By Carmela Martino
In the first installment of this three-part series on character names, I promised that this time I’d talk about the naming process and share some naming tools. As you may recall, my Part One column began with a list of unusual names from award-winning children’s books. One character I missed was Holling Hoodhood, the main character in Gary D. Schmidt’s Newbery-honor book, The Wednesday Wars. In an online interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Schmidt talks about how he came up with Holling’s name, saying:
“. . . my middle son actually has a friend whose last name is Hoodhood. It’s such an inherently funny name. And I gave him Holling, in part to honor Holling Clancy Holling, who wrote children’s books in the 1950s, and because I liked the alliteration.”
[As an aside: According to Wikipedia, Holling Clancy Holling “was an American author and illustrator, best known for the book Paddle-to-the-Sea, which was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1942.” But there’s no information posted on how the original Holling’s parents came up with his name.]
In response to my Part One column, a number of Illinois authors wrote to share their naming strategies. Several said that, like Schmidt, they sometimes use the names of their children’s friends, and also their own friends and family members. Other authors, like young adult novelist Ophelia Julien, keep track of interesting names they encounter. Ophelia said, “I literally keep a running list of names. Every time I see a good one, first or last name, I take note, particularly the last names.”
Years ago, I started saving any and all lists of children’s names I came across: my son’s class lists, my nephew’s kindergarten graduation program, the program from a niece’s band recital, etc. I keep these in a file folder marked simply “Names,” and I flip through it when I’m looking for inspiration. Gary D. Schmidt, who is a college English professor, used his own class lists to justify Holling Hoodhood’s unusual name when his editor initially objected to it. Click here to read the complete interview.
Another source for lists of names, first and last, are telephone directories. And, thanks to the Internet, you can search these online. Kate Hannigan wrote that her favorite directory site is switchboard.com.
Phone directories and my “Names” file work well for contemporary names, but they don’t help when I’m writing something historical, like my novel Rosa, Sola. 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 also check the popularity of a particular name in a given time period and even look at the popularity of names by state. Unfortunately, this site doesn’t help for characters born before 1880. In that case, you can try a technique Margo Dill shared: “For my Civil War novel, I used first names and last names that I saw during researching, but I mixed them up and put different first names with different last names.”
Sometimes, we don’t need any lists or directories. A character’s name simply comes to mind, like a gift from the universe. This happens often to Pamela Dell, who told me, “odd character names pop spontaneously into my head sort of frequently.” She shared an example in an article in the last Prairie Wind:
“I was slowly coming up out of the sleep zone . . . I hadn’t even opened my eyes yet when a single word popped into my head, from out of nowhere: Doodlebug. This was followed, seconds later, by a couple lines of dialogue: ‘This is where we’re going to live now?’ said Doodlebug Pinkley. ‘Weird,’ said Dandelion.”
Doodlebug, and his sister, Dandelion, became the starring characters in Pamela’s Spider magazine series “Doodlebug & Dandelion.” (To read more about her experience, go to “Tales From the Front” in the Prairie Wind‘s Winter issue.)
Other times, we have a character’s physical appearance in mind before we know his or her name. Leone Castell Anderson e-mailed to share how she named the main character in her historical novel Sean’s War. She said, “a young boy, presumably the age of the character I wanted to develop as my protagonist, rode by me on a bicycle as I was on my way to the library. ‘That’s him,’ I thought, and went home and wrote a description of him! He had red hair, looked somewhat neglected, looked as if he was outgrowing his clothes, and I decided, seeing his long-lashed gray eyes, that he was Irish. What else could I name him but Sean? Of course, it was serendipitous, especially when research later proved that the Irish were immigrating to this country during that era of the 1830s!”
My thanks to all the writers who shared their tips with me — I had too many to include them all here. So next time I’ll continue the discussion. I’ll also talk about some special cases, such as coming up with appropriate ethnic names and resources for naming animals. If you haven’t had a chance to share your character naming tip yet, there’s still time. You can e-mail me through my website. (Please put “Character Names” in your subject line so the e-mail doesn’t end up in my Spam folder.)
Depending on the response, this series may end up having four parts, or maybe even five!
© 2008 Carmela A. Martino
Carmela Martino is the author of the middle-grade novel Rosa, Sola (Candlewick Press), which was named to Booklist’s “Top Ten First Novels for Youth: 2006.” She has an MFA in writing from Vermont College and teaches writing classes for both children and adults. She is presenting a one-day workshop on using details to bring characters to life at the College of DuPage on April 5, 2008. For more information, visit the “Programs” page of her website: www.carmelamartino.com.