It’s time to break out the baby-names book! Because your protagonist needs a name, and any old name won’t due.
The go-to option is to name your characters after people you knew. Just remember to, later on, change it to something else! Your book may be published with a villain named Timmy Blankencheck, the kid who pushed you in the sandbox back in preschool.
Somewhere, Timothy B. is on a flight for business, picks up a book he’s heard good things about, and is surprised to discover that he shares a name with a fictional penguin-murderer.
I know several people who have named their villains after a teacher or mentor who didn’t believe in them enough.
(By the way, if your instinct is to name your protagonist after yourself, you might consider reading my post about the Mary Sue).
Method number two for name selection is to name them after characteristics. I like to call this method “Neil Stephenson-ing” because of his brilliant book Snow Crash, in which the main character is Hiro Protagonist. It’s a little strange, but it’s a strange book.
This can also be called “George Lucas-ing.” Seriously, his villains have the dumbest names: “Darth Vader” “Darth Sidious” “Darth Venamis” “Darth Tyranus” “Darth Maul” and “Darth Plagueis”.
Let’s play a game: guess which one of those villain names I made up. Wrong. They’re all real.
This calls to mind one of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000: Space Mutiny. Throughout the movie, Mike and the Robots call out new ideas for the muscle-clad meat-head protagonist.
The slightly-more subtle, but still cliche’d method is name your character Cane, Kayne, Kain, or Kanye. This just telegraphs that the character is a villain.
Similarly, be careful with any name that tells us how dedicated your character is. Detectives or Private Investigators named Hunter or Archer or Spade or Skywalker or Arrow or Captain America.
Full disclosure: my first book starred a homicide detective named Archer.
You will eventually have to change the name of one of your characters because you subconsciously named someone after your favorite ninja turtle (this was, tragically, discovered too late for the DiCaprio family).
Anyway, just remember, there’s something wrong with every character name you choose. And nobody use Principle Illustrion. That’s what I’m calling the lead character of my legal thriller.