There’s nothing better than a good, character-driven picture book. The best ones get read, and re-read and become classics to the teachers, librarians and families that love them.
If your character is going to be a friend to generations of young readers, it makes sense to choose a name that will stand the test of time. And, obviously, you want a name that will attract the attention of an editor, because your book can’t become a classic unless it’s published, right?
So. What makes a good character name? Turns out, there are a lot of things to think about.
Look at SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. It’s a simple story about the simple joys of digging a hole. The names of the two characters are equally simple. They work today, they would have worked 10 years ago, and they’ll likely work 10 years from now. The other benefit of names like Sam and Dave is that they are easy to read. Always read your story out loud and have a few other folks do the same. If they repeatedly stumble over your character names, you may want to rethink them.
Classic, timeless names don’t work for every story, though. In ODD VELVET by Mary Whitcomb, or CHRYSANTHEMUM by Kevin Henkes, the characters need names as unusual, impressive and memorable as they are, and Whitcomb and Henkes work the reasons for their choices into the text. But note that even through Velvet and Chrysanthemum aren’t commonly used names, they are words that readers already may be familiar with.
And, sometimes, you want an uncommon name just because it’s uncommon and will elevate your story. Meet SLEEPOVER WITH BEATRICE AND BEAR by Monica Carnesi. This story is a tale of two friends. The bear is just known as Bear. But the rabbit is Beatrice. That tells the reader that Beatrice will likely be the star of the story and strongly suggests that she is not your average rabbit. (The use of two “B” names also provides a fun bit of alliteration in the title.) Carnesi’s story is adorable, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if it had been called SLEEPOVER WITH BUNNY AND BEAR.
Does it tell something critical about the character’s personality or the story’s plot?
A great example of this is MAPLE by Lori Nichols. She chose the perfect name for a tree-loving girl from a tree-loving family. As Nichols says in her book: “And even though Flavia, Millie Jane, Lena, Lily, and Constance were all good names … Maple was the perfect fit.”
And then, Maple finds out she’s going to have a sister. Some subtle visual clues prepare the reader for the arrival of … Willow.
Nichols did such a lovely job with this story and her name choices, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an uptick in the number of babies named Maple.
I’m not putting my picture book, SOPHIE’S SQUASH in the classics category, but I have noticed a trend. When I do book signings, I see a lot of parents purchasing it for their own little Sophies. And, I’ve had several people purchase it because the squash’s name is Bernice and they have a mom or grandmother or great-aunt whose name is Bernice. No one has purchased it for a little girl named Bernice yet, but it could happen. (Just today, I was in a waiting room and the receptionist called out “Edwin?” And who got up? Not an 80-year-old man, but a tiny toddler and his mom.)
Hmmm … Would those people have purchased the book even if they didn’t have a child or a relative named Sophie or Bernice? There’s no way to know.
One final note.
Above all, your characters’ names should not be place fillers. Don’t coast by with generic, every-kid names like Timmy, Tommy, Susie or Cindy. (I once heard an editor at an SCBWI conference say she gets tons of slush-pile picture book submissions where the main character’s name is Timmy. She said, “I don’t know what it is about that name — it’s not used much for little kids today– but a lot of beginning picture book writers go there.”)
Where can you get more current, creative ideas? Just look at the nametags hanging over the coat hooks at a local school, daycare or business that caters to kids. You’ll see things like: Mika, Riley, Ariella, Elianna, Arthur, Asher, Callum, Catalina, Xander, Hazel, Jackson, Sabrene, Jules, Zhana, Elka, Vincent, Jonah, Cooper, Henry, Wesley, Barrett, Abraham, Ainsley and Mercedes. (And that’s just a few of the kids from my daughter’s school.)
I’m also a big reader of nametags when I’m in a grocery store, gas station or restaurant. I’ve jotted down some lovely and interesting names that way. Just today, I saw a Zora. Another good source of names is the newspaper — both articles and obituaries. The name of a character in MY BROTHER, THE DUCK — a picture book I have coming out in a few years — came from a newspaper article I read. I no longer remember the topic of the article, but I remember the name.
And if I’m lucky, you might too.
I agree… Naming characters is so important! I work diligently at finding just the right name for my characters, after all they just might be famous some day!
Ah, the naming–always such a big decision! Since I often write in verse, I have to consider the rhythm/rhyme factor, too (I’m sure Jill can relate). SAMANTHA ON A ROLL was almost FIONA ON A ROLL if not for the nickname possibilities. Being able to use “Sammy” on occasion helped rhythmically; using “Fi” presented pronunciation challenges (is it FIE or FEE?). And I’m a fan of online baby name sites like this one, which I visited just the other day: Baby Center. I also look in my son’s yearbooks for name ideas–another good source!
I look at babynamer.com and other sites, as well. There’s also a Social Security Site that lists the most popular names by birth year. That’s helpful if you’re wrtiting something set in the past and want a viable name.
A walk through a cemetery can be fruitful, too! (Loved this article!)
LOVE the cemetery idea!
Yes — I am a complete gravestone name-robber!! My favorite from this summer: Eli Buckalew. Not sure who he is yet, but he WILL be someone!!
What a great post. A good name is extremely important as it is so strongly a part of the character’s unique personality. I especially love OLIVIA, BABAR and MADELINE. Thanks for sharing where to get current ideas. Sometimes I jot down names from the movie credits – always some good ones there!
I’m a new subscriber! What fun I’m going to have learning from all of you. Thanks!
Great post! It is amazing how important choosing a name can be for your story.
Wonderful post with great picture book examples! Thank you! I have also used the class rosters in the schools where I have been a substitute teacher.
I was reminded of some other wonderful names tonight during my Friday night “nibling” read-aloud. Mike Mulligan, Mary Anne, and Mrs. McGillicuddy are loved in this home! Thanks for the great post, Pat!
Excellent points, Pat. Names are tough to get right, but when it happens, it’s magic.
You have given me a lots of ideas about names and other things. I love reading everything on this site. Thanks for sharing so much with all of us!
A character’s name is often the inspiration for my entire story. Sometimes it just pops into my head and as I get to know that character with that special name, my story unfolds for me.