Rules to Follow When Naming Characters

When it comes to naming, the process can be a long and involved one. Before a baby is born, the parents spend weeks and months pondering the right name as if it had a mystical power that would guarantee a good life ahead for the child. Of course, there are those parents that had a name they always liked and planned to bestow it upon their first born. They guard the name carefully to ensure no one else dares use it.

When we welcome a new pet into our lives, we search for a name with the right fit, which is often a play on the pet’s mannerisms, looks or breed. We even consider carefully when naming objects (such as a car or boat).

Names matter to people in the real world. But, have you wondered if the names given to characters are important or is it merely a name to identify one character from another?

Writers are equally protective about their chosen names for their characters, after all it was the author who created the character and finding the right name is justified. Quite often a name pops into an author’s head and nothing else sounds quite so perfect.

But don’t fear if your characters’ names don’t magically come to you. Many authors struggle to provide the right name for their characters. It requires research and even then a better name surfaces later or the original name doesn’t seem to fit any more as the character develops and the search continues.

The Meaning Behind It
I mentioned earlier about researching to find the right name. Most names mean something as they have been derived from occupations (such as Blacksmith) or locations (such as Hill meaning a ‘person who lived on a hill’). The meaning of names can alter from country to country and the spelling may have changed over time.

It’s important to understand what your character’s name means in the country that your story is set to avoid any unsuitable selections. You wouldn’t want to give a name that means sweet and happy to a villain. For example, Dulcie derived from Latin means ‘sweet’. Not the sort of name that fits a blood-thirsty villain.

You want a name that has a ring to it, that almost sings on your tongue. Readers remember these names and help soar your character into being famous – at least in the literary world. By contrast, you want a name that gives you shudders for your villains. The mere mention of it makes you want to bury your head under the bed covers.

General Rules
Here are some general rules to help you on your naming quest.

Rule 1: Don’t let finding the right name interfere with writing the story. You can always change the name later.

Rule 2: Use a good book of baby names for inspiration. This book should contain the means and origins of the name. The internet has websites with lists of names – both first and surname.

Rule 3: Consider the character’s motives, moods and ethics and find a suitable name.

Rule 4: Pay attention to names you hear at work, in the shops and on television. The right name could just be a conversation away.

Rule 5: Get other people’s opinions about your characters’ names. What you thought sounded great may put others into fits of laughter or worse.

Rule 6: When others tell you the name doesn’t work, are you resisting changing it simply because you came up with it, you’re used to it, or it has some emotional connection to you? Once you know this answer, you might be more objective.

Rule 7: Remember your reader. They don’t know why you chose a particular name or how long it took you. All they will notice is if it fits the story well or if saying it makes them want to laugh or cringe – not necessarily the reaction you may be going for.

Rule 8: Don’t pick overly common or boring names unless there is a reason for it in the storyline because readers won’t remember them.

Rule 9: This one I use with caution: don’t pick made-up names that are difficult to say. I say this because it slows the reading down and can annoy readers if they keep tripping over the names. However, there are exceptions. A prime example is the Harry Potter series with all those awkward names that children devoured without hesitation. Of course, children are open to so much more whereas adults can be impatient. So, know your audience and your genre when picking those character names.

 

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Character Types That Are In Most Stories

There are different types of characters in every story. All stories need a main character and, while short stories require another one or two characters, novels need to include many other different types.

Protagonist
The main character (or protagonist) is the person that readers should either identify with or understand and feel an emotional connection to the character. Writers want readers to cheer for their protagonists when they succeed and help them or feel sorry for them through the tough times.

Deuteragonist
Main characters will often have someone they can rely on and who is supportive. Depending on the storyline, this character can be categorised as a side-kick, second-in-command or best friend. This character has an important role to play and can offer comic relief or inner strength when the main character needs it the most. That doesn’t mean they can’t cause some conflict of their own.

In Merlin, the television series, Merlin was the main character and King Arthur was the deuteragonist. This was an interesting twist where in other stories King Arthur was the main character who relied on his wise, wizard friend Merlin.

There can also be multiple deuteragonists in a story, such as Harry Potter had Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Without those two, the story would be very different.

Antagonist
Where would we be without the malicious plotting of the villain (antagonist) in the story? Actually, the story would probably be a non-event. Antagonists have their own reasons for their desired outcome, which is in contrast to the main character’s wants and needs. The antagonist can be a person, a group (aliens invading the planet), or it can be an illness or disease.

Love Interest
This character is the main character’s love interest. It may be a bumpy road, a temporary relationship or a lasting relationship. The character could also be the deuteragonist, which could cause some conflict at times. This type of relationship is quite common, such as The X Files with FBI agents and partners Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, or Laura Holt and a thief who steps into the role of her mysterious boss in Remington Steele.

The person taking the role as the love interest may not be a prominent character and can be identified as a secondary character.

Secondary Characters
Some writers refer to this category as Tertiary Characters or they may even break this section into two groups: Secondary Characters and Tertiary Characters. But to keep things simple, it is included all under the one category.

These characters may help or hinder the main character or even the villain, which can be quite unintentional. There are usually multiple secondary characters in a story. This would include the suspects in a whodunit story, or people who show up every so often like the gardener who mows the lawn or the friendly shop assistant in a frequently visited shop. It includes all the characters that flit in and out of the main character’s life – some temporary and others for the long haul.

Ghost or Unseen Characters
There are often characters mentioned in a story that are never seen or heard, but these characters are mentioned and can often be the reason why the main character or other characters act in a certain way. These unseen characters may have died, been a childhood friend, or someone else that is referred to but never appears in the story.

Basically all your characters should fall into one of these categories. There are other groups, such as mentors, but they usually fall into one of the mentioned categories in this article.

 

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The Perfect Protagonist Is Flawed

Writers can fall into the trap of making their protagonist perfect. No one is perfect. We all have undesirable quirks; some are reasonably easy to hide and others are more obvious. While villains have good qualities, heroes need bad qualities. This makes your character more believable, more recognisable and more – dare I say it – likeable. A story with a flawless protagonist is flawed.

Besides giving your protagonist less desirable qualities, consider what else you can add to make your hero more interesting. Is it a mysterious or torturous past? Does your character have well-guarded secrets, which are hinted at but slow to reveal? What drives your character? What turmoil does your character deal with?

Let’s look at the classic superheroes who originally started out as always being true, good and courageous. They hardly ever made a bad decision, and their sole problem was trying to keep their identity hidden. Now, they are far more developed, make mistakes, and vulnerable. Superheros are more likeable, even funny, if they struggle with their inner demons.

The Avengers – each a superhero with a desire to help and protect – still have individual issues. Bruce Banner battles with his violent alter ego, The Hulk. Thor struggles with his arrogance and his weakness for his adopted brother. Black Widow’s tortuous past as a child turned her into a brilliant assassin and her heart into stone. She did unmentionable things and is trying to make amends but she has to fight her dark past on a daily basis. As for Tony Stark – a genius inventor struggles with … well, everything. He struggles with being neglected by his work-obsessed father, with usually being the smartest person in the room (unless Bruce Banner is present), and with feeling inadequate to his alter ego invention, Iron Man. You may think Captain America is perfect; he comes close, but he still has issues. Due to a 70-year sleep in the Arctic, he loses all his friends including his girlfriend and wakes up to a different world to what he knew with different values. That would weigh heavily on anyone. While he has good common sense, he’s naive. He’s lonely and in need of an inner purpose beside the obvious ‘save the world’ purpose.

All these characters have come to life because of their personal problems and that makes them human, which means the audience can understand and connect with them.

We’ve established that protagonists need good and bad qualities to make them three-dimensional characters, and that they need to deal with their own conflicts. There are many different types of protagonists and some can fit into more than one category. They are not all willing to face danger like superheroes; there are reluctant heroes too. Bruce Banner is a reluctant hero because it means giving up control and unleashing the Hulk. There’s also the protagonist who stumbles onto a situation that requires extraordinary bravery and effort to save one or more people when the protagonist just wants to pretend nothing is happening so he/she can go home to bed. Han Solo from Star Wars was simply trying to pay off a debt and didn’t want to get involved. Ellen Ripley certainly didn’t want to tangle with the slimy aliens looking for hosts.

Even everyday protagonists are still fighting for a desired outcome. It may not be to save the world or restore freedom; it may be something more personal like fighting an illness or dealing with betrayal. Whatever it is, don’t forget to give your protagonists a few warts and inner conflicts along with being basically good individuals.

 

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Stuck for Character Traits for Your Villain?

Villains need to have human characteristics to ensure they are three-dimensional; otherwise they may as well be faceless and mindless. It was discussed in The Perfect Villain Is Not All Evil that antagonists need human qualities – good and bad – but that may not be easy. If you are struggling to find character traits for the villain in your story, try this simple exercise.

Think of at least five villains that you liked (or loved to hate) and list two or more qualities (good or bad) from each. Don’t be surprised if you find the same qualities appearing on several villains in your list. These are characteristics that you’re drawn to for your evil characters – use them when creating your villain.

I tend to use movies as examples, because the chances of you seeing the same movie (or at least knowing the character) is better than reading the same book, but use whatever medium you want.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – Sheriff of Nottingham

  • Funny
  • A strong presence
  • Impatience

Trust Alan Rickman to turn a dull villain into a sensational character.

Harry Potter’s Professor Severus Snape

  • Tormented
  • Greasy look
  • Menacing
  • Intelligent

While Voldemort was the real villain in the story, Professor Snape certainly caused plenty of problems for the main character even though his actions may have been with good intentions.

The Fugitive’s Lt Phillip Gerard (from the 1960s tv show)

  • Career and duty focused
  • Determined
  • Intelligent

While on the side of the law, this man is infuriatingly clever and able to guess Kimble’s movements. Despite believing in Kimble’s innocence, Gerard is determined to capture Kimble. This sort of conflict would have torn most people, but Gerard was steadfast in his duties.

Star Wars’ Dark Vader

  • Sinister
  • Powerful
  • Prepared to follow through with his threats
  • Ruthless
  • Hides inner conflicts

Thor’s adopted brother Loki

  • Cunning
  • Funny
  • Planner
  • Manipulator
  • Life of being overshadowed by muscle-bound Thor

Now you have a list of traits to choose from.

 

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The Perfect Villain Is Not All Evil

While the enemy can be multiple individuals forming a uniting force, such as invading aliens wanting to take over Earth, we will focus on an individual foe for the purposes of this article.

Every story needs a villain and that villain needs a purpose. No matter how dark and sinister antagonists may be, they are people too and must have wants and needs. The antagonist must believe his/her purpose is reasonable and justified, if not righteous. Gone are days when the villain was merely a shadow of a person and can no longer be portrayed as a man with a handlebar moustache, an evil glint in his dark eyes, wearing a black full-length coat and a hat, and looking to tie a damsel to the train tracks. The protagonist’s nemesis has morphed into characters of substance, someone who has plans, take calculated risks, and willing to do whatever it take to achieve his/her goal while eluding capture. As writers, we must dedicate the same effort in characterisation for the perpetrator as we do for our main character.

Today’s villain can be anyone, such as a bully in a children’s story or a murderer in a crime story or even a ruthless and power-hungry individual. Stories need a villain but the perfect villain is not all evil. That person has to have good points as well to give the character depth, such as a murderer might be good to a sibling. The antagonist must be three-dimensional.

Unless something unexpected has happened to turn a character into the antagonist, there should be a history of wrongdoing. Ordinary and law-abiding people don’t usually wake up and commit a crime or moral injustice. Those traits have to be there to begin with. The wrongdoing should be measurable, where the next action is worse than the previous. And with each action, the person slips further into his/her own dark world.

Antagonists need to be faced with difficulties as well. Of course, the protagonist’s actions in the story may be enough to cause our villain annoyance, but can you delve further? Are there other characters (knowingly or unknowingly) interfering with the antagonist’s plans? Is there some other conflict that burdens the antagonist? Perhaps a bully is bullied at home. Or a person may have murdered someone to protect another person, but tread carefully with this scenario – a person would still have to be capable of such an action. It would change that person for life and he/she would have to deal with being captured as well as nightmares and anguish over taking someone’s life.

While the reader may disagree with the villain’s actions from a moral or legal point, the writer must ensure the reader understands the villain’s actions. And if the writer can cause the reader to feel sympathy for the villain, then that writer has created an in-depth character. As strange or uncomfortable as it sounds, get into your villain’s headspace and think what actions you would undertake for the plans to succeed. Who stands in your way and how will you deal with them? Actually, as a writer, you should step into all your characters’ headspaces to ensure their actions and thinking are unique to them. It’s easier than looking at a character from a distance and guessing what that person would do next.

Be mindful not to slip into using dialogue that has been overused and should’ve been tossed out decades ago. Powerful and intelligent dialogue will make your villain a worthy adversary, whereas ridiculous and wince provoking declamations and comments will surely turn your villain into a cartoon buffoon where readers will wish for an anvil to fall on his/her head.

When you’re breathing life into your villain, make sure they:

  • have redeeming qualities as well as negative traits
  • have wants and needs like everyone else
  • doesn’t perceive themselves as antagonists to the protagonists (from the villain’s viewpoint, those roles are reversed)
  • believe their actions are justified and reasonable
  • are intelligent, otherwise they would be caught in chapter two (where’s the fun in that?)
  • encounter conflicts of their own
  • use believable dialogue that is commonplace for the period of the story (avoid cheesy cliché’s and speech that is stereotypical of villains).

 

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