names do vary more by region. Jethro, Jeb and Cody might be more southern or ‘western’ names.
Or sometimes, if I’m really stumped for names. I take the name book I’ve had from high school, close my eyes, flip through it, stop and go through the alphabetical section I landed on. Sometimes this takes a few tries, but it almost always works.
However you end up naming your characters. As long as the name fits and feels right to you, that is what is the most important.