I put a lot of time into finding Just The Right Name for my characters. I keep a running list of "good" ones. There are some names I just don't like - you know what I mean? I keep those for my villains or for characters I don't care that much about except for the purpose they serve in the story. They might be names of real people I've known and disliked. (did that come out bad?) Or maybe I just don't like the sound of the name. It doesn't resonate with me.
Actually, maybe I don't always use the "bad" names for the villains, come to think of it. Conrad Bly is the ghost of SHADOW POINT. His last name is a tip o' the word processor to Henry James, whose Turn of the Screw provided me with some inspiration. The house in that story is called Bly. Conrad sounded appropriate to the ghost's time period, I thought. Plus, it sounded solid to me. Weighty. And threatening somehow. And although a ghost, by nature, is the opposite of solid and weighty, this specter makes his presence known in no uncertain terms. And he's definitely threatening.
Of course, you may have an entirely different view of the name Conrad. Maybe that name conjures up rainbows, sunsets and butterflies for you.
For the protagonist, I chose McPeake because there's a Whole Hill Thing going on in the subtext of the story and the "peak" in her name reflects that. The Madison part I just liked and it had some personal good vibes for me. Plus, who does not love alliteration? Amy absolutely adores alliteration!
Names I strive to avoid are the first, middle and last names of my family and close friends. Which is not that large a circle, but still, that's a lot of names that are unavailable! Criminy. Sometimes, I'll think I've found the perfect name for a character when I suddenly remember, dang! That's Whosit's middle name. It's entirely possible Whosit wouldn't even notice or care or draw any parallels (!) between the character and him or herself, but I'm trying to abide by my rule nevertheless.
When I run out of ideas, I check my list. I've heard of writers randomly picking a name out of the phone book, but that never seems to work out for me. One of my favorite ways to "shop" for names is by watching the credits at the end of movies and television shows. There are, of course, various baby name websites out there, but oddly enough, Uncle Sam is one of the best sources for first names. Check out http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/ to find lists of names broken down by popularity, year, and state.
The best thing about choosing a name for a character is - it's fun! So much fun to create a little world, populate it with characters and have total control over everything from their names to their destinies. The fact that there's a story behind each and every name makes it even more fun.