This question came up in one of my writer's organizations group emails, and I thought I'd share my thoughts with you, and how my characters were 'born'.
I look at culture, strength (physical and mental) and character when I name one of my story characters.
I'll often use names of people I know, but rarely both first and last names, unless they've won my 'Create a Corpse Contest'. That's where I invite anyone to submit a name that I might use as a "victim". It's quite funny to read the emails I get from wives who offer up their husbands' names or the reverse, or the employee who enjoys the idea of "killing off" her boss. I even had a mother give me her daughter's name because the teenage was getting on her nerves. (I found that one a little unsettling. lol)
I chose Sarah Richardson for the young main character in Whale Song because Sarah is a youthful, pretty name. Daniella, for her mother who is very beautiful and artistic, and Jack, a strong male name for her father who has immense inner strength and is very intelligent. Sarah's best friend Goldie is named after a native girl I grew up with.
In The River, the lead character is Del Hawthorne, named for my best friend Bobbi-Del Hathaway. My friend likes to say how she looks just like Del, although physically they are opposite, except that they both suffer from MS. Del is an anthropology professor, very educated and tough in many ways. Jake Kerrigan is the male lead--I wanted a strong name.
Francesca Baroni has her hooks in Jake, but things don't end too well for her. Her name comes from another good friend of mine--Francine Berube--but they are nothing alike. Miki Tanaka, well you can guess a lot by her name. Hawk, their wilderness guide, sees more than he lets on. Peter Cavanaugh...well, I thought of Toby Maguire in Spiderman, which led me to 'Peter'. Peter is a student of Del's, smart but a bit shy. Hans VanBuren is the bad guy, a man involved in a deadly conspiracy.
In Divine Intervention, pyro-psychic Jasmine (Jasi) McLellan was inspired by my love of 'J' names (my daughter Jessica and my brother Jason). McLellan is the last name of a war hero in our family. Brandon Walsh is the lead man--a firefighter with a soft side, but skeptical of psychics. I enjoyed the irony of his first name. Natassia Prushenko, a victim empath, well you probably determined she's Russian. Ben Roberts, a psychometric empath who wears gloves unless he needs to use his gift, is the team leader--strong, a bit of a brooder, a stickler for rules.
In the novel Finding Bliss , which I've just started, the character of young Bliss came to me in a funny way. I was watching TV one night a few months back and a commercial for the Bliss chocolates came on. The first thing that caught my eye was the beautiful font, scrolling, flowery, light, feminine. Immediately I thought, "Wow, that would make a beautiful girl's name. No sooner did that thought enter my mind, I had a vision of this scraggly young girl, with dirty blond hair, ripped jeans, dirty face...the opposite of beauty at first glance. The novel title became "Finding Bliss" and takes you from her life as a foster child to life on the streets, to lying, cheating and stealing to survive. The title is about her journey to find herself, but also her journey to find bliss, happiness and peace.
For me, I never struggle with names. I always take a few minutes to visualize a character--her physical and emotional status. Almost always a name or two pops into my head. If stuck, I'd look anywhere you can find names--online phone books