Character names are an important part of constructing character identity in stories.
Not only does a name help us to identify the players in your story, but it often carries the flavour of the character.
What to avoid in character names
An expectant mother is overheard choosing a name for her child: Pat, Kelly, Terry, Bobby. Her sole reason for considering these particular names is that each can be applied to both a boy and girl. This flexibility could save her the disappointment of choosing a name early only to have her give it up upon discovering the actual gender of her baby.
But this lack of precision is exactly the reason we should avoid assigning interchangeable character names in our stories.
Although an audience will immediately recognise characters by their appearance, this is not the case with words on a page. Here, the character description performs this function, which, in the short story or novel, may be purposely brief, or scattered throughout the text.
Character names are the gateway to individuality and character identity.
It is also good practice to avoid giving characters similar sounding names. Clive and Kyle, Sharon and Shannine, Harry and Larry—except, of course, where the possible confusion flowing from this similarity helps the plot.
But a name may also add additional meaning and flavour to a character: Biblical names such as Paul, Peter, Ezekiel, Rachael, Mary and David, although commonplace, may still carry a trace of biblical resonance, especially if the context supports this.
Certain names may hint at an entire belief system or only certain aspects of a character whether that character turns out to adhere to that association or not. The more unusual or uncommon the name, the stronger the association. Few of us, for example, would name our character Hitler without expecting some association to accrue, and without providing some sort of reason in the plot why we have chosen to do so.
The web is replete with lists and articles providing and explaining the origin of names, their meaning and history. Books on naming conventions, available at any bookstore, are also a good place to start hunting for that all important handle of characters.
Choosing the right character names is the first step in developing a unique and effective character identity.