The politics of names–on naming characters

As I’ve been trying to come up with a name for a particular character in my book–one who comes from a very particular culture considered to be low-class and uneducated–I’ve been pondering on the politics of naming our characters, and how that ties into our own personal experience with people from particular SESs.

It makes me wonder: as you consider names for characters, do you take into consideration the names of people you have known–marginally or closely–or real-life figures and look for names that give you the same feel of SES (socioeconomic status), or do you pull names out of a hat and they stick?

A friend recently linked to the Social Security Administration’s baby names site, which I’ve found very useful in finding out what names were popular in a given generation, and I also tend to use names from my family history if they feel right, but that only works for me for characters I like. What about the antagonist? How do you go about naming your antagonists? How do you find the name that has the right feel in class for
a character who is of a lower SES compared to an upper SES?

I’m not sure I’m communicating this. Let’s try some specifics. It’s like the difference in naming Buffy vs. Faith. "Faith" the name is more commonplace–and Faith the character comes from a commonplace, much more lower-class background than Buffy does. "Buffy" makes you think (most likely) "rich, privileged white girl." But "Faith" doesn’t make you think "white trash" or anything–it’s just a normal name that doesn’t imply any particular status. It’s a much more politically neutral name. The children of movie and rock stars tend to have much more esoteric names than those of their less-privileged peers (Apple, Dweezil, River, etc.). One could probably make a case that naming conventions in black families can sometimes be more creative in spelling than those in white families–but it would probably depend upon location and, once again, SES. Heaven knows there are plenty of white people in Utah who have been just as creative in their made-up names, usually involving adding the syllable "La" to the beginning of a name or by smashing two names together.

So say you have a very stereotypical stepmother character, but you don’t want to call attention to the fact that she’s probably going to reflect a stereotype. (This may change in revision, but for now, that’s what is working for the story–she’s not a main character.) How would you go about naming her? There are so many possibilities, yet I don’t want to choose the name of anyone I have ever known for fear of offending them by the political ramifications of what that may appear to say about their names. Ideas?