Naming Characters

Coming up with names for characters is one of those weird little difficulties that really stumps me some days.  Sometimes, a name just pops into my head without any trouble at all (Beda Kirn, one of the characters in my upcoming NaNoWriMo fantasy novel, for example) but if a name doesn’t occur to me right off the bat, it’s often a struggle, and frequently the process involves a lot of search-and-replace work later, when I realize I don’t like the name or it doesn’t suit the character.

The big things to avoid with character names are:  names that are too long or too difficult, multiple characters with names that start with the same letter, characters with very similar names or types of names (don’t name one person Brad and another person Brant, but it can also be confusing to have a Joe and a Bob simply because they’re both very common, down-home, one-syllable names.)

Personally, I also agonize over things like how the first and last name sound together, and if the character goes by a nickname rather than a full name, how both the nickname and the full name sound with the last name.  Sometimes it sounds weird when you have a one-syllable first name with a one-syllable surname, other times it comes out fine.  Maybe I think about this too much, but I can’t seem to help it.

As far as coming up with names goes, the best tool I have ever been given as a writer is a baby name book.  Baby name books are available at any bookstore and most grocery store checkout lanes.  Information varies from one to another, but generally, they’ll give you the name, origin (Anglo-Saxon, Native American, Hebrew, etc.), meaning, and nicknames and derivatives.  Some books have indexes with recommendations for how to come up with first and middle names that sound good together.  Some have lots of foreign names, others are very all-American and focus on the trendiest names of the moment.  Foreign names or derivatives are excellent fodder for the historical novel or fantasy writer.  The hip stuff is great for modern literature, thrillers or mysteries, romances, or young adult writers.

Last names, for me, are always the hardest.  Sometimes I’ll use the phone book to find random last names to choose from, but sometimes I feel like a weird stalker doing that.  Sometimes I use authors’, artists’, musicians’, or actors’ last names, but never if they have a distinctive surname.  Erica Flynn, of my current novel, got her last name from Errol Flynn, which seemed appropriate when the book got around to the bit with swords in.  This week, a friend of mine suggested gravestones as a place to find names – which works for both first and last names.

I do, also, really pay attention to the connotations of my characters’ names.  I’m not going to name a badass female character Daisy Mifkins or Amy Darling, unless I’m intentionally aiming for irony.  I’m probably not going to name a suave, urbane male character Hank Smith, either, or a tough guy Alfred Eddleton.

There’s a writing exercise where you’re supposed to write the same scene twice, but in one version you primarily use words with hard letter sounds like k, t, z, and v, and in the other primarily use words with soft letters such as l, j, r, and h.  I’ve done the exercise, and it really does make a big difference in how the scene reads.  The same holds true with names.  Primarily hard letters conjure up the expectation of toughness, primarily soft letters and names that end in ie or y sound meeker or even diminutive.

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Isolation as a Theme & a Conflict

I reread some of my own short stories this summer, and noticed that one of the running themes in my writing is isolation – which isn’t unusual.  Isolation is addressed in tons of literature, art, and music.  It’s an interesting concept to play around with, since it’s both universal and highly subjective, and it allows a writer to interweave internal and external conflicts with one fell swoop.

I say it’s highly subjective as well as universal because we all feel isolated by different situations from one another.  Most of us feel isolated when we’re in an awkward social situation (alone in a crowd, as it were), but some people are comfortable with that feeling and others aren’t.  Some people feel isolated when they’re alone, others feel more in tune with and connected to the world.  Some people enjoy isolation.  Others hate it.  One person might feel terror and sadness at the idea of spending a night alone in the woods, away from civilization – someone else might feel pleasure at the idea of such an escape and revel in such isolation – someone else might not even feel isolated out in the woods by themselves.  For some people, isolation and loneliness are the same thing, and for others, they’re two wholly different experiences of aloneness.

In terms of character dynamics, there’s a lot of emotion and depth to be mined and explored through these different takes on solitude.  When does your character feel truly alone, and does he/she like that feeling, or dread it?  Does he/she usually love being alone, but some specific situation triggers a completely opposite reaction from him/her – a reaction even he/she didn’t expect?  A writer can get a lot of mileage out of that interplay between internal factors and external factors contributing to a character’s emotional state and reaction to his/her environment.  We all need a sense of belonging, but we all also need a sense of freedom and individuality, and we all have to pit those needs against one another and balance them.  Everyone does it a little differently, and that’s a pretty intense conflict to explore with your characters – it affects how they behave toward other characters and events, and how those characters and events, in turn, affect one another.  And boy, can you really mess a character up by unbalancing their sense of belonging and their sense of freedom.  Writing is a little sadistic, it’s true.  Mess your characters up.  Toy with their minds.  Play on their weaknesses.  Challenge them every chance you get.

A Rant About Dialogue Tags

Currently, I’m going through The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, working on polishing up the (hopefully) final draft.  One of my missions is to tighten up the writing and trim the word count a bit–it stands at 105,000 words in its third draft.  To make it more concise, I’m cutting unnecessary or generic words and phrases wherever I find them.  In the first six chapters (it’s forty-something total) I’ve already cut a thousand words.  A thousand unnecessary or generic words?!?  How did I let that happen?!

Some of the generics that I over-used are “at the moment,” “just”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and “sometimes.”  Qualifiers.  Things that weaken the words around them.  Now, in some cases, I kept these words and phrases in the text.  The reason being, children, that Erica is a first person narrator, and consequently I have to keep the voice and style of the narration in keeping with her casual personality.  It’s conversational, so the narrative almost becomes dialogue.  I’m trying to keep enough of that in to maintain that tone without wasting the readers’ time or undermining the strength of what’s being conveyed.

The main culprit of word waste, however, is dialogue tags.  Dialogue tags!  Fie on ye!

He saids and she saids are killers of scenes.  They drag at the dialogue they’re attached to, weighing it down.  They’re repetitious and often distracting, especially if they come after every line.  Every writer who’s ever been critiqued knows to try to work around them wherever possible.  You put in actions and gestures instead.  Facial expressions.  Tone of voice.  Use word choice and such to make it obvious who is speaking which lines even without tags.

I’m not generally bad about putting tags in where I don’t need to, but damn, have I caught a lot of them in the first six chapters of my book!  O editor, edit thyself!  The worst thing is, I even put in all that other stuff – action, gesture, expression, etc – to clearly indicate the speaker and then put the dialogue tags in anyway!!!  So now I’m hacking them out again, and looking over it afterward, it reads so. much. better.

Learn, children, from my mistake.  Do not do everything right to avoid overuse of dialogue tagging and then tag the damn dialogue anyway.  You will save yourself hours of tedium by avoiding the fate that I have brought upon myself this day.

A Word About World Building

For writers of speculative fiction, world building is a vital part of the process of writing.  When your story is set in a fictional time and place, you have to know your world thoroughly and in detail if you want readers to suspend their disbelief in the fantastical events you’re going to put before them.  Inconsistency, sloppy or scant texturing, and stale genre stereotypes are the bane of science fiction and fantasy writing (and reading).

How do you go about creating a whole other world?

Well, here’s how I do it.  I start with whatever originally sparked the idea for the story, of course.  What does that spark point require, contextually, from the time and place, in order to work?  Does technology need to be advanced for this to work, or does technology need to be severely limited?  If it’s limited, what has held it back?  Go from there.  Keep asking questions.  Keep answering them.  If you don’t know yet, make note of it and chip away at other things in the meantime.  If I get stuck, I’ll write a list of “10 Things I Know About [This Place]”.

Sometimes the setting is the spark, for me.  If that’s the case, I draw it out with questions and answers, find conflicts that such a society would face, pick what interests me and what types of characters would be interesting – who’s on the fringes of a culture like this, who’s intimately involved in these conflicts, who wants to help and why, who wants to take advantage of the underdogs’ weakness, etc. – and fill the story out from there.

How do you get ideas for the setting itself?

For the trilogy I’ll be working on this November for NaNoWriMo, I originally started by modeling the setting off of a real-world time and place that interests me – Renaissance Italy.  That isn’t to say I’ve stuck to accurate historical details by any means (the last I knew, Renaissance Italy was never invaded by a clan of pseudo-Russian elves) but it does mean that if I’m having trouble fleshing out details about the setting, I can refer to photos, art, architecture, cookbooks, history books, Italian folk music and folk tales – anything that can be internalized about the actual place and time and either used or modified to work with my fictional setting.  It’s research, but it’s fun research.  How could any research that led me to taste-test brandy-spiked coffee be a bad thing??

Aside from choosing a real-world basis as my starting point, other settings have come to me through toying with ideas about different societal constructs, projections of “what if” questions, working out the history and the future of my own invented world and seeing what types of cultures came together or broke apart before and after the events of the trilogy.  Even dreams, sometimes.  One of my favorite of my uncompleted short stories is set on another continent in the same world as the trilogy – a very isolated continent full of crazy-dangerous wild animals – and the whole setting and story came to me as a dream.  The architecture, the characters, the clothing, the socio-economics and political setup…I dreamed all of it.  Thank you, subconscious.  Thank you!

Should you include everything that you know about your setting in the story itself?

No.  Absolutely no.  I have a binder with maps, timelines, and notes about my setting that’s almost two inches thick.  Nobody needs to know all that crap except me.  And someday, if I ever have a die-hard uber-nerd cult following for my trilogy, maybe them.  But normal readers do not need the full extent of what you, as the writer, know about your world.  You need to know, in order to maintain consistency and keep the illusion that this place is real and that there is all of that stuff to know.  And you can never tell what will end up being pertinent to the book until you’re in the thick of it.  So know your world intimately, including what would be written in dry history textbooks in their schools, but don’t dump the history book in the reader’s lap.  Use your knowledge of the setting to enrich the story, but do it through implication, hints, details that enliven the story and the characters, dialogue and interaction, etc.  Make the story and the setting inseparable.

The Interplay of Strength & Weakness

When it comes to creating well-balanced characters, one of the ways I like to think of it is that every character is a double-edged sword.  Any trait in any character has its positive and its negative potential, which can be drawn out, played with, used to create internal conflict, and/or increase external tension between characters.

For example, let’s say you have a character with a lot of determination.  Determination is good, right?  But what do you call determination in someone who is determined to do something you would rather they didn’t do?  You call it stubborn, hard-headed, contrary, or possibly stupid, depending on what the person is set on doing.  Double-edged sword.

A character with a lot of confidence – confidence is good, right?  It means charisma, leadership skills, self-assurance.  That character better watch out, though.  Confidence can become cockiness, and that opens up a lot of potential problems for your character.  Even if he has a healthy sense of his own limitations, maybe other characters perceive him as cocky and dislike him for it – confidence in one character can lead to jealousy in other characters.  Double-edged sword.

Turn the tables on your characters.  The things you admire or hate about a character, try to see from another angle.  What’s the opposing force in the equation?  What extremes would pull an attribute toward being a flaw, or a flaw toward being an asset?  A character’s greatest weakness can transform in to her greatest strength, or vice versa.  If a character isn’t very self-aware, he’ll be in constant danger of losing himself to the negative side of his own personality.  If he’s hyper-aware, that’s an issue in itself, and he’s going to question himself incessantly (hello, Dostoevsky).

Does your character have another trait that somehow keeps check on one of her double-edged aspects?  She’s confident, but doesn’t get cocky because she also has a strong sense of humility.  Uh-oh!  Humility?  That might slide into meekness if her confidence is down for some reason.  Your character’s internal struggle and the external dynamics have even more potential now.  This is great stuff for plot material, even if the story’s focus isn’t strictly about a character’s personal growth.  Characters should grow in any story, for it to be truly good writing.  Spy novel or literary fiction, science fiction or mainstream – a story will always be better for character development.

Let your heroes screw up.  Let your villains always try to do the right thing.  Let your characters be full, rounded people, in spite of labels like “hero”, “villain”, “protagonist”, or “antagonist”.  We don’t have those labels in real life, and stories with characters who transcend those labels are the ones that keep me, at least, coming back for more.

Hopes & Expectations

One of the things I encounter a lot among other writers is a fear of violating readers’ expectations, particularly when dealing with speculative fiction (genre fiction).  In terms of genre, it seems to me more a question of marketability than of readers’ taste.  Frankly, in that sense, I’m annoyed by the whole idea that writers should restrict themselves to a standardized format for a genre.  If your plot, world, characters, and interactions are all dictated by a set of genre rules, I feel like, “Well, what’s the point writing it?  There’s no room for originality and it’s all been done a million times over.”  I suppose the answer is, “Because one can make money writing it,” but that’s not all writing is to me.  At the risk of sounding like a snob, I’ll say here and now that artistic integrity is important to me both as a writer and as a reader.  I don’t condone using that integrity as an excuse for being exclusive and purposely inaccessible with your style, either – bad writing is bad writing, and being artsy just so you can pat yourself on the back for being clever rarely produces anything decent, let alone excellent.

Okay, end that rant.

Back to the point.  A far more compelling question, to me, is whether violating readers’ expectations is a good thing or a bad thing in a broader sense – in the sense of just plain storytelling and good character development.  Good characters do surprise your readers sometimes, and good plots aren’t predictable or humdrum.  So obviously you need to jerk your readers around to some degree, but you don’t want them to feel cheated.  That’s the meat of the issue, really.  How do you fulfill your readers’ need for resolution and avoid unpredictability that feels unrealistic, while simultaneously keeping the plot and the characters fresh and the readers on their toes?

Since I’m a reader who loves to be surprised (my favorite characters are the ones I feel like I know personally, yet am never sure what they’ll do from one scene to another), I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating this particular question.  The key, I think, lies in planting hints, doubts, and questions.  The story can build toward a logical outcome, giving the reader a sense of what “should” happen next, but if little clues and inklings of uncertainty are thrown in (and they can be quite subtle and still work!) then the reader wonders if the logical outcome will come through or not, or if there will be more problems than the characters are expecting based on what they know so far.  That makes readers edgy, and that’s a good thing.  You want edgy readers.  Edgy means they’re interested.

You can raise doubts and plant hints with just a word or a phrase here and there, and sometimes the more subtle the building questions are the better.  If you can work that kind of thing in without being overt about it, it’s all the stronger when those doubts come to the surface in the action.  You can use foreshadowing, carefully chosen metaphors (use negative comparisons to bring out worries and fears), dialogue (especially a character cross-questioning another, or one character’s internal emotional reaction to something another character says aloud), characters’ body language…there’s a plethora of little things you can do to hint at something going on beneath the surface.  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a stellar example of a plot and a set of characters that are continually unpredictable, yet believable within its context every step (and mis-step!) of the way.  There are a billion examples popping into my mind right now, but I’ll leave it at one, for the moment and just add the rest to my recommendations page (whenever I get back around to adding to that!)

Point of View

In my last post, I wrote about getting details and subtleties across when your narrator doesn’t actually take note of them.  It’s a much bigger issue for a novel or story written in the first person than a piece written in third person – which has me thinking about the pros and cons of writing in first person.

How do you decide what perspective to use for telling your story – especially a novel, where your commitment is long-term?

With The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I had very strong reasons for telling the story directly from Erica Flynn’s point of view.  With the novel I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo this November (working title as yet undecided), I have just as many reasons to write from third person perspective.

The first deciding factor, for me, is whether the main plot is one person’s story.  Of course, each of your characters thinks it’s their own story, but you know better.  You’re the writer.  All your characters should have depth, and the more development you can show of a range of your characters, the better.  If, at its core, though, the story is one character’s tale, then it can be told from a first person point of view.  If the story hinges on multiple people, then you most likely don’t want to limit yourself to one person’s viewpoint.

First person’s advantages are many.  It’s highly personal, and although you can do deep third person in which the characters thoughts and ideas and feelings are there in full detail (read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), there is something about a narration from your main character that just doesn’t come through any other way – like someone is telling the reader their own story.  It gives your main character this quality of being a real person communicating directly to your reader.  It also allows for characterization through the narration – your word choices, the details mentioned, the style of the writing, all contributes to your reader’s sense of your character.  This was a huge part of writing my Erica Flynn novel – she’s a spunky, casual, humorous character, and I wanted that tone to color the whole book.  It seemed only natural to have her tell it, and let the tone flow from the character herself.  The personal nature of first person perspective was a factor, too – particularly since I kill Erica in the first chapter.  It’s a bigger deal for the reader when the narrator tells you she’s going to be dead in a few pages than when it’s just some character – the assumption would be that this character won’t matter soon, and reader interest in that character therefore wanes.  That’s just the opposite of what I needed the reader to feel at that point.  I wanted the reader to be like, “Holy crap!  I just met this girl, and now she’s telling me she’s going to die by the end of this chapter??”

I love anything that plays on unreliable narration (when your narrator lies, distorts the facts, omits details, or is oblivious to things that are obvious to the reader).  Chuck Palahniuk uses unreliable first person narrators in most of his books, Wilkie Collins frequently uses a collection of first person narrators in his novels (each with very different takes on the facts!), and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is written from the point of view of a man who’s so twisted that he can barely tell when he’s lying and when he’s not anymore.

Obviously, first person has its limitations.  It’s difficult to break to another point of view if you need to, it can be a real struggle to maintain voice and character consistency while still conveying the information necessary to the story, and it limits the focus of the story.  Granted, sometimes that’s what you want (in the case of the Erica Flynn novel, I wanted to keep the scope narrow and simple).  There’s no way I could tell my NaNoWriMo novel from a first person point of view because the scope is enormous and the characters’ development and decisions affect one another far too much for that kind of limitation of perspective.

Choose your point of view wisely, but don’t be afraid to play around with different perspectives or consider changing from one to another if the story isn’t flowing for you!