The Art of Creating Character Names

Last week I wrote about the Golden Rules for naming characters. Today I will dig into the art of creating character names. Names can do more than label characters. They can be quick ways to define relationships, provide backstory, and above all, add another layer of reality to our fiction.

Choose Variety

In my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I had to name a lot of characters in a small amount of narrative space. Selecting names from a variety of different languages helped me differentiate between characters and aided readers in keeping the cast straight. My story is set in rural, southeast Ohio. 90-95% of the population is descended from European immigrants. Having lived in the area, I knew what languages I could pick from to create believable names.

My main character is searching for her father and has three candidates. I had to make those male characters distinct. One way was to give them last names from three different languages, Irish, English, and Polish. So I came up with O’Neil, Carlisle, and Malinowski.

In the U.S., English names can signify old money. I chose Carlisle as the last name for a wealthy businessman. He has three children, so I stuck to the English theme and named them Allison, Richard, and Sylvia.

The sheriff got the last name Malinowski and also has three kids. To keep the two sets of kids separate, I needed a different naming pattern. I introduce the Malinowski family at a church lunch, so I chose Hebrew names for the kids, Aaron and Micah. The oldest is called Rusty, which I will explain below.

Names provide backstory.

For some reason I can’t recall, I liked the idea of the sheriff going by the nickname Mal, based on his last name, Malinowski. That forced me to examine why he preferred a nickname to his first name. He probably hated his first name. What would be an awful first name for a Gen X guy? Walter seemed to fit the bill. But his mother is a character in the story, and she seems like a genuinely nice woman. Why would she saddle her son with a name like that? Because it’s a family name. So I created Walter R. Malinowski IV. His oldest son is called Rusty. It doesn’t take much thought from the reader to figure out why.

By digging deeper into the reason behind my name, I developed my characters.

Names define relationships.

The wealthy business man is Jason Carlisle and he has a brother Rick. Jason also has a son Richard. That tells the reader, without me explicitly saying so, that the brothers are close. I have a scene in which Jason teases Rick about his dating life and that demonstrates the kind of relationship they have, but the names are a quiet code that reinforces the idea.

Side Note: I just realized I violated my rule of not having names look alike with Rick and Richard. I’ll have to watch out for that.

Your turn. What names have you created for characters? Why? What memorable names have you come across in stories?

Animals Inspiring Human Characters

Of course animals have inspired some of the most beloved characters in literature — Charlotte, Mr. Toad, the Cat in the Hat. I’ve never tried to create an animal character and have no plants to writet a mystery series where talking animals help their owners in their investigations. But I still find animals inspiring human characters and their descriptions.

Character Descriptions

If it fits the mindset of my point-of-view (POV) character, I can have her describe characters in terms of animals. She may be an animal lover or someone who grew up on a farm, or someone who wants to be a vet. Any of those interests would give her a convincing backstory for her to see animal traits in people. Such as:

  • “He opened his bullfrog mouth.”
  • “Her snake eyes darted to the door.”
  • “The only thing that distinguished Mr. Carlton from Dad’s prize boar was Mr. Carlton’s disheveled clothes and atrocious manners.”

An animal name is also a good way to give minor characters a “handle”, a summation of their appearance, so the readers get a quick image and move on with the story.

  • “The rat-faced man slunk along the bar.”
  • “Mouse Lady slipped up to me, apologized, and told me her boss was ready to see me.”

Revive Old Similies

Another way to let animals inspire your writing is to freshen worn out smilies. No one can use “as quiet as a mouse” without being considered a poor writer. But I can use something like “He wasn’t just as quiet as a mouse. He moved as silently as a mouse with ninja training.”

Character Behavior

My oldest loves nature documentaries. Watching animal behavior has inspired me to want to incorporate that behavior in my stories

For example, we watched a show in which a polar bear began to tear through a colony of birds that nest on the ground. He was ripping into nests and eating hatchlings. Polar bears can weigh over 1,000 pounds. The body of the birds wasn’t bigger than his head, if that. They couldn’t even begin to fight him.

So they annoyed him. The parents divebombed the bear’s head, flapping past his face., sometime delivering a glancing blow with their beaks. There were hundreds of birds. I don’t know how many participated in the defense of the nests, but they annoyed the bear so much that he left.

I can use that behavior in a variety of ways, like younger siblings getting on the nerves of their oldest brother, or elementary kids banding together to drive the junior high bully crazy.

Read more about animals as writing inspiration here.

How can animals inspire human characters in your writing? What animals have you known that have inspired stories?

How to Describe Characters in Show Don’t Tell, Part 2

I loved to read first-person stories. That’s why I write stories in first-person. But that leads to the tricky problem of how to describe the main character (MC) in show don’t tell. Here’s one thing not to do:

Don’t Use a Mirror!

A lot of first-time writers make this mistake. I did when I tackled my first novel at eighteen. The technique I used was to have my MC stop by a mirror and remark on his looks.

This doesn’t work for several reasons. First, it’s been done to death. Second, it can feel bolted on to the story, as out of place in the narrative as sideview mirrors on a stroller. Third, it will slow or stall the narrative. For my readers to get a picture of my main character early in the story, I’d have to have her stop by the mirror just when I want them caught up in the action.

So forget the mirror.

Slip in the MC’s Description Naturally

In my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, the first scene is set in an abandoned children’s home, and my MC is alone. But I needed to give some clues to readers about who this person is. So in the second paragraph, I wrote “my long, dark gold braid catching on a loose nail in the sill.” Now readers know they are most likely dealing with a female.

After five hundred words, I switch scenes. My MC is working in a library and chatting with her boss. The first sentence is a line of dialogue “Is this yours, Rae?”. The female spelling of her first name confirms it’s a woman. Then I worked in a reference to her age and deposited a clue to the mystery at the same time.

Speaking to Rae: Barb glanced at [a smart phone]. “You were looking up the Ohio Revised Code?” Her eyebrows lifted above her bright red glasses. “When I was nineteen, the closest I got to reading the law was legal thrillers.”

I had to wait for the next scene to get in a more detailed description of Rae. I would have liked to put it in earlier, but it didn’t seem natural. In the next scene, Rae is chatting with Jason Carlisle, one of the men who might be her father. He is also a member of the library board and reminds Rae that she can bring a date to the staff Christmas party. Rae says she hasn’t been in town long enough to interest any guy. Jason says he’s surprised the guys haven’t found her. This gives Rae a chance to reflect on her looks.

“He was just being nice. At 5’11”, my height works against me when it comes to attracting guys. That and my face. My eyes are okay–dark chocolate brown with a slight tilt–but my face is too bony, all cheekbones and chin.

Now I’ve given readers enough information to imagine Rae.

How to Show Don’t Tell Ages of Characters

This is another tricky problem. Since my story is concerned with a nineteen-year-old looking for her father, I felt it was important to mention ages of people who might be her relatives. It helped readers see the characters and established relationships between characters. Here are two ways I showed and didn’t tell characters’ ages.

Slip it into dialogue

I used dialogue to reveal Rae’s age. In another scene, Rae is eating lunch with the sheriff, who is another candidate to be her father, and his family. His age comes out in a conversation with his mother. Discussing the time twenty years before when Rae’s mother was pregnant with her and disappeared from the county, the sheriff’s mother says to her son:

“At the time, all you thought about was going to college to play football. And everything else a senior has to deal with.”

Slip it into MC’s thoughts

When I introduced the characters of Jason Carlisle, I had Rae think:

“My gaze traveled up to the black sweater with a subtle swirling pattern and the million-watt smile of Jason Carlisle. That smile made him look a lot younger than thirty-seven.

But sometimes, you have to tell

If the age was important, and I couldn’t think of a better way to let readers know, I flat-out stated it. I dropped in the age and moved on.

“His six-year-old son was nowhere to be seen …”

“Mrs. M. swatted at the first-grader …”

These observations are still in the mind of my MC, so it might qualify as shown, but these aren’t as well-woven into the story as my other examples.

Okay, your turn. How do you show readers what your main character looks like? What’s a great example of how to describe characters in show don’t tell?

How to Describe Characters in Show Don’t Tell, Part 1

One of my favorite novels is The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. And one of the reasons I like it so well is that the main character Ponyboy describes his older brothers and the members of his gang in great detail. In fact, a good chunk of chapter one is devoted to their descriptions. I’ve always liked getting vivid pictures of the characters in the first few pages. It makes the story come alive to me.

But The Outsiders was written over fifty years ago. Today, those kinds of lengthy descriptions would be considered poor writing. I’ve read that one current trend in writing descriptions for characters is to provide only hair color, eye color, or some other distinctive trait and let the reader fill in the details.

Because of this practice, I have a serious problem getting caught up in currently published stories. The characters never seem real to me. I’m rarely given enough details to “see” them. I also think writers aren’t helping readers by scrimping on characters descriptions.

When I wrote my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I was faced with the problem of how to describe characters in “show don’t tell” without slowing down the story. I also had to describe them from the deep point of view of my main character (MC), nineteen-year-old Rae Riley. Those descriptions would not only tell readers how characters looked but something about how my MC saw them.

I hit on a combination of mentioning a few key traits and then a “handle”, a description to sum up that character. As the story progressed, I’d dribble in reminder descriptions to help readers “see” the characters.

Descriptions for major characters

In “A Rose from the Ashes”, Rae is trying to figure out who her father is and if he was the attacker who tried to murder her pregnant mother twenty years before. Her late mother said only three men could be her father. I had to make those three men distinct individuals. Perhaps more than other MC’s, Rae notices the physical traits of the men because she’s looking for connections to her own characteristics.

I introduce one that is a professor this way:

Terence O’Neil was my idea of a professor. Over sixty, balding with a closely cut black and white beard covering cheeks that shook when he talked. He even smoked a pipe.

The “handle” is Terence O’Neil looks likes Rae’s idea of a professor, which invites the reader to think of their idea of a professor. Then I add some specific traits.

Another candidate for Rae’s father is the sheriff, Walter R. Malinowski IV:

He was one of the few people I’d met who made me feel short. Close to six-six, with biceps bulging like pumpkins under a rumpled button-down shirt, he could easily become the next Thor if he grew out his blond crewcut and added a beard.

The “handle” is that he looks like Thor. Blonde crewcut and his height and bulging biceps are the specific traits. Readers are reminded that Rae is tall–maybe inheriting that feature from the sheriff if he’s her father?–and that she likes superhero movies.

The last candidate is Jason Carlisle, a businessman and a member of the wealthiest family in the county.

Besides being fashionable enough for a runway, Jason had dark brown hair, gel sculpting every strand in place, and soft brown eyes that held a warmth I wanted to wrap myself in. If he was a few inches taller and more muscular, he’d make a perfect Superman.

The “handle” is Superman. Specific traits are hair color, eye color, and being fashionable. Rae has brown eyes, so she notices that trait. Her description also shows that she likes the man.

Throughout the story, I dribble in reminders of the characters appearance. When Terence O’Neil is nervous, he rubs his beard. When the sheriff appears suddenly at an abandoned house, “his massive frame” fills the doorway.

This post is running long, so I will tackle how to describe your main characters and the problem of showing, not telling, ages in my post for next week.

Do you like characters describe in detail or not? What are some memorable descriptions you’ve read?

Setting Fuels Character, Character Fuels Setting

Writers often offer advice on plot, setting, and character as if they were distinct story devices that barely had any association with each other until a writer pulls them into a story. But those three components are all interwoven. Since my theme this month is setting, this post will focus on how setting fuels characters and character fuels setting. If some plot creeps into the article, I can’t help it. Plot, setting, and character are a tight knit family, and I never know when one will come barging in to hang out with the other two.

In real life, environments shape the people who live in them. I’ve lived in a rural county in Ohio for the past fourteen years. I see the world differently from my sisters, although we all grew up in the same small town. They have spent the past several years living in suburbs that are less than an hour’s drive from me. Our homes, and the events that have occurred in them, influence who we are

Pick a setting, any setting

Let’s say I want to write a mystery set on the coast of North Carolina, near Emerald Isle. If my characters have lived by the sea all their lives, that environment will fuel their development. If a man is a fisherman, he can realistically be hard-working and stoic because he learned he must work with the sea when it turns nasty on him. Or he could be hard-working and laid back, having learned he can’t control the ocean but must roll with the punches it metes out.

Emerald Isle is a huge vacation destination. I can believably add characters who are not from that area. Fish-out-of-water stories are a lot of fun as characters clash in a setting familiar to some and alien to others.

In my North Carolina mystery, the fisherman takes several city dudes on a chartered fishing trip. One of the dudes is very snobbish. Another is very competitive. Maybe a powerful entrepreneur or rising politician. A third is new to fishing and very excited about his first ocean fishing trip. One of the vacationers dies on the boat under mysterious circumstances.

When the police suspect the fisherman, he and several other charter boat captains play amateur detectives because they don’t want an unsolved murder to adversely affect their businesses. So careful thought about my setting has let the setting fuel character and characters fuel setting.

In my Work-In-Progress (WIP), my main character Rae is trying to fit into a rural county in Ohio as she gets to know her father and his family for the first time. She grew up in the South, moving many times with her mother before she died. Rae is used to small town living but has never had a chance to put down roots.

Rae is an introvert and shy. She would like to make friends but feels she isn’t good at it because she could never make lasting friends anywhere she and her mother lived. The frequent changes in her environment fuel her personality.

What stories do you know in which setting fuels character and character fuels setting?

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