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The Naming Game

by Sarah Sundin

Most authors love the process of finding the perfect character name, but it can also cause headaches. When writing my newest World War II novel, With Every Letter (Revell, September 2012), I took many things into consideration when naming my characters.

Does it fit the character?

Sometimes the character’s name comes immediately, but other times I search for just the right moniker. All names carry connotations of strength or weakness, beauty or homeliness, a fun-loving or serious nature, so find one that reflects the personality.

Sound

How does the name sound, especially when paired with the last name? And for the heroine, how will it sound when paired with the hero’s last name? Be careful not to have too many names starting with the same letter, and vary the number of syllables, both first and last names. I keep a chart to track characters’ names, which also helps me avoid repetitions, especially when working on a three-book series.

Meaning

What does the name mean? This may or may not play into your novel, but you should be aware of it. In With Every Letter, I specifically chose my heroine’s name based on the meaning. I wanted my flight nurse to have a long and unusual first name which could be shortened to a cute nickname. Perusing my baby name book, I found Philomela, which means “nightingale” and shortened nicely to Mellie. Since my series is called Wings of the Nightingale because of the connections to both nursing and flight, I knew I had my name.

Culture

Please consider the timeliness of your character’s name for the year he or she was born. This is even important in contemporary novels. The name of your twenty-year-old heroine will be different from that of her eighty-year-old neighbor. My World War II novels are populated by women named Georgie, Rose, Vera, Alice, Sylvia, Wilma, and Evelyn. The men are named Frank, Bill, Larry, Rudy, Hal, Earl, and Bernie.

If your character must have an anachronistic name, give it a solid justification. Then have the other characters respond. Just as a Hortense would be ridiculed or at least questioned about her name on a 2012 playground, remember how your unusual name will be perceived within your story’s culture.

Also consider what names are common in the geographical region, the ethnic group, and the socioeconomic level.

Sources for Names

A good baby name book is essential, and I highly recommend The Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2005), which lists names by ethnicity and by popularity going back to 1880. Some great online resources include http://www.babynamewizard.com/ and http://www.behindthename.com/.

Sarah Sundin is the author of With Every Letter, as well as the Wings of Glory series-A Distant Melody, A Memory Between Us, and Blue Skies Tomorrow. She lives in California with her husband and three children. Visit her at http://www.sarahsundin.com.

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2 Responses to The Naming Game

  1. Sarah, I often use your books as an example when I teach about naming characters. When I picked up your first WWII novel and discovered your characters names were the same as my grandmothers’ names, I knew you’d done your homework. Great post!

  2. Eddie Hinkle says:

    Sarah, I am a new writer and your hint at naming characters were helpful to me.