When I’m creating a character, the last thing I think about is what I should name them. More often than not, I’ll do the least amount of work possible to give them one. Instead, I’ll just give them the first one that comes to mind that sounds good and fits the person to some degree. If it needs changing, that’s what Find & Replace is for!
For example: I’ve mentioned before that I came up with the characters of Caren Johnson and Alec Poe for the Bridgetown Trilogy rather simply: for Caren I wanted a name that purposely didn’t pop out, much like her avoidance of being the focus of attention; for Poe I wanted him to have a slightly awkward name that he felt didn’t quite fit him, to match his being adopted and not knowing his true origins. That’s about as far as I went with them, and that process took all of a few minutes.
In my latest projects, I did pretty much the same thing. For Zuzannah, the magical girl from In My Blue World, I wanted a name that was normal but had evolved over the course of time. The three sisters, Diana, Katie and Allie Meeks, are just three girls you know in your home town; no one special, just neighbors or friends. There’s only one character in this particular story that has an unconventional, obviously made-up name, and that’s done on purpose. Even with the Apartment Complex story, where I’ve had to invent a lot of the names, I kept them relatively simple. Kaffi, the tintrite co-lead, has a simple, fun name to mirror his friendly demeanor, while his father Graymar has one that commands respect and attention.
I’ve never really gotten into the habit of coming up with names that have to mean anything; I always felt that process, at least for me, was trying too hard. I always create characters that you’d meet on the street or hear about from someone, so I find I can’t go out of my way to come up with a name that means ‘faithful healer’ or something like that. [Mind you, I only did that once in the Apartment Complex story; I chose Diwa’s Filipino name for two reasons: I wanted a gender-neutral name, and it means ‘awareness.’ But the choice for meaning was only secondary here.]
Think about what kind of character this is, and also think about the people around them, how they react to people. Especially if it’s a made-up alien name — you can have fun with that by giving them a bit of background in the process. Diwa and Kaffi’s friend Anna-Nassi, for instance, is part of an alien race whose names combine the culture of their own and of humans as a symbol of planetary community.
When you’re coming up with names for your characters, especially during rough drafts, I’d say go right ahead and put in a placeholder if you’re not entirely happy with it. Diwa’s name was originally the made-up Riksah before I decided to give him a proper one and decided his family is half Pinoy. If your character merits a symbolic or metaphorical name instead, that’s fine too.
The most important things to remember here, though, is that a) it should fit the character, and b) it should fit the story. It’s not just about avoiding anachronisms, it’s also about avoiding words that will stick out like a sore thumb. You probably wouldn’t want to write a serious romance novel where the strikingly sexy chisel-chinned male lead’s name is Petey Bumblewiggins, right? As they say, you want a name that fits the character. How much work you put into that is totally up to you, but it doesn’t always have to be that much work if you don’t want it to be. Just give it enough for it to work for you and for the story.