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!

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September Articles

The open tabs are piling up in my browser, so it’s time to share a few more articles.

I’ll start off with this business writing tip to write your emails backwards. I’ve been using the technique extensively at the office, and I think it makes a real difference in the conciseness of my correspondence.

While you’re on the Writer’s Write site, also check out these Three Simple Ways to Get Your Hero to Make a Stand. I think they will come in handy when we talk about Action next month. The third method reminds me of an article I shared a while back called What Disney (and Pixar) Taught Me About Writing Suspense. If you didn’t read it the first time around, be sure to check it out now. Then stick around for this article on Understanding Viewpoint Terminology. Personally, I write in third person objective most of the time, but I appreciated the examples of popular books written in the other styles. And, lastly, enjoy this comic about How to Get Ideas.

Here is some advice on how to Put Your Best Work Out There: Avoid These 25 Newbie Writer Mistakes. I think many of them are obvious, but there are a few gems.

And in 5 Steps to Getting It Done: The Writing Process, I like that the writer included “getting it read” as the final and crucial step because, as he says “People often forget this, but writing is supposed to be for a reason.”

Finally, I’ll leave you with Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Opportunities and Contests

I recently came across a few writing opportunities I wanted to pass along.

One is an on-going request for submissions for a quarterly journal, based on The First Line of a story. The next due date is November 1st, for a 300-5000 word story beginning with the sentence: We went as far as the car would take us. There is no submission fee, and if your story gets published, it pays $25-50 plus a copy of the journal in which it appears.

Another opportunity is to guest blog on the Discover Lehigh Valley website.

And lastly, here is a list of 10 Short Story Competitions to Enter Before the End of 2014. (Keep in mind that Writers Write is a South African site, so not all of them may be open to US residents.)

Writer’s Salon #4 Recap

Last night was salon number four! This time we met at Nicole’s. There were some familiar faces (Jon, Bethany, Kim, Mike, Susannah, Nicole) and two first-time attendees (Johnny, Janet). The theme of the night was read-and-critique. We shared segments from short stories, a screen play, flash fiction pieces, and an in-progress collaborative novel. It was fun to hear such a wide variety of creative works as we went around the room.

The next time we meet, we will be focusing on Action. Everyone is asked to bring with them an action scene from a favorite or famous story. We will read them together and analyze what makes each of them effective. We plan to meet in October. Hope to see you there!

p.s. A few of us talked about the NYC Midnight contests. Visit their website for more information. Annually, they hold a Short Story Challenge, Screenwriting Challenge, Flash Fiction Challenge, and Short Screenplay Challenge.

Blogging

I admit it. I like to blog. There’s something about the blogging format that captured me way back when Xanga was a thing (if you remember Xanga, you get 2 points). Is it the immediacy of capturing a thought and spinning it out into the expanse of the web, allowing my voice to be heard, even by a few random strangers who happen to click over to my post because of a random tag?

I have connected with others through blogs, people I will never meet in real life who share my love of design or color or stories . . . or who share my struggles with fibromyalgia. People who, like me, are using their blogs to tell it like it is, or to ask meaningful questions.

I have most recently been blogging about fibro on a blog called Dear Fibro on which I write short notes to fibromyalgia as though it is a person living with me. It’s a very niche concept, I realize, but I have been so interested to see who has read the blog and how many people have begun to follow the posts and leave thoughtful or encouraging comments. This isn’t a plug for my blog, because I know its content is irrelevant to most of you. It’s just to say that it’s one way in which I scratch my itch to write and to express myself with words.

I’ve also enjoyed being a part of several group blogs, including this one. And I wondered if any of the other readers of this blog are bloggers themselves or have favorite blogs they like to read. If so, would you share a link?

Here are a few of my favorites (these may not be everyone’s cup of tea — what’s yours?) . . .

DesignSponge – this is a classic in the world of design blogging. I’ve been following this blog for years and have seen it grow and “mature” over time. The writing is done by several different folks on their team, and I enjoy the different tone/perspective each one brings to the table.

Color Collective
– an incredibly simple idea. This blogger pulls beautiful images from various sources and then pulls together a color palette based on each image. I find this inspiring when I’m stuck on a design project or when I just need a jolt of prettiness.

Oh Joy! is the blog of a Graphic Designer, so another design-lover’s blog. She also shares recipes, craft ideas, fun ideas for kids . . . oh, and her blog is full of beautifully shot photos, which is inspiring to the little photographer who lives inside me.

 

Featured Image used under Creative Commons Attribution License via Mike Licht

Writer’s Salon #3 Recap

Last week we had our 3rd Writer’s Salon. In attendance were Kim, Mike, Jon, Bethany, and Susannah. Despite the slightly smaller group size, we still had a lot of fun and wrote some great stories/scenes.

The focus this time was on Setting, and we spent the bulk of our time on a “Choose Your Own Adventure Setting Exercise” similar to the CYOA character exercise. If you’d like a copy, just let me know, and I’ll email it to you.

By request, the topic of the next Writer’s Salon will be Action.

April Articles and May Events

I’ve collected enough articles that it’s time to share a few more, beginning with one that’s a little metaphysical in tone. The 5 Tips To Find Your Authentic Writing Voice start out sounding a bit vague and theoretical but end on a concrete note. They’re worth your time to read—especially, in my opinion, #4.

Next we have a brief, practical bit of advice that the folks at Camp NaNoWriMo put together when asked, “How can you be sure that your plot is actually compelling, and not just a pile of stuff that happens?”

That’s followed by one that’s more of a list than an article. Here are 25 Brain Lubricants For Generating Ideas. Two near the middle stuck out to me.

  • Get Fearless:  What if you could do, say or write anything? It’s just an exercise, so fear not. Step outside of your comfort zone. I think this is excellent advice. Sometimes I have an idea, but then I don’t run with it because I think other people will think it’s silly. I need to remind myself more often that it’s okay to write something that I don’t want to share with anyone else. Confidential writing isn’t limited to the arenas of diaries and classified military files; sometimes it’s okay to do creative writing for your eyes alone. And sometimes a creatively crazy idea becomes just the inspiration you need to get out of a rut. The major twist in the novel I’m writing was born out of an April Fool’s joke, of all things.
  • Get Unsatisfied: Look at a satisfactory solution all over again and challenge it. Dismiss it. Find another path that make take you even further. The good is the enemy of the best, right? If we think that we have found a good way to write a scene (or a character’s motivation, or a setting description, or…), we may never discover the best way to write it.

The fourth item is from Writers Write. They’re based in South Africa, and I always find it inspiring to think that writers half way around the world are using many of the same techniques we are here; good writing has very universally-applicable principles. This article teaches you how to Keep Calm and Kill Clichés. There’s not a whole lot to it, but I still recommend reading it because it comes to a strong conclusion: When we use jargon or clichés, we create fuzziness around the image or emotion we’re trying to get across. Be as specific as you can be and authentic as you can be. Every word must have your blood in it – anger, irony, admiration, etc. Don’t make it look like everyone else’s. I usually try to avoid clichés because I think they’re annoying and make writing sound amateur, but I hadn’t ever thought about that deeper reason to avoid them. As a bonus, here’s a link to a site where you can build your own keep calm and…whatever poster.

Another blogger at Writers Write shares What Watching Disney and Pixar Teaches About Writing Suspense. What single component do 10 of the most well-known Disney/Pixar movies have in common? You’ll have to read the article to find out! And read the article you should, because it’s something you clearly can apply to your writing too, if only you have it in mind.

That pretty much does it for April’s articles, but I promised info on May’s events as well. First, we have the GLVWG monthly Writers Cafe coming up next Thursday, the 8th. It’s at 7pm at the Palmer branch of the Easton library, and Nicole is organizing dinner beforehand at Wegmans (just down the road on 248) at 5:30 – thank you, Nicole! And later in the month, I’ll be hosting the next Writers’ Salon on Thursday the 29th. This time we’ll be focusing on setting (and anything else you’d like to discuss).

Lastly, for a bit of humor, check out this game that explains How to be a writer.