I had grown tired of using traditional names for my characters. Now, I name my characters after: States, cites, towns, villages, and suburbs withing the United States. I think it makes them more interesting. My son is name Denver.
Funny. I ran into a farmer once who informed me that I had the same name as his favorite cow. It was meant as a compliment.
But more interesting to me is the current fad to use gender-nonspecific names or male names for female protagonists in mysteries. It's part and parcel of showing that women can be men whenever they want to, I suppose.
The gender-neutral name thing drives me nuts as well. Every other female lead seems to be named Alex or Sam. Now, if there's a reason for it, fine. But as someone who actually worked with children - and over the past decade I've easily worked with over a thousand kids - I've worked with exactly one Samantha. A few Alexandras. Far more Jessicas and Emilys and Emmas and Kaitlins.
In the same way, I'm not likely going to name a child in a book Elma or Bertha without a damn good reason. Those names just aren't used as commonly now.
There are three Sams in my son's class -- two are girls. I'm sure it changes by neighbourhood.
I live in - and write about - Toronto, a city where half the population is from another country. You can get bus directions in 140 languages. I didn't know there were 140 languages. But it makes for some interesting character names. The police department is somewhat typical of most institutions here, the most veteran members (and top ranking) are almost all Irish or Scottish men, the newest members pretty much evenly split between men and women and with names from all over the world.
The RCMP is interesting, too, because as a federal institutions its top ranks need to be bilingual - which nine times out of ten means a french guy who learned english. And they have a special program for hiring native people, but it's new so most of them are fairly young. And yeah, have names like Armstrong and Jones and Robinson.
Yeah, well, offending people, it's a tough call. Some people are offended by being lumped into a group, "Irish-Canadians are offended when you call them frozen drunks." Sure, some of them...
But I know what you mean, I was in a writing class once and a guy who'd probably read too many WP Kinsella stories wrote one about some natives and he researched, "actual names," and used only names that, "actual natives," had. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, it was probably subconscious that all the actual native names he picked were ones like, Broken Canoe and Fat Bear. I know they're in the Edmonton phone book, but as I pointed out to him at the time, so is Good Eagle (I used to work installing carpets in Calgary for a guy named Glenn Good Eagle).
What's interesting about that is, many Natives actually have very common traditional English names. I have a book here by Chief Dan George. When I toured Tuktoyuktuk our tour guide's name was - I kid you not - Ricky Martin. I spent three years living on Thetis Island, which is co-serviced by the BC Ferry that runs to the Kuper Island Reserve. Tal James was probably the most non-"English" name I encountered. Doesn't mean others didn't have more traditional Native names, but I don't buy it. Even as a kid in school, the few Native girls that came for a few years were named Patti and Susie.
And I'm not a frozen drunk. My hot temper makes that impossible. ;)
I sometimes have to use placeholders for characters names until they reveal themselves to me a little more, and it's not unusual for me to change a name 3 or 4 times in the course of the writing. I read once that Mario Puzo got the name Corleone from a small town in Sicily. I took a page from his book (ouch) for the one Italian in my mystery and was very glad I did - Chiaramonte. I love it. Everything else I'd tried felt as if I'd lifted it from the Sopranos.
On other towns...don't forget Bird-in-Hand, which is close to Intercourse (although you don't need a cigarette after) and Truth or Consequences.