I’m terrible at choosing character names. Half the time I forget to do it until I’m half way through the story and realise I can’t keep saying he/she/it. Then I normally say ‘Fred! I’ll just call him Fred.’. Ten lines later, another character pops up.’I’ll call him Fred! No, wait…’
As for my fantasy names, I normally just sit here throwing random sounds together until I get something that sounds something like a name, and looks like I just threw a bunch of scrabble tiles in the air and wrote down the result (actually, that’s not a bad idea). Then I normally find out that what I thought was a random name is actually an ancient Gaelic name.
So, here’s how I get over it.
I open a book of baby names at random, close my eyes, and pick a name on the page. This can work for first and last name, depending what you pick. Otherwise, for your surname, many libraries have books of surnames.
Open any book you like, and choose the first name you see. And then use the second name you see for the surname. Or stand in a library or bookshop and pick names from the authors.
Walk down the street and look at the street signs and shop signs.
Open up your junk mail – is it signed by someone? Chances are they’re completely made up. Steal that name!
Sit in a coffee shop/pub/bus stop/railway station and eavesdrop the names. (This works for nicknames and slightly odd endearments too)
Find common names in local newspapers – they tend to attribute quotes to people with ordinary, but not overly common names. Don’t use really unusual names from the paper though – Peter Smith rather than Philomena Dorothy Smythe-Smith. Unless, of course, you are using very odd newspapers – you can get something fantastic names from nineteenth century papers.
Check the jars and tins in your cupboards – mix and match brand names (not obviously though – people are going to recognise what you’re doing if you call a character Campbell Heinz. Unless that’s deliberate, of course)
Be careful not to use people’s real names – there’s always a chance they’ll find out, and sue you. However, sometimes this just happens. I had a very silly character in a story, and I gave her a very silly, made-up name to match. At least, I thought it was made up. Six months later, a letter with the exact same name crossed my desk at work. I had to think of something completely new, just in case….