I grew up on a street that had, to the best of my memory, nineteen houses. That’s nineteen different families. Their last names were of English, Irish, Polish, Italian, Croatian, Hungarian, and Czech origin. The kids I went to school with came from many different ethnic backgrounds — all of the above, and more.
But the books I read as a child did not reflect the reality of the world I lived in. The characters in books always had English or Irish last names. In addition, nobody these characters interacted with had anything other than an Anglo-Saxon or Irish last name. While I loved the books I read, I nevertheless felt there was something different about them. Something that made me feel part of the books’ purpose was to exclude the kind of world I lived in.
Then came the social struggles of the 1960s and soon literature started looking a bit different. With the 1950s and especially the 60s and 70s, American authors began to include what we would call “ethnic” characters (ethnic as in “part of a subgroup”) — normal, regular people, or as normal or regular as any literary character can be.
It’s important for a writer to include characters that reflect the diversity of the world we live in. If your novel’s characters live in an exclusively Anglo-Saxon world, then, okay, give them English names. But if the characters happen to live in major or mid-sized cities of the US today, their names should reflect that world as it is today.
In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies — a book that can serve as a guide to writing novels in general, and mystery novels in particular — I have a long chapter on naming characters. Ethnicity is just one of the factors I take into consideration. There’s also rhythm, starting letters, altering names, origins, and meaning.
Two books (both out of print) which I highly recommend for any fiction writer who’s in the process of naming characters: (1) Family Names: The Origins, Meanings, Mutations, and History of More than 2,800 American Names, by J. N. Hook and (2) New Dictionary of American Family Names, by Elsdon C. Smith.
Flipping through a few pages of New Dictionary at random, I find the following last names:
Cool, English — from Coole (cow’s hill) in Cheshire
Herrera, Spanish — a worker in iron, a smith
Ho, Chinese — to congratulate
Picone, Italian — dweller at the sign of the woodpecker
Pokorny, Czech, Polish — a humble or submissive person
For writers who must name persons and give them personality, character, and background, choosing an appropriate name adds to the depth of the character. When I teach writing fiction and naming characters, I allow students to use my copies of the two books I mentioned. Almost every student is fascinated by these books and what they reveal about name meanings and name origins.
Fiction writers should be fascinated with last names and want to know more about them, in order to help create believable characters and in order to more accurately reflect the cultural setting these characters live in. If you can find these books at a used bookstore or online, consider investing in them. You — and your named characters — will be very happy you did.