As well as personifying a set of personality traits, or conjuring up images of a famous person, names can also be related to class or social status and also to the person’s ethnicity. If you’re setting a story in a particular country and you’re not familiar with that part of the world and its first and last names, do your research. There is no shortage of websites these days on surnames popular in Ireland, Germany, France or most other countries. After all, if your book is set in Ireland, or even in the Irish community in a North American city, how many readers are going to take it seriously if the hero is called Carlos Fernandez and the heroine is Heidi Bergmann?
The era of your story is also of crucial importance, whether this is set in the distant past or in relatively recent times. Names that are popular today were not in such abundance in earlier eras and in some cases may not even have existed at all. In medieval England, for example, surnames were not used until well into the twelfth century. When they did come into everyday use, they were often at first based on a person’s occupation such as Carpenter, Smith, Cooper, Cartwright and so on. Some surnames were related to the aristocratic estate where the person worked. Other names were derived from geographic features, such as wood, brook or hill and of course the word ‘son’ began to appear at the end of names, which is where we get surnames such as Johnson, Jackson, Williamson and so many others. There seems to have been a lack of standardization until sometime in the seventeenth century, by which time surnames were well established.