Naming characters can be hard, even when they’re one-off side characters. This is even more true when you’re writing in a series, because every name you use… you can’t use again. Or, at least, you shouldn’t. Hell, even using the same first letter too often can create confusion for readers.
Ask me sometime about how long it took me to notice the “J” problem in Grant Wolves (Joey, Jon, Justin, Jessica, Jenny, Jack, Julie, and Jim—fortunately better known as Harding).
Okay, don’t ask me. I’ll tell you. It took me four books and a character spreadsheet to truly appreciate the scope of that one.
A lot goes into choosing a name at times. Sometimes, the name reflects a bit about their origins. Colt, for example, is a very southern name. Colt is from Texas. The Grant siblings (Samuel, Jonathan, Benjamin, and Josephine) all have old-timey names because their parents were 100+ years old before they were born. Emily, the witch without magic in my Secondhand Magic series, has a very plain name while her siblings (Daniel, Juliet, and Liam) have somewhat more dignified ones.
And sometimes, you just need a name for a random side character that may not appear again… but you don’t want to give them an awesome name you might want for a more evergreen character, and if you start re-using names, people email you to ask if that was the same Tim from book whatever.
Then there is the real-life connection problem. If you give a character the same name as someone you know, they tend to assume you named the character after them and should have something in common with them. For example, Matt, Emily’s ex-boyfriend and current bff. My husband is also named Matt, and he found it a little strange that I named my protagonist’s gay ex after him—but I didn’t name Matt after him. I named him after another Matt in my life—who is also not gay, but is one of my best friends. (I call him my Platonic Life Partner [PLP].)
Another worry? Using a character name that have become synonymous with an infamous character in another work. For example, I would never name an urban fantasy protagonist (especially a wizard) Harry… which makes me wonder: Which came first, Harry Potter or Harry Dresden? Hmm. Looks like the first Harry Potter book came out in 1997, and the first Dresden Files was in 2000. Interesting. The more you know!
I mentioned my spreadsheet earlier. I have a massive one for Grant Wolves (and a smaller one for Secondhand Magic) that contains the details of every character I’ve introduced, be they recurring or one-offs, so I can avoid future mishaps as much as possible. I didn’t create that spreadsheet until book 3 or 4, and that led to some amusing anecdotes, such as using the same last name for two recurring characters that weren’t related—which shouldn’t be a big deal. I mean, there are probably six million Smiths out there. But when it comes to fiction, when names get reused, readers have questions. I want readers engrossed in the story, so I avoid anything that throws them out of it.
Maybe I’ll make it a running gag in Secondhand Magic that every other Pueblo woman Emily meets is named Maria. That couldn’t possibly go wrong, right?