Naming characters can be such a challenge! But it's not nearly as difficult as remembering what I've named them.
For my first four or five books, I kept an ongoing list of names I'd used so that I'd be careful not to re-use them. Somewhere around book six, I got sloppy or busy or both, and let my list of names slip off my list of things to do. Now, as I begin book number nineteen, I realize I simply must know what names I've used before.
I have a new, wonderful assistant, and I've given her the task of going through each of my books, making a list of first names, surnames, and fictionalized place names and the book in which each was used. The main characters' names are marked with asterisks, since I want to be sure not to re-use them in particular. So far, my assistant's made it through six of my books, and her spreadsheet already shows 237 first names, 118 surnames and 46 place names! Glancing over the list, I barely remember who some of these folks are. I saw that I'd used the name "Sylvie" in all three books of the Keeper of the Light trilogy. The name was familiar, but only vaguely. Who the heck was Sylvie? Turns out she was one of the character's cats.
A reader named Shelly once wrote to me to ask why I used the name "Shelly" so often in my books. I did? I had no idea, but in the six books already culled through, Shelly already appears twice, albeit with different spelling.
Why is it important not to re-use names? In the big picture, it probably isn't, but I imagine one of my readers reading two of my books back to back, each with a character named Shelly and feeling at best, surprised by my choice in names, and at worst, confused over which Shelly she's reading about. This becomes particularly important with surnames. I don't want to make unrelated characters look like they're part of the same family, but it's an easy slip to make. We all have names (and phrases and vignettes) floating around in our minds, and when one of these pops into our heads while writing, it may seem fresh and new, but we're really just tapping into that same old well of our memory. It's the only one we have (which is why it's important to refresh it from time to time, but I'll save that discussion for a different post!)
I have a few resources I use when naming characters. Baby name books, of course. I have several of those and I relied on them heavily in the days before the Internet gave me better options. Now, I often go to the Social Security Administration, where you can see which names were popular in which year. For example, a character I'm writing about right now was born in 1942, so I can see that Mary, Barbara and Patricia were the top three female names that year. I can dig as deep into the list as I choose. There's also a feature in which you can plug in your name or another to see how popular it's been over the years. Diane, for example, peaked in 1955 when it was the 14th most popular girl's name. (It now ranks 906th).
For surnames, I love the phone book. I think that's the only thing I use the phone book for anymore. I also like the obituary column of my local newspaper to help me find some wonderful old North Carolina names when NC is the setting for my work-in-progress.
Once I have a few names to choose from, I try them on to see which feels right for a particular character. I can usually tell within a few pages if I've hit the correct name. It's rare that it happens right off the bat. One character in this outline has been Sybil, Grace, and Barbara all in the last few hours. I see on my handy-dandy new names list that I've already used Grace for a central character, so I think I'll scratch that one. Sybil sounds a bit too "multiple personality-ish." And this character really is not a Barbara, so I'm going back to the Social Security admin page.
Maybe I'll see you there.