As writers we can choose names for our characters, though the criteria are not necessarily the same as those we use when choosing the names for our children.
When we name our own children, we have to consider so many things: Will it suit them? Will it give rise to unfortunate nicknames or initials? What sort of person do we think/hope they may become? Should we name them after someone we know? Will they spend their schooldays being teased about their name? Not all children want to stand out from the crowd – many, if not most, want to blend in – so while a child with a very unusual name may like it, he is just as likely to loathe it, at least while young, even if when he grows up he decides he likes it after all. Alternatively he may change it as soon as he is old enough. Celebrities are notorious for giving their children fantastic, and sometimes unfortunate, names, such as Apple, Blue and North (West). Will all of these keep their given names into adulthood?
When inventing characters for our books, however, we don’t need to worry about these problems – unless the character’s feeling about his name is an important part of the story. Many children’s books have characters with very unconventional names, such as:
Toseland (Tolly) in "The Children of Green Knowe" by Lucy M Boston
Beezus in "Beezus and Ramona" by Beverley Cleary
and Owl in "A Girl Called Owl" by Amy Wilson
This is not necessarily a modern trend - how many girls have you met called Scout? ("To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee)
Or Tyke? ("The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler" by Gene Kemp)
Names like these will hopefully ensure that the character will stick in the reader’s mind and be remembered afterwards. Which is what every writer wants.
Alternatively, some writers like their main character to have a fairly ordinary name, so that there will be many of their child readers who share the same name and may feel “this is a story about ME!” Anne of Green Gables leaps to mind, by L.M.Montgomery (though Anne always wished she’d been called Cordelia!)
There is also Sophie from Roald Dahl's "BFG"
and of course, the very ordinary-sounding but now anything-but-ordinary Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling.
Sometimes characters seem to name themselves, almost without the writer having any say in the matter. One story I wrote didn’t gel until I changed the name I’d given the character (Paul) to the name he wanted to be called (Ben). After that it flowed. Very strange.
I did hear a story about a well-known crime writer who, giving a talk about writing crime novels, said she had given a nasty character in one book the same name as her grandchild, and was surprised that the child's mother was not happy about it. When someone in the audience suggested that the writer could have changed her character’s name, she said, “Oh no, I couldn’t do that!” Hmm. There are some names that are definitely out of order, especially those of your nearest and dearest – unless, of course, your character is wonderful in every way!
I have many books of Baby Names, all slightly different, and when I’m writing a book I often go through them searching for a name that feels just right for a particular character.
Some of these Name books give the origins of names, which is extremely useful, especially for historical novels. At the moment I’m in search of more Roman names for the final book in my Roman trilogy, having already used up the most likely ones in the first two books. I also like each character’s name to begin with a different letter, especially if the names are a bit unfamiliar, to avoid the reader forgetting which character is which, so I can’t have both Marcus and Magnus, for example, because they look too similar on the page. And it certainly wouldn’t do to have a Roman matron with a name not used until the 18th century. Someone would be bound to notice and complain!