Does the choice of their characters’ surnames matter to writers of fiction? Probably not a lot. In the UK, a double barrelled surname might be used to indicate social pretension, but a surname is unlikely to carry either heroic or villainous connotations. Does the name Moriarty have a hint of evil in it? Not before Conan Doyle used it, and not to present day bearers of that name. And how about Murgatroyd? Does that have an antiquated ring to it? If so, blame Agatha Christie.
The most obvious area where an active choice of surname might be used is humour. Supposedly humorous names could be invented for this purpose: Bucketfull (drinks too much), Bedworthy (overdoes it between the sheets), Brimstone (a preacher of the old school). But though this was done in the past it probably isn’t a good idea now since it smacks of caricature. (One of my favourites is Sir Leicester Dedlock and Dickens, as we know, invented quite a few surnames in his time.)
But sometimes an author will take a more active interest in surnames, as William Boyd does in his novel ‘Waiting for Sunrise’. The main character is Lysander Ulrich Rief, son of famous actor Halifax Rief. Lysander has a problem and has gone to Vienna for help. The name of his shrink is Dr Bensimon, from which we might assume that his analyst is Jewish, and that would come as no surprise in the Vienna of 1913. It could almost be considered an additional qualification.
However, being Jewish in Vienna could have its disadvantages too, as is explained to Lysander by an Austrian army officer. Some money goes missing and Wolfram is accused, on the secure grounds that his surname gives him away as being Slovenian. When his case finally comes up, Wolfram points out that he didn’t take the money, which explains why there is no evidence that he did. However, another officer, one with a Jewish surname, could just as easily have taken it. The court martial is most interested in this suggestion and Wolfram is exonerated. He then fills Lysander in on the attitude to minorities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Although engaged to an actress called Blanche, Lysander starts sleeping with a sculptor called Hettie Bull. Boyd gives a full description of this diminutive character then asks, ‘Was ever a name less suited to a person?’ (Page 91). So it is evident that this author makes full use of the opportunities offered in choosing names for his characters, and we can all do the same if we want.