Search

JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

Tag

Characters

Writing Tip

sherlock-holmes-book-1959204_1280What 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.basil-rathbone-402601_1280

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.pipe-407547_1280

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.

 

 

Writing Tip

snow-1209872_1280What 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.

Writing Tips

hello-1502386_1280Naming 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.

Writing Tip

hello-1502386_1280Still 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.

my-name-is-1185862_12801. 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.

Writing Tip

hello-1502386_1280Naming Names

“There was a boy called  Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”            C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

An author can say so much about a character by simply choosing a suitable name.  In the sentence above, readers know all they need to about Eustace.  It is one of my favorite opening lines and character desciptions.

I thoroughly enjoy making up names for characters.  I am interested in names in general and have been since I was a kid.  Back then, I loved making up names for imaginary people — good training for a fiction writer.  I also liked looking up what names meant and from what language they originated.

doorplates-238472_1280

The name of a character provides an image of him or her as much as the author’s description of the character’s features.  If I created a powerful family with a long history of political connections, I couldn’t use a name like “Yokum”.  That name has been used too much to label a character as rural or rural and poor.  Names like “Arlington”, “Stone’, or “Pierce” makes the family sound powerful.

If I named a character who is a free-spirited young woman, I wouldn’t use anything as common as “Sarah”, or “Jane”, or even “Madison” or “Mackenzie”.  Nature names, by “nature”, sound liberating and original, unless they are well-known ones like “Rose” or “Dawn”.  A name that is hardly used anymore, like “Cassandra” or “Felicity”, might also work.

Sometimes you can choose a name that means the opposite of the qualities your character possesses.  A free-spirit named Sarah might mean that she wants to break free from an ordinary past, signaled by her name, into a less conventional future.  But usually it is better to let the name work with the character’s features or personality than against it.

Next time, I will discuss some of my favorite sources for finding names, both first and last.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑