As much as writing a book seems like a grand idea that requires a major effort to fulfill, it consists of little things, like writing a little every day, until it's finished, and picking out particular details that will make the book one final beautiful organism that hums with life. It seems big to the reader, but it's really comprised of carefully chosen tiny things. And one of those tiny things are character names. They don't seem important at first, and yet, in a well written book, character names match the story, tell the story, and leave memories in the reader's head long after the book has been finished. Take, for example, the name Harry Potter. It's a household name now, right? There is hardly anyone on this planet, and I mean, planet, who doesn't know who it is. So what makes it so memorable, apart from the fact that Harry Potter series sold like hot cakes all over the world? Well, let's examine it, shall we? Because I'm as curious as you are, having battled this whole naming process in the past year and having developed my own idea about how to do it (and it's not far away from branding which I did for work before I quit my career).
Each name has to be easily spelled and spoken out loud. You may contradict me here, and rightfully so, because there are countless examples of big famous authors doing the exact opposite, but what I learned from being a foreigner and writing in English is that ease of pronunciation rules. Ideally, the first name has to be easily spelled, and the last name has to be, or sound, like a proper English noun (for the sake of this post, we will be talking only English language here). There are two kinds of these names, the actual names that exist in the real world, and made-up names. Let's take a look at actual names. Try saying these out loud and see how they roll off your tongue: Harry Potter, Jay Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O'Hara, Bilbo Baggins, Peter Pan, Yuri Zhivago, Jane Eyre, Lisbeth Salander, Roland Deschain. Do I need to go on? Do you see the commonality between them? They all ring loud and clear, and, for the most part, they are easy to spell. Now, a made-up name has to follow the same rule, it has to sound like a proper English noun, even if it isn't. Take a look at these names: Tarzan, Pip, Tintin, Gandalf, Hamlet, Lolita, Aslan, Dumbledore, Dracula, Haroun, Coraline. I can keep going, but you see how they are all drawing attention to themselves when spoken. I have, perhaps, made a mistake by naming my main character in SIREN SUICIDES Ailen Bright. Many people misspell her name. I went too deep into research. Ailen is a boy's name, it means handsome in Gaelic, and Ailen's father picked out this name because he wanted a boy. I liked how it was close to the word "alien", because this is who she is as a character. In ROSEHEAD, however, I named my main character Lilith Bloom, because it was simple, it was the first thing that came into my head, and it was about flowers, about blooming out of childhood into adulthood, which brings me to my second point.
Pick the first name that comes to mind, literally. This I learned after realizing that whatever my subconscious is telling me is always right, it already knows. I learned to turn off my brain and listen to it, because as a writer I have to stay true to myself, and for that I have to dig deep. There are certain emotional connections that formed in my mind at one or another time in my life, and it's important I tap into them, to make my story ring true. In this sense, use the names that pop into your head, even if they seem outrageously simple. Therein lies their strength. Lilith was a name that perhaps got lodged in my brain after reading something somewhere, or maybe it was because I liked lily flowers, but something about Lilith sounded softer to me than Lily, and I decided to use it. Bloom was a very simple choice because almost the entire story of ROSEHEAD happens in a rose garden, so it just fit. I also like to use names that hint at the appearance of a character, as do many other writers. For example, Lilith's faithful talking pet whippet Panther has been named that because he is sort of a cat in a dog's body, and because he is black and lithe like a panther, and because he is trying to seem a bit bigger than he is. Ed Vogel, Lilith's friend, has been named Ed for the sake of simplicity (but I will never name another character Ed, because when I search my document for "Ed" to make edits, it gave me every single verb ending in "ed"). Vogel means bird in German. Ed looks a bit like a bird, and that's why his last name is Vogel. Because I just got done reading Harry Potter series, the names are still fresh in mind, see how J.K. Rowling does it: Sirius Black, Fenrir Greyback, Olympe Maxime, Alastor Moody. George R. R. Martin likes to do it too: Eddard Stark, Jon Snow, Davis Seaworth, Asha Greyjoy, which actually brings me to my third point.
Don't try to invent unique character names, stay true to yourself. Whenever you lie as a writer, the reader will sense it. It goes for everything, even inventing character names. If you go out of your skin and invent something crazy that sounds cool, but you yourself are having trouble spelling while writing, don't use it. Drop it. Rather pick something that feels comfortable, that makes sense to you. Because if it makes sense to you, it will make sense to your reader. You can go as simple as Alice in Alice in Wonderland, or The Cat in the Hat, or James Bond; or you can go as far as Cthulhu. Whatever rings true to you will ring true to your reader. If you happened to have an affinity for a strange name that is complex because it's taken from a different language, so be it, just make sure you let your readers know how to pronounce it correctly. If, however, you absolutely have to invent a name because you're writing fantasy or maybe sci-fi and it's a character from another planet, I suggest you read a book that is far away from all other books any writer has ever suggested to you. It will take you only 2 hours to read it. It's called ZAG and it's a book on branding. Once you read it, you will be able to apply those lessons to creating character names properly, because the logic is the same. Where businesses create markets, writers create worlds. Both have to live in people's minds to take root there and blossom, and I find it that books that are less wordy on the subject are the best ones to follow. At least it's the book that was my branding Bible before Stephen King's ON WRITING replaced it as my writerly Bible.
Now that I'm writing this post, I realize that I have barely scratched the surface on this topic. It turns out, there is a lot more and I can't cram it all here, like why writers use names starting from same letters like Bilbo Baggins or Humbert Humbert (and how about double names?) or how to pick first names in a family of characters, or how to pick nicknames or names for pets or monsters or... Oy. Please, feel free to chime in. Remember, I've only been writing full time for the past year, so what do I know? I'm sure I missed a bunch of things.