How do I choose character names? How important are names in a novel anyway?

Anyone who knew me while I was practicing law will know that I’m just a tiny bit anal. And those who served with me when I was pretending to be G.I. Jane in my years in the U.S. Army will understand that I’m just a teensy bit obsessed with details. Even those who visited my B&B and were exposed to my detailed instructions for using the coffee machine – in three languages – possibly understands that I’m a stickler for detail. It’s probably not too much of a surprise then to learn that I’m just as obsessed with details in my novels. I even try to make character names sound authentic.

So, how do I come up with authentic character names, then? The first part’s easy. I just think of a name that in my mind matches the character. The manuscript I’m currently working on has a leading character who is sexy as all get out but a bit on the chubby side. When coming up with her name, I remembered a popular television character and voilà – her name was chosen. But I don’t stop there. It’s not enough that the character’s name matches in my head with her character. It also needs to meet society ideals and be historically accurate. Huh?

Society ideals. My husband claims that all the male characters in my novels are hot men. Well, yeah, that’s the idea. It’s not enough that I think their names are hot as well. I actually go online and research what other people think are hot names. Luckily, there are plenty of websites out there that have done the work for me already.

Historically accurate. There are several elderly ladies who have starring roles in my Gray-Haired Knitting Detective series. I initially just used names of my grandma and great aunts and their friends. But I don’t stop there. I also check to see if the names I’ve chosen were actually popular at the time period in which the character was born. You can’t have an American lady in her 80s running around being called Brooklyn since the name wasn’t popular at all until a certain football (that’s soccer for you Americans!) named his child Brooklyn.

Authentic. In addition to ensuring that a name is historically accurate, it has to be authentic as well. What the heck do I mean by that? My historical novel, Buried Appearances, has several flashbacks to the Netherlands during WWII. At that time, it was normal that a child’s name was dependent upon the parents’ religion. Certain names were used by Protestants, others by Catholics, and still others by Jews. Since religion is an integral part of the novel, I checked to make sure I chose names, which matched with the religion of the character.

Locality. First names in the U.S. are no longer linked to locality, but last names often still are. For example, there are certain parts of Wisconsin where Swiss names are predominant, but if you go more North in the state then Scandinavian names are more widespread. Although this isn’t often important for the story itself, I do tend to look at these issues as well (anal, remember?).

And you thought I just sat behind my computer all day merely making stuff up?