Naming Your Characters

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

Naming your characters well is one of the most powerful things you can do to paint clear pictures of them in your reader’s mind. The right name can instantly convey many things: time period (Elizabeth vs. Liz), age (Tommy vs. Thomas), socioeconomic status (Blake vs. Bud), character’s relationship to another character (Mother, Aunt Jane, Pappy)…and the list goes on.

In many cases, the best choice is a name that is classic and easy to pronounce—one that is essentially transparent and will not distract from the story. There are times, however, when a distinct name is valuable.

A name that is uncommon can be an excellent tool for world building. Giving a character a name that is foreign can help transport the reader to an exotic locale or provide insight to the character’s ancestry. Interpol put together this comprehensive Guide to Names and Naming Practices that covers thirty regions around the world. It will help you identify the correct order for a person’s given name and family name in each culture and provides guidelines about married names and children’s names. Patronymics, honorifics, religious names, caste names, and place names are touched on as well for the cultures where they apply.

Assigning a name that is not familiar in any language (like Katniss, Bilbo, or Dumbledore) reinforces the concept that your character inhabits a world that only loosely overlaps with present day reality.

A colorful name can also be used to make a character seem dynamic or larger than life. Think Pippi Longstocking and Horatio Hornblower.

There are pitfalls to avoid as well. If you give your character a gender-ambiguous name and then don’t give other clues to gender up front, your reader may picture the opposite of what you intended until something eventually reveals the truth. (Your readers may also find themselves in an uncomfortable state of limbo, like I did when I scoured chapter after chapter of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for hints as to whether the protagonist was a man or a woman. It took way too long to decide, at which point I was quite fed up!) Some gender associations vary based on time period or geography (Ashley, for example), so be cautious about that.

One final thought about names… They’re like sports jersey numbers: some of them are quite definitively retired. Unless you’re looking for the connotations that are certain to follow, avoid naming your characters Romeo, Scarlett, Madonna, Mr. Darcy, or the like.

Happy Writing—get out there and name some characters!


Writer’s Salon #2 Recap

On Thursday we had our 2nd Writer’s Salon. In attendance were a mix of new and familiar faces: Jon, Bethany, Jennifer, Nicole, Kim, Mike, and Susannah.

We started with the following warm up: Write directions to your house from the nearest highway exit, without using street names or house numbers. It was fun to see how we all used a variety of landmarks, distances, cardinal directions, and elapsed times to explain how to get around the Lehigh Valley. The main purpose, however, was just to get our writing brains turned on and our wrists limbered up. In fact, we even had a brief side bar about fountain pens. If you haven’t tried writing with one, you really owe it to yourself (and to your writing) to try one out. Personally I have a Lamy safari, which can be found on Amazon for $20+, but Jon and Bethany bought some locally—I believe at Michael’s.

Sam had sent a link to a very inspirational comic featuring a quote by Ira Glass, so I shared that with the group. He stressed that the opening sentence should read “WHAT nobody tells people who are beginners…” so keep that in mind when you look at it.

We spent the majority of our writing time on what I’m calling the “Choose Your Own Adventure Character Exercise” because I wanted to focus on characters this time around. Along those lines, I made another shameless plug for one of my favorite books on writing, Getting Into Character. If anyone else has books to recommend, please let me know. I’d be happy to give you a log in for the blog so you can post something like Nicole did last month.

We wrapped up by deciding that we’d next like to meet in May. I’ll send out a follow-up email. Nicole has also offered to organize dinner out before one of the upcoming GLVWG Writers Cafe nights. Stay tuned for more details on that.


February Articles

I have a habit of opening scads of tabs in multiple browser windows. (Just ask Jennifer. It drives her crazy.) They pile up and pile up as I come across more and more things that I want to save or share but am too harried (or lazy) to take care of at the time I first encounter them. (The web’s interconnectedness, its greatest asset, can be its greatest curse as well.) Anyway, it has reached a tipping point, and it’s time to purge. So here are some fun writing-related things I’ve discovered in the past month…

First off, we have The Periodic Table Of Storytelling. This gem contains 176 storytelling tropes (themes) from the TV Tropes wiki. While a few of them (eg. ‘Screwed By The Network’) are television-specific, most are applicable to any type of fiction writing. You can even mix and match them into story molecules, samples of which are included for favorites like Star Wars, Dilbert, and Wall-E.

Next is this Character Questionnaire. There are plenty of them out there, but this 50-question one features some especially probing set of questions, such as: #24: What social groups and activities does your character attend? What role do they like to play? What role do they actually play, usually? Sets of questions like this—where each question digs a little deeper—are a great way to reveal information about your character’s motivations.

I once attended a class where the instructor told us that we should first “ask” our character a basic A-level question. Then let “their answer” to that prompt us to ask a slightly deeper B-level question. And then finally ask a follow-up C-level question, and that is where you will truly get to what makes your character tick. I was skeptical at first. After all, it’s not like my character is real—I’m simply asking one portion of my brain to interview another portion of it—but it really does help you to think differently and create ideas.

The best example I can give from my own experience was that I once started interviewing a character by asking what kind of car he drove, which led me to the fact that he only ever bought American-made ones, which led me to the revelation that he was very angry at his country because his son died in Iraq, yet he was very patriotic as well. This inner struggle became the main identity for that character. I had none of that back story in my mind; I was just looking for a generic interview question to start with before I dug into something “more significant,” yet that turned out to be some of the most significant insight I ever got about that character.

Here are 8 Tips on Writing Short Stories, from Kurt Vonnegut. My personal favorite is #5: Start as close to the end as possible. I think this is something that the YA genre has been getting right as of late, and I think that may be contributing to its widespread popularity. All of the major YA stories I’ve read in the past few years  contain the “inciting incident” in the first or second chapter.

In each story, we the meet protagonist a day or two before the coming of age ceremony for her society (Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched) or the moment he is waking up in a strange new place with no memory of the past (Incarceron, The Maze Runner). A major strength of the first Harry Potter book is that we meet Harry just as he’s about to get his letter from Hogwart’s. (A major weakness is that he doesn’t get it until chapter 4.)

I’ll end on a bit of a diabolical note and share with you Why Revenge is Such a Brilliant Plot for Beginner Writers and 10 Ways to Cover Up a Murder.