I often run across grossly overused names in the books I read, and I have long considered writing a list of names, especially surnames, that should be just cause for an author being fined, tortured, or imprisoned. I had never summoned up the energy to do so, however, and probably never would have, except that someone was trying to explain the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey to me the other day, and began by naming the protagonists, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, two of the most horribly overused surnames in the history of bad writing, together, in the same novel, meaning that I now have even more reason never to open the book than I did before.
Here is the problem: there are, even at a very conservative estimate, many millions of last names in the world, and hundreds of thousands of these are more or less native to English speaking cultures, yet a special few, not even the most common, are abused by writers in general and genre writers in particular. There are endless numbers of Steeles and Grays in novels, endless numbers of Stones, Sterlings, Whites, Blacks, Hawks, Colts, Wolfes, Brands, and Rocks, despite the fact that many of these names are not even all that common in the general population.
I would call this a lack of imagination, but it is not even that, because it takes almost no imagination at all to find names for a novel. It takes only a list of names, almost any list: a PTA membership, a church directory, a class list, a batting order, a theatre program, a political petition, a Contact Us page from your favourite site, anything at all. Then just pick a name or two. Mix and match them if you like, but pick something that seems about the right age and culture for your character. Do not try to find something that describes your character’s personality. Do not try to find something that seems trendy or popular. Do not, above all, butcher the name by substituting letters to make it look interesting and different. In short, try not to use your imagination. Just pick something common enough to be unremarkable but not so common as to be cliche. Then use it.
And please, for the sake of your readers, never name a character Grey or Steele.