It's difficult for me to imagine my main characters until I name them in full, first and last name included. I recently made the honest mistake of using the name Louise Fletcher, not making the connection with the actor. Yes, I've seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but I just didn't know the actor's name, even though she was a regular on Deep Space Nine.

My usual process of naming involves random name generators, building lists of possibilities to see how first and last names fit together, picking up books and opening them at random pages, thinking of people I know whose name I can mix and match with others ... in short, anything goes. Whatever gets me the name.

When I build the list, I make sure the names sound distinct and start with different initials. It ends up being something of a puzzle, where if I change one name I can end up trashing the whole list and starting again.

In the same bout of naming that turned up Louise Fletcher, I used the first name of Jules for my protagonist. Someone looking at my work said it reminded them of the character in Pulp Fiction played by Samuel L. Jackson. I'd drawn the same conclusion when I first thought of the name, but after much messing around with other possibilities, I kept coming back to Jules.

Making mistakes with first names seems so damned hard to avoid. I tried Jack on for size and quickly rejected it when I thought of Bauer, Reacher, and Taylor. Sticking to the Js, I moved onto John, Jake, Jerod. Aside from Jerod, which I rejected because it sounded too clean (and reminded me of a person from The Biggest Loser), the others had been used before, with characters that are part of the public consciousness, at least in crime fiction or film.

This led me to further insanity. Do I have to use the last name all the time, just to differentiate my character? Or should I come up with quirkier names that wouldn't even suit the piece, like Tyler Durden, or strategic misspellings such as Slyvestor Spallone?

The only thought that pulled me out of this abyss was that if I made my character distinctive enough, with a full personality all of his own, after a few chapters Jules would become his own man in the eyes of the reader. So I'm sticking to my guns, but I thought it was worth sharing this insanity, if only so I learn that there are others out there, like me, afflicted with the same illness.

I'm not the only one, am I?

(cue echo)

Am I?

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My "Blue Dragon" series was named for a dojo where I trained in Seoul, Korea, so my main character's last name had to be "Blue." In the latest book, her arch enemy is the CEO of an exclusive, private security company and I found his name by working back from terms for castle architecture. "Stalwart Security Company" is run by "R. Stahl." I agree with Mr. Dodson, though, about the value in how a name sounds when spoken aloud. All that being said, on a bad day, I have been known to give my "extras" names derived from words taken off of magazine covers at the local coffee shop.
I've been a NYC public school teacher for 10 plus years. I have no shortage of bizarre yet true names lodged in my subconscious. Main characters usually get very plain names. I think folks identify more with the Johns and Marys of the word rather than the Lennises and Shiteas of the world (yes, two of my students, oy). With secondary characters I sometimes get a bit more creative. I've even used a few former students' names. I never plan on using Shitea however. That loopy I'm not.
Shitea?!?! OMG. That's great. The daughter of a friend of mine was in hospital several years ago and on the same ward was a little girl called Pocahontas. I could just imagine the nasal Glaswegian voice of her mother shouting "Pokey hen, stop battering yer wee bro and come in and get yer piece and jam." Shitea??? What WERE the parents thinking?
Too funny. Reminds me of the time I was in the supermarket and I keep hearing this woman calling out "Neutrogena, Neutrogena. Where are you?" I thought she was muttering to herself while looking for soap. Then a little girl went whizzing by. "I'm here, mom." All I could think was I was damn glad the kid wasn't in my class. ;)
Daniel - When I'm writing, I pick names based on people I've personally known who in some way resemble some aspect of that particular character. For example, I have this one character who is "old money," and one of the few people I know who is old money has the last name of Hales. So that's the last name of my character. And old money people tend to go by their full names, not nicknames, so it's Stephen (with a "ph" instead of a "v," of course ) instead of Steve. With a middle initial, of course, that stands for the wealthy mother's maiden name, and let's not forget the several Roman numerals at the end. So Stephen W. Hales, III is my rich guy from Chicago's North Shore. Old Money people also tend to have ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, so regal-sounding names of British origin are authentic as well.

When I read, which is something I do FAR more than write, here's what happens - after the writer in one way or another describes a certain character to me, I picture that certain person having a certain type of name. It doesn't have to be the same name the writer chooses, but it has to be in the same category. For example, if the writer chose a different name category than I did (say I'm thinking of the name Buffy or Cissy for the sorority girl he's describing, but he comes up with the name Agnes - my grandmother's name, by the way, and a fine name, but she was a poor Irish girl from Limmerick, NOT a sorority chick), then it takes me a longer to connect with the character. Because the name is not ringing true to me. I will eventually connect, especially if the story is well-written, but it would come a lot sooner if the names fit the character' personality, lifestyle, status, etc.
I run into the same problem every now and again, but I try to vet most of the names I come up with against Google. I've got one character whose name turned out to be a real life porn star's. Just felt weird keeping her name after that. I might go back to it, though, because it's a good name, anal queen or no.

You might try your spam filter. I've gotten a lot of names through that.
Spam's not only good for naming, but for whole story ideas. Or whole stories.

Now I REALLY need to know the name of your porn star.
Working mostly in the short form, I use a variety of methods already mentioned by others, and the issue becomes not repeating myself. I'll probably write fifteen stories this month and that's a lot of characters. If I repeat names, I might mislead readers into thinking the characters are serial when they're not.
Sometimes the names just come together without me thinking about them, and sometimes I haul out the Writer's Digest Character-Naming Sourcebook, which gives names according to country, whether they're male or female, and their origin or meaning, depending. I'll usually just cast back and forth through the sections with the names I'm most likely to use until a first and last name seem right to me.

Characters can get extremely possessive about their names, though, can't they? One of mine is a con man who almost never goes by his real name, but by golly, he didn't want me to change it, even though people reading in a hurry tend to read Mick Jarratt as Mick Jagger.
My protag, Annie Seymour, is named for two of Henry VIII's wives. I have a Tudor England obsession, and when I was trying to come up with a name, this just popped into my head. And since New Haven's full of Italians and Irish, it's easy to come up with names for the supporting cast.

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