Talkin bout my generation...
One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. When researching Bring to Light, I knew I wanted my protagonist to be 15. That put her birth year at the time of writing to be in the early 1990s. From there I also calculated the ages of her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Next, I hit my go-to resource for looking at name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 500 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the middle of the top 100 both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety.
Most of my teen characters have midlist names for 1992: Danielle #17, Heather #23, Amy #43, Mark #47, Jesse #51. Annelise's name sticks out as foreign, something I wanted to communicate without having to give major backstory. (I'll talk more about ethnicity in my next post, "The name game, part 3".) Theo's name, which is way down the list at #251, sticks out a bit too. You expect him to be a little different from the average Tyler, Brandon or Zach of the same age.
Occasionally, I pick a name that's totally out of synch generationally. My protagonist's mother is named Grace, which seems odd for someone born in the mid-1960s. Deborah (#12 in 1964) would have been a more logical choice to go with her sibling David--it's alliterative and also Hebrew. The old-timey name makes Grace seem out of place, a contrary force. It draws attention to itself, especially when Grace's grace seems mostly to reside in her outer, physical beauty and not her inner self. As a reader, you wonder what her parents were thinking, which is good. I intend her name to communicate something about the name-giver as much as about Grace herself (more about that in "The name game, part 5").