Names are important. Sometimes characters appear with names in place, but I've found that's rare. More often, I find myself spending a lot of time combing naming sites looking for the perfect name. Not only does the name have to sound right, but it has to mean something relevant to the character.
Names are symbols. They come built-in with implied associations. Take the Gertrude vs. Juliet example. Say the name "Gertrude" aloud. Who do you see in your mind's eye? A slender, young beauty? Probably not. Chances are you imagine a prunish old spinster or a homely single gal with too many cats.
I found a site where you enter in a name and, using numerology, it tells you about your personality. Whether you believe in such things or not, it might be useful for helping to analyze character names. For example, this morning, when I entered the name of my main character, Sabina Kane, I got this as part of the answer:
Even though I didn't use this site when I came up with her name, I'm surprised how accurate this is for her. It's also a fun time-waster if you want to look up your own name or those of your friends. If you'd like to try it, here's the link.
You tend to react strongly if you sense that your freedom of speech or action is being impaired or restricted in any way. As clever as you are, you may have a tendency to make the same mistakes over and over again because much of your response is glib reaction rather that thoughtful application. You are in a continuous state of flux brought by constantly changing interests. You may have a tendency to be very rigid, sometimes stubborn.
As for finding the names themselves, I actually use a site geared towards naming dogs. I like the way the site is organized by type of name. Most baby naming sites are hard to navigate if you're starting form scratch, in my opinion.
I've also made up names. For example, there's a character in my series named Giguhl. He's a demon but he spends most of the book in cat form. I figured a demon cat would really hate to be called Mr. Giggles. So I came up with Giguhl (pronounced Gig-ool) as a respelling of Giggle so the nickname would work.
To keep track of all my character names, I have an excel spreadsheet. There's a column for the name, country of origin and meaning of each. Not only does this help me keep track of everyone, it also keeps me from using names that are too similar. For example, I don't want a minor character with a name beginning with the same letter as a major character. And I don't want to confuse the reader by having a Stephen and a Stephanie.
Do you pay attention character names in books? Or, for the writers out there, how do you come up with character names?