So you're writing a vampire novel filled with interesting, dynamic characters. You've worked out the plot, and come up with an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion. Now you just have to give names to the characters that have been living in your head and you think you'll call this one . . . Lucy. No! Bad! There are some names that you simply can't give your characters, and here's why.
Warning: Includes spoilers for Grant Morrison's Batman comics...
Authors are often as sentimental and defensive about their character names as parents are about their children's names. They choose a certain name because the tone, rhythm, and history it has embodies, they hope, the personality they will create. As such, they'll cling to names, especially ones of special pedigree - and especially in genre fiction. It's not a major problem when they link their work directly to earlier stories. If your vampire hunter, for example, is Van Helsing's great-great grandchild, it's not a problem to keep the name. Same with the later generations of Frankensteins or Harkers. A direct link might not always be desirable to readers, but it's not a distracting flourish. It's when you drop coincidental names into the book that things get bad, especially in what are meant to be suspenseful stories. Which brings us to the first group of no-no names.
Names That Tell Us the Story
We all know what is going to happen to a girl named Lucy in a vampire story. She's going to have her life sucked out of her through a couple of holes in her neck. Likely this will happen over a long period of time while people flutter around her ineffectually. Even if this doesn't happen, we will wonder why the author made this departure from the norm. It's always a distraction. There are a number of names that have stopped being allusions and have become spoilers. You can't have a character named Cain, Kane, or Kayne (or, for that matter, Khan), hanging around in the background of a story and act like the fact that they are bad has been sprung on the reader. Same with a name like Mal (Captain Mal being the one exception and even then, remember, he was a criminal).
Authors are forever naming a character Cassandra and having the other characters ignore her predictions, or slipping the word Abel into a character's name and having them struck down by a trusted friend. They're calling people Goodman or Christianson to show that they're heroes. Grant Morrison just managed to claim the last acceptable use of Damian for the (symbolic) antichrist, and only managed to make it a surprise because he built it up for years. No one is going to be surprised if an angelic character named Beth dies, or a character whose name is based on Judas is a betrayer. Step away from the spoilers and just pick something out of the phone book.
The Unflattering Comparison
Occasionally, authors will start feeling insecure and want to let people know that they can read as well as write. They'll put special cues in their story to let people know that they've read the other material that's out there in their genre, and know who wrote it. This isn't just ego or nerd jokes. Most often, the people who write genre books are genre fans, and genre fans want to credit, and pay tribute, to their heroes by naming characters after them.
Unfortunately, the credit is rarely subtle enough, and the the material it is in is seldom good enough, to merit the name. Demolition Man features a long sequence at a Taco Bell that serves only health food as a way to show that the future is a state-controlled dystopia. It isn't good enough to name a character Lenina Huxley - an amalgam of Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World, and Lenina, a character in the novel. Few books are good enough not to suffer when they name a character Dyson, after the conceptual inventor of the Dyson Sphere, or Fuller, after Bucky-ball advocate Buckminster Fuller. Camerons have also flourished in recent science fiction. Rarely can the piece of work top the name.
This isn't to say that all literary shout-outs are bad. Clive and Elsa in Splice, named after Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester, the actors in Bride of Frankenstein, are names that are subtle, well-suited to the material, and an expansion of the usual list of names used in fiction stories, rather than a reduction of it. But when too many shout-outs proliferate, every intersection in the comic book world is Adams and O'Neill and you know they're going to work a Doyle into every detective story, it seems like too much of an invitation to judge the material harshly.
Killed By Overuse
In an increasingly secular world, the naming of characters is one area in which people can't seem to tear themselves away from the Bible. Adam and Eve are the names for any new species, cyborgs, or mutants that people create. There are a lot of Noahs and a few Moseses as the deliverers of a people. A few sneaky authors have managed to put in some Joshuas, as an undercover version of Jesus to connote young savior characters. Horror movies traffic heavily in virginal main characters named Mary - who generally get knocked up by the end. If things go very hard for Mary she'll no doubt rely on the help of a dutiful character named Ruth.
But then there are the minor character allusions that were good the first few times around, but are thoroughly worn-out by now. In 1938 Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca, an innovative gothic novel about the second wife of a man still seemingly hung up on the eponymous Rebecca since her mysterious death. Rebecca has been the default name of every guy's mysterious ex since then. Edward and Heathcliff tend to cast long shadows over literature, as well, being two brooding Bronte creations that served as models - and namesakes - for subsequent gothic novels. (The only reason Mr. Darcy isn't still a namesake for romantic heroes is his first name is Fitzwilliam. There's not really anything to be done with that in modern times.)
The prohibition of names in fiction has to depend on context. Banning Biblical names, literary allusions, creator names, and overly common names across the board leaves authors with few names leftover. Lucy is a fine name for a character who is not in a vampire novel. Rebecca is just great for someone who is not a scheming ex. Moses doesn't have to be leading his people from subjugation to be a great character with a great name. There is, really, only one name that needs to be stopped entirely.
Katherine needs to be stopped. Katherine, or one of its derivatives, is what you call your main female character when you realize you can't call her Main Female Character. It has turned, hydra-like, from a name into a multi-headed monster, with Kate, Kay, Kathleen, Caitlin, Cathy, or Cat as its alternatives. I've had it pointed out to me that Meg Ryan has played a Katherine-ish name six different times - once she played three Katherines in a row. I'd have to argue that few actresses will have no Katherines on their resume, especially if they play the main character. It's ubiquitous, and therefore meaningless.
In life there are plenty of advantages to giving a child a name that's common but adaptable, but in fiction it just means a statistical blank. It's a way to make sure your main character won't make an impression on literary consciousness, but will go through the story with a serviceable everywoman demeanor. This extends even into future fiction. In a world in which much of the land is underwater and America is unrecognizable as a series of districts under a totalitarian regime, and public ethics are so degraded that every year they enact a moral horror story, we still get a Katherine-y name for our protagonist, Katniss. So while the rest of the names can be used, with care and caution, this is the one that needs to be dropped. Spend some time with a baby names book and find something else.