I am posting today instead of Thursday because I am guest blogging on Tessa Emily Hall’s site, Christ is Write. My post combines several ways to generate names for characters. If you like developing names as much as I do, click here to visit the site.
Recently, I sat down to outline my second novel. After just a few sentences, I stopped. My villains are two brothers and a sister who are con artists. One of the brothers is the father of my main character and the plot is about how father and son face off. I knew where I wanted my plot to go but found I didn’t really understand my villains’ motivation. Until I did that, I couldn’t go anywhere with my outline.
Unless it’s a very minor character, I need to understand why my characters act the way they do before I can write about them with confidence. Saying the con artists do bad things because they are con artists isn’t enough. Real con artists have a motive: money, power, or some other kind of gain. I needed to figure out what was driving my villains and why.
To do that, I began outlining a scene which will never be in the book. This scene concerns the three siblings talking about a death in their family and how they can take advantage of it. Now I can shape their motives as they talk among themselves.
My novel is told from the point of view of the son, so the father’s, uncle’s and aunt’s motives will slowly be discovered through the story. But as the writer I have to have every character and his motives laid bare to me so I can figure out how to hammer together the plot.
Writing scenes which aren’t part of my novel is the best way I know to get a handle on a character that seems difficult. Not only can I uncover motives, but also perfect that character’s voice so she sounds unique.
What methods do you use to uncover your characters’ motives?
“Pat, your characters are always yakking away at each other. How come?”
Mr. McManus answers that he “enjoys writing dialogue.” He also writes that “when I have trouble coming up with a story idea, I will put two characters in a scene and start them talking. Often, an idea for the story will emerge from their conversation.”
I think this is great advice if you are brainstorming for some kind of story, or if you are stalled in a scene of a larger work.
This is espeically helpful to me because I am a character-driven writer. I develop characters first, get to know them inside and out, and then try to concoct a plot for them. When I really know my characters — and some I have known longer than my husband — scenes sometimes just write themselves.
One Sunday I sat down to write fiction just for the fun of it and used characters from my novel. I had had a scene in mind for a long time. Like many of my scenes, I knew how I wanted it to start and how it should end, but the journey between those points was completely unknown. That’s when the fun began.
The scene consisted of only three characters in a conversation. Once I began writing, my regular characters took over. I found myself writing dialogue that surprised me and yet I was thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly what Mike would say.” It felt like, as Mr. McManus writes, I was “eavesdropping on my own characters.”
If you like creating characters and writing dialogue, get your characters yakking. You could find a new approach to your writing. Or just a lot of fun.
Last time, I wrote about a bad habit I had when it came to my characters: TMD — Too Much Description. Another bad habit that walks hand-in-hand with the first is DD — Dumping Descriptions. Not only did I over-describe my characters, but I would put all of it in the same place.
Because I wrote in first-person, I thought I was being realistic when my main charater Junior would describe another character all at once as that person came into his sight. But such lengthy descriptions ground the action to a halt.
Then I thought over how I see people in real life. When I first meet someone, I don’t notice every tiny detail. I get a general impression: height, weight, hair color and style, eyes light or dark. While interacting with this person, I get more details, specific eye color, shape of features of the face, and clues to her personality.
That’s how I should write. Now when Junior introduces another characters, even if it’s a relative, I describe the most important features first, then drop in relevant details as they story progresses.
For example, one of my major characters is Mike Lody, Junior’s uncle. The characteristics I think are important are he is only five years younger than Junior, he has a burly, powerful build, he’s half a foot shorter that Junior, he always wears a black hat with a low crown, his eyes are small and brown, his jaw is very square, and his hair is reddish brown.
When Mike first appears he burst through a door. I mention he’s “built like a bear”. When he sees the sheriff who is interrogating Junior, Mike grins “like a grizzly that has just spotted supper” because he doesn’t like cops. The grizzly comment also links to Mike’s build. In the next chapter, the sheriff asks for Mike’s ID and that reveals his age. Through the rest of the chapter as the sheriff confronts Junior and Mike, I drop in descriptions, one at a time, like the hat, which Mike adjusts depending on his mood.
Many writers recommend a character chart to keep descriptions straight. I should probably do that. I can describe each character in minute details and get that out of my system, and then compare descriptions to make sure I don’t have too many characters with similar appearances. I can also tease out what is critical for the reader to know about each character. This chart on author Jill Williamson’s site is very detailed. Use it as a template to build a chart that fits your need.
I hadn’t realized until I saw this interview on the CBS Sunday Morning show that The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was turning 50 this year. I learned some of my first writing lessons from reading that book. In fact, I learned them so long ago that I’d forgotten where the lessons came from.
At twelve, I began reading adult books, skipping YA books completely. Until I was sixteen. Late one night, I caught the end to the 1983 movie The Outsiders. It hooked me. The cute actors in all the lead roles probably helped. But the characters and storyline are what drove me to read and reread the book.
In high school, I felt like an outsider in a gang of one, so I identified with the main character Ponyboy Curtis. I wished I had a gang of tight friends like Ponyboy. I was also aware the haves and have-nots in my town and found the battles between the rich Socs and the poor Greasers relatable.
My very first novel was based on the concept of rich kids fighting poor kids in a small town. My current novel The Truth and Other Strangers is about outsiders who are poor, but they are a family instead of a gang of friends, and they are outcasts because of their family’s bad reputation, not their social status. So I owe Ms. Hinton a big thank-you for providing me with such long-lived inspiration.
Two other things I learned from The Outsiders:
Make your characters distinct. S.E. Hinton did a great job of giving Ponyboy and his brothers and friends specific qualities: Ponyboy is the dreamy intellectual, his brother Sodapop is carefree and fun-loving, Dallas is the tough guy, Johnny is the scared one everyone tries to protect. She also gives most of the characters a chance to grow. Dallas isn’t as tough as he seems or even thinks he is. Johnny displays bravery. Sodapop isn’t as as carefree as Ponyboy thought.
Since my main character belongs to a large family, I try to give each relative a distinctive personality, even the preschoolers.
Give your characters strong relationships. I came to care about Ponyboy and his gang because of the relationships within it. And not just with the main character, although Ponyboy’s relationships are more prominent because he tells the story. All the dynamic interactions between characters propel the plot.
I love to write interactions between my characters. Because I have given them strong personalities, relationships can develop that I haven’t planned but they make sense, given who the characters are.
I read other YA books by Ms. Hinton, but I never fell in love with them like I did The Outsiders. They were fine books, but they didn’t hook me.
I haven’t visited Ponyboy in years. Maybe it’s time I did.
Here is an interview with S.E. Hinton.
What I Learned From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I learned how important it is to create memorable characters. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were so believable that during Doyle’s lifetime, some readers thought they were real people. Now they have moved into immortality.
You couldn’t have the one without the other. If you don’t believe me, read the two stories Holmes tells, “The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”. While they are interesting, they aren’t like the others when the two are working together. Watson’s admiration and friendship make Holmes human.
Doyle also created strong secondary characters. He may have invented the idea of an arch-nemesis, a villain who shares some abilities as the hero but uses them for evil purposes. Professor Moriarty has inspired a a slew of imitators.
Irene Adler is another fascinating character. The one woman to foil Holmes and inspire his admiration, she appears in only one short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”. We learn so many interesting tidbits about her history and character that she has fanned the flames of authors’ imaginations for a century. My favorite is a short story entitled “A Scandal in Winter” by Gillian Linscott and can be in Holmes for the Holidays and The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.
When I create characters, I want them to come alive to my readers and dropping hints about their hobbies or opinions or dreams, as Doyle did, can aid that effort. With main characters, I have time to scatter in additional facts about their lives even though those facts are not critical to the plot. But I must not overload my story with unnecessary details.
Secondary characters are more difficult. I want to make them memorable but have little space to do it. I sometimes give them back stories, even though these stories won’t appear in print, so I have a better handle on how the character should act. Devising revealing traits, such as the character’s appearance, expressions, or speech pattern, can give him or her distinction.
In my novel, the owner of a notoriously wild bar is an important character in the last third of the book, but I didn’t want to bog down my narrative with long descriptions and backstory. So I tried to convey the character’s personality through dialogue and actions. For example, I have him say “You guys” instead of “y’uns” which is what everyone else in the county uses. That is a hint to the reader that the bar owner is not a local.
I have recently read to my kids adaptations of the Holmes stories for children. They can’t get enough of them. One more generation is becoming enthralled in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
What I Learned from Damon Runyon
I learned “voice” from reading Damon Runyon. A unique writing voice will intrigue readers and encourage them to keep reading. On the websites of agents who represent writers, many of them state they are looking for novels with distinct voices.
I loved how Mr. Runyon tried to recreate the dialect of Prohibition and Depression eras New York with unusual rhythm and slang. His style is so different he probably wouldn’t get published today.
The best way for me to write in a unique voice is in first-person. My main character is Junior Lody, a shy, intelligent sixteen-year-old living in the remote mountains of contemporary West Virginia. I try to use words only he would use. So even though he is smart and likes to read, I don’t want to use big words that would make him sound like an adult. For example, he wouldn’t a call girl “effervescent “. He’d say “She was as bubbly as a shaken bottle of pop.” “Pop” is the word for carbonated drinks in West Virginia and using colorful metaphors and similies is also common in that state. I also think a teenager would use figures of speech instead of long words.
Sprinkling in regional words and slang makes it seem like the characters are actually from West Virginia. “Sprinkling” is the rule to live by. If I tried to reproduce the Appalachian accent exactly, I think readers would get so bogged down in deciphering it that they would lost interest. So I just scatter in key words, such as using “y’uns” and dropping “g” off “ing” words. I want the key words to flavor my writing, not be the whole recipe.
In that way, I think I give Junior a unique voice, which I owe to reading Mr. Runyon’s Broadway stories.
Naming of My Names
My novel and future novels are set in a fictional West Virginia county where several generations of the same family live. I created family trees to build naming patterns. For example, a teen character might have an old-fashioned name because he is named after his grandfather. I also try to use different naming patterns to distinguish between families.
The Stowecroft family is the leading family in the county. I decided that each generation would use the most popular names at that time. So a ten-year-old might be named Jacob and his father, Jason. Using popular names keeps the Stowecrofts distinct from the other more eccentrically named families. It also makes the reader think they are bound to popular opinions and maybe even bland or unimaginative.
I have had the most fun creating the names for the Kimmels, a vast family of crooks. I got the idea to use nature and weather for their names from my grandfather. He told me that when he was a boy in West Virginia in the 1910’s, his grandparents had neighbors who were named after the weather – Winter, Rain, Jack Frost.
Using nature for the names of the Kimmels brands them as different from the rest of the characters in the county. The family has five main branches, which I may have to prune, but to help my readers keep the characters straight, I have each branch use its own unique naming pattern. The Kimmels are named after the weather. Three brothers are named Cy, Cane, and Tor, short for Cyclone, Hurricane, and Tornado. The Sims are named after jewels and elements, and the Pratts have months for names. I had such a good time coming up with whacky names that I realized I had too many characters and had to whack off an entire branch.
When naming, I keep in mind something I read about J.R.R. Tolkien. He said that he worked very hard making his invented languages and the names that came from them as much like real languages as he could. He thought that their consistency would aid in making Middle Earth seem like a real place.
As fiction writers, we want readers to be able to dive into our imaginary worlds and take them as real. Creating appropriate names for our characters can help in making the unreal real.
Still Naming Names
When developing names for characters, here are some general rules to keep in mind.
1. Names must be easy to read.
2. Names should be appropriate for the genre or historical period.
3. Names can not be ones that are overwhelmingly identified with one person or character.
1. Names must be east to read. This is true for every kind of writing, including science fiction and fantasy. If readers stumble over a name, they will not sit there and puzzle it out. They with either substitute something close to it or just “bleep” over it, which is what I tend to do.
In the middle-grade series Guardians of Ga’Hoole, the author had to create names for talking animals, mostly owls. The names needed to sound unusual, but easily understandable for kids. “Lyze” is an imaginative creation. It looks suitably foreign with the “y” and “z”, but it follows the well-known pattern of silent “e” making the vowel long. Other names used are “Thora”, “Gilda”, and “Felix”, human names but ones that aren’t used much any more.
2. Names should be appropriate for the genre or historical period. The best way to learn this is to read books in your genre and study how other authors have created names. For crafting historically accurate names, research into the appropriate time period is necessary.
The Social Security website has great pages for researching the most popular names from 1879 to the present.
If you can visit the location of your historical story, walk through local cemeteries. Reading names on the markers will give you examples of the first and last names of different time periods.
3. Names can not be ones that are overwhelmingly identified with one person or character.
In my novel The Truth and Other Strangers, I had two sisters named “Joli”, short of “Jolene”, and “Angel”. An agent told me I couldn’t use those names together. They sounded too much like Angelina Jolie. That really annoyed me. Here I had thought up two great names, just to have some stranger steal them. But when I thought it over, I realized that “Joli” wasn’t appropriate for the one character. She is a hot-tempered redhead, and “Joli” sounds like to should be applied to a jolly, bubbly person.
In the Beyond series of baby names books, authors Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran provide lists of names that are already taken by famous real and non-real people. Like, “Sherlock”, “Ebenezer”, “Oprah”, and “Madonna”. You just can’t work against a name that is so closely identified with one individual.
That series has been the most helpful name books I have found. With informative essays on style, class, and naming trends, as well as all kind of lists like “Western Cowboys”, “New England Names”, and “Royal Names”, you are overwhelmed with inspiration for character names. Beyond Ava and Aiden is one of their books that I have found helpful.