My character names can change about A HUNDRED times during draft (okay, more like five or six times). The longer it takes to find a name that ticks all the boxes, the more likely it is that a name that I hate or that feels uninspired will stick. I seriously have at least one published book where I still call a couple of the characters by their draft names.
So WHAT are the boxes a name should tick in a story?
First – avoid the temptation to name them something unusual. There are a few exceptions to this rule, i.e. science fiction, but EVEN THEN you need to make sure it ticks ALL of the other boxes.
Second – make sure it’s pronounceable! Seriously – even the AMAZING un-touchable JK Rowling mistepped slightly here with Hermione. If not for the fifty million movies I’m sure I’d still be calling her HER-ME-ONE. Also, steer clear of Gaelic names or other names with silent Gs and THs. It can be incredibly frustrating for a reader not to be able to talk about their favourite character without feeling like an idiot for not being about to pronounce their name.
Third – make it believable. Think of the context. Think about the ethnicity of your character. Don’t call your character Bill if he lives with an Amazonian tribe – unless he’s about to find out he’s adopted.
Now, I HEAR you saying – but I thought we were meant to reflect the real world and I have a friend called La-La Polkadots, which means I should be able to name my character Kite String Silky Stockings. See number three above – this would be totally fine in the context of a children’s book, but it would jar the reader out of the story if it was contemporary fiction (unless the story is about a teen with a name so ridiculous she decides to emancipate herself from her parents).
Without encouraging you to use too many tropes or stereotypes, there’s a reason they exist, because they’re common enough in real life to make your reader feel comfortable in your fictional world and not be jolted out of your story by stumbling over names or wondering why on Earth parents would name their kid Lobster Telephone or Jessicagh with a silent GH. SERIOUSLY-STEP AWAY FROM THE SILENT LETTERS…