Those of you who write historical novels know it is important to pick a name that fits the time period of your novel. In fact, you must make sure everything you mention fits the time period. In Shawna K. Williams' No Other, a novel set in the United States at the end of World War II, she mentions cloth diapers. Since we only had cloth diapers at that time, adding the word "cloth" was unnecessary and caused me, as the reader, to wonder why it was there.
Speaking of names, though, there are some names that are used in every generation while others tend to be faddish. The best source for the names being used is the Social Security Administration's Popular Baby Names website: http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/. You'll find the most popular male and female names by year going all the way back to 1880. You can specify the top 20, 50, 100, 500, or 1000. You can also look up the statistics for a particular name and see how it's popularity has changed over the years.
My name, Sidney, for example has changed in popularity over the years. When I was born it was fairly popular, but today it is way down on the list. However, it is not a good name for a fictional character because it is used for both males and females. Don't make it hard on your readers by making them have to remember if the character is a man or woman.
My fictional character's name Brian, on the other hand, has a popularity in the top 100 every year since the mid-1940s. Karen, the female protagonist, was born in the mid-1950s and according to the Social Security Administration, the name Karen was in the top ten every year between 1951 and 1968.
Another way to analyze your character names is to look at the meaning of the name. Whether we like it or not readers have preconceived feelings about certain names. Some of those feelings could be personal and there's nothing we can do about that. But, there are names that more often than not have a special meaning to most people. In the next posting we'll identify sources of information you can use to learn the meaning and history of a name.
Have you used the Social Security Administration's Popular Baby Names website? If so, let me hear about your experiences.