The first thing I do is get a general picture of the character. How old, what nationality or mix of nationalities, and if born and raised in the United States, in what area of the country? Now occasionally a perfect name will present itself along with that picture, but more often I have to do a little research.
If the character has a certain ethnic background—for instance, the sexy hero of a book I’m currently working on was born in the U.S., but to an Italian family with Mafia ties. I googled for a list of Italian first names and last names. I try to avoid the more common names. For example, “Tony” is a fine Italian name, but let’s face it, it’s way overused.
I usually pick a given name—they’re so much more personal—before I pick a surname. I roll my choices around on my tongue together to make sure they create the kind of image I want for my character until I finally find the perfect combination.
Speaking of image, the picture of a person that a name creates is personal to the mind of the author and it may not be the same for a reader. For instance, if you’ve had a battle-axe of an aunt named Mabel, you might label a similar character with that name. But a reader might have known a sweet demure Mabel or associate the name with the sexy barmaid of the old Black Label commercials. If we’ve known a real life character with a certain name, we often imbue that name with the traits of the person. A reader’s name association and yours might be very different, but there’s not much that can be done about that.
If nationality isn’t an issue or if I’ve already addressed that, then I move on to the year of the character’s birth. I subtract the character’s age from the year in which the story is set, then google for popular baby names from that year. This is particularly useful for picking a first name for a character whose family has been in the United States for many generations.
When picking a surname, one method is to google for last names common to a particular area of the country. Or you can choose from the list of surnames for a particular nationality even if your character isn’t obviously of that nationality. Remember, we’re a nation of immigrants. One of your character’s great-great-grandfathers may have come from Germany, another from Poland, and yet another from West Africa and so on. You could choose a last name from any of those lists. And feel free to change the spelling of the name a little. That often happened when immigrants settled in the New World.
I usually end up with a short list of names I like. After that, I follow the same method I use when naming a new dog or cat. I roll them around on my tongue until the character/dog/cat tells me that’s the name they want.
BTW, my sexy Italian-American hero finally introduced himself to me as Nico Villone. I plan on introducing him to you in 2016.