When I began writing, I didn't think much about naming my characters. If it seemed to work, I stuck a name on the page. Then I took a workshop where the instructor gave a nifty tidbit. "Your characters names should sound like their parents named them, not you."
An even more valuable lesson came from another workshop where the instructor gave us a very simply tracking system. It's merely making a chart with the letters of the alphabet. One list for first names, one for last names. I do it in a basic Excel spreadsheet. No real knowledge of Excel required—just list all the letters of the alphabet in a column, then move over about 4 or 5 columns and do it again so you have places to track first and last names.
If you're with a bigger publisher, your copy editor might track names for you. Mine never did. Thus, when I got the rights back for WHAT'S IN A NAME? and began my own editing, I used the spreadsheet, something I hadn't started doing when I first wrote the book. And I found, to my embarrassment, that I had THREE characters named Hank/Henry! Not only that, but almost everyone's name, both first and last, started with either an M or a C. I did garner some awards for the book, but I wonder how many readers were even more confused by my lack of name tracking—especially since my characters were also assuming multiple identities.
How do readers react when they come across names? I can't speak for everyone, but I tend to zero in on the initial letters. (Which is probably why Horace Blackthorne showed up as Horace Blackstone in the galley copy of WHEN DANGER CALLS—neither I nor 2 different editors noticed it.)
Author Jeremiah Healy once said that you should avoid re-using the initials of your protagonist for the entire book. Sometimes that's not possible, and things get complicated when you're writing more than one book; I find I have 'go to' names and in this case, although I didn't have too many D names, one of them was David, who was an important character in another book, so I changed him to Doug for this one.
Tracking names becomes especially important when you're writing series or connected books, because once you name a character, you're stuck with it.
Another thing I'll look at is how many times does the character appear, and is the name really necessary at all? Once you name a character, you're telling the reader "this is important." On the flip side, people tend to think of other people by name, so if your hero knows Miss Walk On, he's likely to think of her as "Mary." I had a short elevator encounter in the hero's building, but although he knew two of the other characters, in the revisions, they referred to each other as "Mr." and "Mrs." That meant I could get rid of two first names!
In this case, if a character appeared only once or twice, or was mentioned in passing, I didn't mind doubling (or tripling) up on letters. In my "after" spreadsheet, Amanda and Angela, for example are two young children, sisters (and are simply made up as part of the heroine's cover story!) However, in most cases, I tried to make them look different—different number of syllables, and not all starting the same. So, my revised "M" people, for example, are now Margaret, Melina & McGregor.
I also did a lot of Google searching for popular first names of the decades my characters would have been born in, and also for ethnic and regional surnames to add some variety for my characters.
The result? I now have a much broader use of the alphabet, and the only time I used the same letter for more than 2 or 3 characters was when they were "throwaway" names—they didn't appear more than once, and weren't ever in the same scenes.
Once, I was on a flight, and the person who'd had my seat on the prior flight left his boarding pass in the seat pocket. His name was Rhys Ainsworthy. I knew I'd have to name a character that one day, and my Rhys appears in my upcoming book, ROOTED IN DANGER.
Another time, I was trying to come up with a pen name for a reclusive character who was an author who didn't want anyone to know he wrote books. That meant I had to come up with two names for him. I selected his pen name, and as we returned from another trip, there in the airport was a limo service driver holding up a sign with MY character's pen name on it. I really wanted to hang around and see what he looked like!
Anyone willing to share a naming story? Or a character name that worked or didn't work for you? or how you choose names?
If anyone wants to see my 'before' and 'after' character name charts for WHAT'S IN A NAME? you can email me and I'll send them to you.
And, on a purely personal, promotional note, I've just re-released 3 back list books--My Pine Hills Police series. For two weeks, the two full-length novels, FINDING SARAH and HIDDEN FIRE are discounted 50% at Smashwords and All Romance eBooks. Links are on my Deals and Steals blog page. Blurbs, chapters, and excerpts are on my website.