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Character Names

Tomorrow evening, I'll be speaking at the North Suburban Network Meeting of SCBWI-Illinois on the topic of character names. Rather than print out a handout, I'd like to offer some links related to the topic here in this blog post. In 2008, I wrote a four-part series on this topic for my craft column in the SCBWI-Illinois newsletter, the Prairie Wind. You can still read some of those columns, but you have to go to the SCBWI-Illinois page at scbwi.org to get to them now. Start on this page. Then scroll down to the "Spring 2008" link to open the pdf of the newsletter. Then scroll to page 11, where you'll find my "Writing Tips" column, labeled "What's In A Name? (Part Two)".
If you go back to the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind page and click on the "Fall 2008" link, you can also read Part Four of the series. (I don't believe the other two parts are available online any longer. )

In case you have problems accessing the articles, I'll give you a few of my favorite links from the series here:

* The Writing-World website has a list of links to all sorts of online character naming sites here. The links include a wide range of sites, from basic baby-naming sites to archives of medieval names. A number of the sites have names used within specific ethnic groups, such as Chinese, Indian and Sikh.

* One of the sites Writing-World links to, www.behindthename.com, provides the history and etymology of first names from around the world. You can get to it if you click here. There’s a companion site for last name information, surnames.behindthename.com, which lists the meaning, ethnicity and popularity of surnames around the world. That link is here. The Behind the Name site also contains some interesting background information. For example, if you follow the “about Italian names” link at the top of the list of Italian first names, you’ll learn about a naming custom practiced in my family:

* Michelle Hoppe Prima talks a bit about the influence of sounds in character names in “Naming Your Characters,” which you can find here.

* Darcy Pattison also discusses how sound affects a reader’s impressions in her blog post about word (and name) choices on May 18, 2007, which you can find here. The post is actually a follow-up to her discussion of “word connotations” on May 11, 2007, which is here. As part of that discussion, Pattison says that a word acquires connotations “from the way it looks, sounds, derivations, culture, experiences, and more.”

* If you’re writing a story set in the United States, a great resource for both contemporary and historical names is the Social Security Administration website. There, you can see lists of the names most often given babies born in any year dating back to 1880. You can get to that site here.

Following are the reference books I plan to share tomorrow:

* The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Second edition includes tips for how to research names online and ten guidelines for naming characters. The name lists are organized by ethnic group and include information about corresponding surnames. The name meaning lists themselves are briefer than those in typical baby-naming book.

* Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature, by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen. Explores specific examples of how names are used by authors of novels for twelve- to eighteen-year-olds. Discusses not only character names but also “names for events, inventions, animals, attitudes, social developments, and imagined concepts.”

* The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why it Matters, by Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays. A biographer and a novelist discuss American naming practices and their implications. Includes a chapter on literary names.

* 2010 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market, edited by Alice Pope, contains my article, "What's in a Name? Maybe More Than You Think."




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