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.

Getting Your Groove

For me, it was a long, hard road learning to be self-disciplined about doing writing regularly.  I’m at the point, now, where I write or revise almost every day – and the days I don’t, I’m usually doing some kind of exercise or think-through for my current writing project.  I do give myself breaks on days when it just isn’t gonna happen because of the day job, chores, social occasions, and, you know, all that real life stuff.

Some of the stuff I’ve learned helps keep me focused may seem obvious, but I’ll tell it to you anyway, just in case it’s as useful to someone else as it has been for me.

One of the biggest steps toward daily writing, for me, was having a separate space JUST for writing.  I was lucky enough to get a laptop for my birthday (thanks, fam!), which meant I could get away from my distracting desktop with its high-speed internet connection and loads of computer games (yes, I’m a nerd, I know).  My laptop has no internet connection and absolutely no games.  It has Word, Notepad, and WinAmp.  That’s pretty much it.  All I ever do at the laptop is write and make notes for my current project.  It’s like a little psych test I’ve done on myself – I automatically click into writing mode when I sit down with the laptop.

Now, if you can’t get a laptop or don’t want one, the same idea can be applied using either a notebook (like, the kind you actually write on, not that itty bitty new kind of laptop), or just having something different about your workspace when you’re working on your writing.  Light a candle, sit in a different chair, have a writing jacket, listen to different music.  Something that separates your time and space as a writer from the rest of your daily tasks or entertainments in your computer area.
Another thing I’ve learned to do is to have a word count goal every day while I’m writing, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before – I have a low word count so that, even on days when real life looms large, I can still make my goal and feel good about my progress.  250 words per day was my self-imposed guideline for my current novel.  The thing is, a lot of the time, by the time I’ve written 250 words, I’m in the groove and I can write way over that goal.
Having a time of day when you routinely work can be great, although hard to do unless you have a set schedule or can set your own hours.  Having a fellow writer you’re close enough to to brainstorm with when you’re stuck is fantastic.  Having a critique group that meets regularly can help keep you on task, especially if it’s a small enough group that everybody knows what everyone else is working on.
I do think it’s important to take a day off now and then, or give yourself weekends off from writing (or a Wednesday and Thursday, if your weekends are your best shot at writing time).  It takes a lot of energy and thought to write a story!  Sometimes your brain needs some recuperation time – and some time for your subconscious to cleverly link things together for you.  If you write habitually, then a day or two off once a week is more likely to spark your brain than make you lose your thread, especially if you keep good notes.
I’m lucky enough to have a husband who understands that my writing is important, and that the time I spend on it is time well-spent.  He’s a writer, himself, so he understands when I say, “Not now!  Writing!” and he lets me get on with it.  If your family doesn’t understand that writing time is work time, explain it.  And believe it – when you’re writing, you are doing something important.  Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise.
The most important part of forming the habit of writing is don’t make excuses not to write.  Yes, coddle yourself a little.  Reward yourself when you’re good and do your word count.  It’s fine to say, “I want hot chocolate before I sit down to work…and a special pen…and a cookie,” but if you get your chocolate, pen, and cookie, and then think of more and more things you “need” before you can settle into work, you’re just being naughty.  Do your word count!  Then you can have another cookie!  Not inspired?  Too bad – do your word count.  If you write crap, it’s only 250 words’ worth of crap, and easy enough to delete tomorrow.  Not sure where to take the story?  Well, write 250 words in one direction and see if that’s where you want to go.  If it isn’t, you’ve only lost 250 words’ worth of time, and you can write the story in a different direction tomorrow.
Like most habits, it gets easier the more used to it you get.  If you write every day, it’ll become instinctive.  You won’t feel right if you miss a day.  Maybe that’s a little maladjusted, but…
Too bad!  Do your word count!
P.S. I’ve started a Resources page, although I’m not far along with it yet.  So far it’s got some good books about writing that I’ve discovered in the last few years, but I’ll be adding more, as well as websites and books that I’ve found helpful for researching for stories, websites with good writing exercises, and good places to find publishers.
Later this week, hopefully, I’ll also be getting the start of a page up of reading recommendations – books and authors I love, and why.

Unsticking Stuck Scenes

I know things are really “clicking” with a project when my ideas converge so that the scene I’m writing (or rewriting) does multiple jobs.  Notes I’ve scribbled to myself about needing to fit this idea in or that line of dialogue (and I’ve been agonizing over where the heck I can fit it in), problems with pacing, a character having it too easy when I need the stakes high for them, etc. suddenly snap together in my brain to make everything work.  It’s an awesome feeling when it happens.

How does it come about, when it does, and how does a writer make it happen, when it doesn’t?  Usually, if I’m stuck or have writer’s block about a certain scene, it’s because there’s something that hasn’t clicked into place yet.  The basic elements are there, but something is missing, and I can’t always put my finger on it.

Some things that I’ve found helpful for getting myself unstuck and making my brain epiphanize faster:

  • Keep detailed notes on what you know you need to work into the story, and about problem areas that just aren’t working (even if you aren’t sure WHAT doesn’t work yet).  So often, looking over my notes about this kind of thing will suddenly spark a solution that knocks out three or four problems at once.
  • If you can’t put your finger on exactly why a scene isn’t working, start with the characters.  How is the storyline affecting them at this exact point in the narrative?  How are the characters affecting each other?  Are they feeling just one emotion, or are there mixed feelings about what’s going on?  People have a lot going on, psychologically, and the most obvious actions and dialogue are not always the most realistic, the most accurate for character consistency, or the most useful for the story.  The more in-depth you know your characters, the easier it is to tap into secondary or conflicting emotions to get what you need out of them.
  • Take a little time away from the story.  If you’ve been staring at the screen trying to puzzle it out for three hours and still don’t know what to do with it, take a break!  Let your subconscious mull it over while you relax, do something fun, do some chores, whatever.  It’s sneaky, and gets your subconscious to do the work for you.  I’m often surprised when, in the middle of playing a video game, I’m suddenly hit with the solution to everything that’s been wrong with my story for the past week.
  • Change the tension level.  Either make things waaaay worse for your characters, ramp up the obstacles they’re facing, etc., or give ’em an unexpected ray of hope, moment of calm, or unlooked-for ally.  I like to do this in a separate file so that I don’t have to worry whether it works or not–if it doesn’t, I can just go back to my original scene and try something else to fix it!