There are many problems that a writer can come across when selecting a name for a character, here I hope to deal with some of the major pitfalls, and hopefully give some useful tips
~ Unique and different names are not an excuse to ignore good characterisation. Would you take these characters seriously?
Southern. D. Wattserfield
These are all names that I came up with off the top of my head or based on words about my desk. It is not difficult to come up with a new, unique name. But that doesnt instantly make your character interesting or cool.
There is nothing wrong with an unusual name (something my parents have told me for years), but if your story is chock full of unique and different names then many established readers and writers may not take your work seriously.
I once read someone say - Exotic names are for Mills and Boon, soap operas and strippers. Whilst that may not always be true it is important to bear in mind.
* Instead return to more common, traditional or well-loved names. I am not suggesting dull names or that every name you use must be effectively the same. But think of names that people actually have.
I have two friends called Eleanor Sanders and Gregory McNair. Why are these not perfectly interesting names for characters? Or Greg Sanders and Ellie McNair?
If you intend to use a complex or made-up name then why not mix it with another simple or traditional name. I shall use myself as an example.
My parents were unusual folk and they decided to give me a unique and different name but couple that with my surname and it doesnt seem completely illogical Xancsia Caitlen Smith. An unusual name coupled with a normal surname is more likely as the first name is down to a personal choice but the last name tends to be more fixed and constant. (Caitlen was my Grandmother's name) Consider
Mirabelle o Neil
~It may be fashionable to select a name based on its meaning and symbolism, but consider how unlikely that can be.
A names meaning whether ancient and subtle or modern and obvious can affect how a character is viewed, but remember that when a baby was born the people who named them didnt know what job or personality they would have, or what sort of situation they would end up in.
Consider these names that may suit the profession or characteristics of a person, but are also unlikely to have come about.
A nun called Chastity.
A judge called Prudence.
A politician called Honesty (or if you prefer) Caesar.
A man who commits great evils called Lucifer.
An accountant called Shylock!
*Instead, if you wish to base a name on meaning consider a more subtle and intellectual meaning.
This involves research and thought. A name based on interesting words and other names can become something of a literary in-joke to people in the know and will pass other readers over quite happily as simply an interesting name. Consider the implication of these names and situations
A librarian called Minerva.
A classicist called Scott or Alfred.
A stand-up comic called Jonathan.
A female company president called Elizabeth.
In order to gather interesting meaning and names, instead of sticking a pin in the baby name book take a look at some more unusual areas. Geography, modern foreign languages (French, German, Swahili, Russian etc), ancient languages (Latin, Greek, Gaelic), existing literature, historical names, religion, mythology and saints, flowers and plants to name but a few. I look anywhere but baby books for my character names.
~However nice you might find a name you have to make them, not only appropriate for the character, but also the context in which they were born.
The idea of context of birth can be looked at in several ways. The times in which they were born, the social situation into which they were born, the country of origin of their parents/family etc etc.
It is no good looking at the naming trends that are popular today if you are naming a character from the 1930s. True there are some names that have a timeless sort of appeal, such as John, but even then there are changes and trends that affect traditional names
Traditional John, Rose, Christopher, Agnes, Dorothy, Graham, Mary, Elizabeth, Margaret, Thomas
Contemporary Jon, Lilly, Kris, Natalie, Rae, Kyle, Chloe, Rosie, Steve, Dave
Consider a child, raised by nuns or in a deeply religious upbringing, it is highly likely that their name will have some biblical connotations such as Peter, Mary or Hannah.
Or if your character was born the son of nobility might they not have some name with an air of grandeur Sebastian, Felicity or Camilla (note, that is less the case for a child born in modern times as there is less of a social divide.)
It is also staggeringly important to consider the nationality of a character. It is all very well and good to say you enjoy names from other countries, and nowadays parents have the option of selecting names from any country without fear of being too out of place. But say you have a character that lives in 16th century London. What are the chances that they will be named Akira or Parvati? If you wish to consider a slightly French upbringing then why not name your character Fleur or Giselle? But do not randomly select a name from another culture unless you have considered what that may mean to your plot.
Naming for specific genres: Fantasy
~A Fantasy character does not have to have an utterly bizarre and implausible name.
When writing for fantasy feel free to absolutely ignore many of my previous rules (or adapt them to suit your needs). This is because many fantasy writers alter or totally make up their own character names. However this does not give you the right to completely disregard the conventions of sensible naming practices. A fantasy name, does not have to be fantastical.
The best way to explain this is to list below some names of characters from fantasy stories I have personally enjoyed to show you that you dont need a detailed pronunciation guide and a ton of back story to explain why a name is effective, (and none of these were recognised by my spell checker)
Naming for specific genres: Sci-Fi
~Remember that much of Sci-Fi can be set in this time and world, or in the future of our world name accordingly.
Just because it is Sci-Fi does not mean that you automatically go for the X and Z keys. Zxalizx is not a sensible name, no matter how far in the future you go. It is here that I would like to reference back to what I said about traditional and modern names. Effectively what you are doing with Sci-Fi set in the future is making an ultra modern name.
Or if this is Sci-Fi set in the present, why do you need to come up with a Sci-Fi specific name at all? remember that when a baby was born the people who named them didnt know what job or personality they would have, or what sort of situation they would end up in. this rings just as true for Sci-Fi as it does for anything else.
To illustrate my point I shall refer to the great Sci-Fi master Isaac Asimov (an interesting name in itself). Here I shall list several names from characters in his Sci-Fi short stories and hope you understand what I am getting at (none of which were flashed up by my spell checker)
*If you must invent your own name for anything please think logically about your choice.
Previously I have given advice on names for Sci-Fi set in the present day, but if you do set a Sci-Fi story in the future (at whatever distance) consider evolution. It is not just plants and animals that are subject to evolution, names are too.
Names like Ann, that evolved from Hannah, Annette, Ninette, Nancy and Anushka in French, Swedish, Yiddish, Russian, Latin and any other language you care to mention, all culminating in one name, of one person, at one time. Names change and keep on changing, slipping out of fashion, mixing with other names and being forgotten altogether.
Now can you see the link between Nanette Guyonvarch a struggling house wife and seamstress from 18th century France, Anne Dorkins an IT consultant from Liverpool in the mid 90s and Hanetta Wane a neutron surfer and keen supernova photographer from Alpha Centuri, and what they may have in common?