The name game

“A my name is Alice and my boyfriend’s name is Andy, we live in Atlanta and we eat apples!”

How many of you remember playing this game, either jumping rope or bouncing a ball? Do kids even play this anymore?

Names are important. They give the reader numerous clues to the character: gender, ethnicity, age. Even hints as to where the character lives or their personality. We gain all this information subtly, in some cases subconsciously. All words carry a freight of indirect information based on their language of origin, usage, and sound, and without getting into a lesson on linguistics, it’s important to know that readers will interpret a great deal about your characters based solely on their name.

Which means we as writers take a lot of care with naming our characters, and so I’d like to list a few resources I find helpful in choosing names, along with my method, such as it is.

At last week’s Kids Author Carnival (which was fantastically fun, thanks to Claire Legrand and the many folks who made it happen), Bruce Coville answered a question on names by telling us he has several baby name books that he uses as a resource. I don’t use a book, but I do use a few websites. ThinkBabyNames is my favorite. Website or book, these are great resources, because not only do they list thousands of names, they list the origin, meaning and variations of the names. And that information gives you the writer the power to influence the indirect information your reader understands about your character.

For example, one of my characters is a nymph of Spring. When I searched Think Baby Names for names meaning “spring,” I got several results, including Chloris, from the Greek “khloros” referring to a minor goddess of vegetation who could also be considered a goddess of spring. Most of my other character names for nymphs had Italian influences, s it was an easy step from Chloris to Clorisse. Β Voila! My nymph of Spring is Clorisse.

Another author admitted that they collect names they see in print or hear around them – including friend’s names. I haven’t done this yet, but it’s a good idea. (Although you should ask permission from a friend before using their name for a character. Even – or especially – if that character’s the heroine of your story!)

Children’s Writer eNews gave me another resource about names – and how they match up to ages. I don’t suppose FiveThirtyEight intended its article for writers per se, but it’s pretty handy. While much of it may seem common-sense – how many of us know a Mildred or an Elmer aged 30? – it’s great for navigating teen names. Who knew that Brittany was really only popular from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s? (And thus a Brittany is most likely in college or a little older.) And by the way, the Social Security Administration is a wealth of name information, going back to the 1880’s.

Last, but not least, this Writer’s Digest article covers the basics and gives a great set of rules for naming characters.

Choosing character names can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s a wonderful way to spend some time getting the creative juices flowing!


6 thoughts on “The name game

  1. Hi, I just came across your site because I was googling for the origins of the expression ‘rear in gear’. Another WP blogger had used it in a post and some commenters had never heard it while others, like myself, use it. I must tell her about you. She’ll get a kick out of that.

    So, while I was here, I read your post. And, no, kids don’t really play skipping ropes with two ‘enders’ ‘cawing’ the rope and they don’t play with two balls against the wall singing all the fab songs – most of which I’ve forgotten too.
    I’m in and out of loads of schools as a teacher and last week, during a health week initiative, traditional games were being taught. It was great fun to play balls again and to jump rope.
    Anyway, I’m waffling – sorry.
    As for picking names, I’ve heard of people using the phone book for names they fancy and then writing first names and surnames on paper, cutting them up and playing about with different matches till you get one you like.
    I take it you’re fairly new here – maybe? So, I’ll follow along and get in to read a few more posts. I liked this one.
    Nice to meet you. Now I have to get my rear in gear and get back to the comment I was in the middle of before I started googling and found you! πŸ™‚ x

  2. Sheila, I loved those games, too. We used to play that one while bouncing a Spalding ball (we used them for everything!) under our leg repeatedly πŸ™‚

    I love naming characters, though often struggle, especially with the main ones. I, too, have baby books and a few baby naming sites. I like the FiveThirtyEight site you posted, so thanks for that one, Leslie. The telephone book is another I’ve occasionally used, Scottishmomus πŸ™‚ Many years ago I also started looking more at film credits ’cause the variety of names is usually marvelous πŸ™‚ I’m pretty sure J.K.Rowling also used maps for town names, etc. I also like words themselves and forming names from them. Love naming! πŸ™‚

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