When I start a new story, I don’t really focus too much on character names right away. I’ll give them a placeholder name that I think fits at least for now. If it sticks, it sticks. If it needs changing, well… that’s what Find/Replace is for in MS Word!
I rarely assign a name based on what the name means. Instead, I go with how their name — and sometimes its spelling — resonates with the character that I’m creating. I’ll at least ensure the name fits the character’s culture, but that’s about as far as I’ll take it. The character’s name, in my opinion, should fit their family’s dynamic.
For instance, Caren Johnson from my trilogy: she has a very unexciting, stereotypical last name, as she’s supposed to come from a very blue-collar family that’s been in the police force for ages. And her first name is deliberately spelled with a C and not a K, even though her Mendaihu name starts with a K, to hint that there’s a bit of a rebel in her. She’s someone who doesn’t want to stick out, but she doesn’t exactly want to fit in, either.
Now, did I really think that at the time of creation? To be honest, no. Her name just sort of popped up when I started the book and it sounded right to me. It wasn’t until a few chapters in that I realized that the personality I imagined from the name could be imprinted on the character.
Yeah, I do tend to do a lot of things bassackwards, but hey, if it works…!
For the new project, have the names of about a dozen or so characters. All but one was created in the same way: just a name out of thin air that sounded right to me. I still do this for the same reason, actually. I usually have a basic idea of who the character is and what they’re about, so the name becomes a memetic or an anchor for the idea.
Sometimes the original name I came up with no longer fits and I have to change it. I changed five or six names in the trilogy over the course of writing it, one major change taking place well into the revision period. And that’s okay too. Sometimes the name I come up with is just a placeholder, waiting for me to figure the character out a little more before I can assign a much better fit. I’ve already decided to change the name of one of the main characters in my next project, because I’ve finally figured out his own family background. Thankfully, the only places I’ll need to change this is in my notes, as I haven’t started the first draft yet.
This process of naming characters might not be for everyone, but it seems to work well for me. I like the idea of a character’s name not always being a perfect fit; it reveals part of their personal background and fleshes it out. That background may have nothing to do with the story itself, but it certainly could help reveal why they might act as they do.