Choosing names for characters in novels

This article first appeared on my blog but I thought it worth repeating here.  How do you choose your characters names?

One thing about writing a series (my Inspector Andy Horton crime novels) is that some of the character names are already set, i.e. Inspector Horton, Sergeant Cantelli, Superintendent Uckfield. Then there is DI Dennings, DCI Lorraine Bliss and others, so no need to think up new names for them. But every novel has a new crime and a new set of characters and coming up with names for them can often be quite tricky as can be remembering which names I've already used as well as the minor characters in my police procedurals, their rank and department.

When seeking inspiration for first names I turn to my little book of baby's names or more often look up web sites of baby's names. I also keep an ear out for any unusual or interesting names when meeting people and will jot these down. Working on the latest Inspector Andy Horton marine mystery (Footsteps on the Shore) I was stuck for a name for one particular character. He had several before I trawled through the A-Z and hit on Ashley. Yes, he was definitely an Ashley.

The other danger is over using a name. For some reason I seem to have a penchant for the name Eric, and when I did a search through previous novels I discovered that I’d used it before for different characters, albeit minor ones. So no more Erics.

As to surnames, I let my finger do the choosing and tend to pick these out of an atlas or street map. Then I see if it fits with the first name and the character. And the more novels I write the more I am in danger of repeating names, (it's easy to forget what you have already used) so I’m building a database in order to double check this. And a database of police officers used in my novels their rank, name, brief description and their department.

Readers also tell me that some novelists have too many characters surnames all beginning with the same letter and they find this very confusing. Now I scrutinise my work to check that not everyone has a surname beginning with the letter ‘C’. Not sure why I gravitate towards ‘C’ but I do. And my sister couldn’t get through Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code because she couldn’t pronounce the names, and not being able to pronounce them meant she couldn’t identify and believe in the characters. You might think that strange, but having raised the point at several talks, I’ve found many other readers echoing this sentiment. So it’s careful with the foreign names for me.

And what about the name of my main character Inspector Andy Horton, where did that come from? I've no idea. It just sprang to mind. It was only recently however that I was contacted by his namesake in the Hampshire Police Force. A polite e mail asked me whether he had inspired the name and/or the character. I replied saying that if he was indeed tall, blonde, fit and handsome then maybe? He replied saying he was tall, fit, dark and his wife thought him handsome. I was somewhat relieved to find the real Inspector Horton had a sense of humour, had recently been promoted and spelt his name Houghton.
Love to hear your views.