Elspeth: The Scottish form of Elizabeth
I didn't have to look this up. I've had it memorized for years, because almost every time someone hears my name for the first time I get a puzzled look coming back at me, followed by a head tilt, followed by a hesitant "...Elizabeth?" The result is I'm very conscious of names. I don't like tricky names, I don't like tricky spelling. I was determined that all my children had very regular names. When I'm writing, I try to do the same favour for my characters.
As a reader, I find odd names jarring. When I come across one I have to stop and figure out how to pronounce it. This tends to make me cranky. If I can't figure it out, I'll ignore the name and just skim over it whenever it appears. In fact, when describing the character to someone else, I'll probably call them 'odd-named woman' or 'guy with name I can't pronounce'.
Names have changed over time, certainly. I have a character in my WiP who is in her 70s. The story takes place in 1935 - this means she was born in the 1860s. I picked a name that was popular in the 1860s. I do this for everything I write. I look at lists of popular baby names for the year of the character's birth; or in some cases, when I've written about teenagers in a plot taking place now, I simply ask my teenagers what the most popular names are in their school.
I try, simply for the sake of clarity, not to have two characters with similar sounding names - I don't want a Pam and a Dan or a Mary and a Terry. I do have two characters right now whose names start with the same letter - but they're working as a team to solve the mystery and one is known by his surname and one by his first name.
I don't name characters after people I know. I want each character to be mine, and some names have too many real-life memories attached to them. I am also hesitant to start down that rather slippery road as I know someone, sooner or later, will say "You named a character after them, but you didn't name one after me". There's also the risk that the person whose name I did use, will think the character is a portrait of them (which could be unfortunate considering I write mysteries).
Shakespeare may have been right when he had Juliet observe "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" but I can't write a character if I've given them the wrong name. It's happened.
How do you choose your characters' names? Do you care if they're odd? Have you ever gotten them wrong?
Oh, by the way, I'm not Scottish. I just have a Scottish name.