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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Writing For Children

If you have chosen children’s writing because you think it’s the easiest then think again. It can be one of the most challenging, but well worth the effort when you see the smile on a child’s face and the hint of wonder in that child’s eyes. And when the youngster has heard the story a thousand times, but whose eyes still twinkle with enthusiasm to hear it yet again, then you have succeeded as a children’s writer.

Poetic license, a gift to any author, is one that children will freely give for those wishing to use it. Dr Seuss introduced us to sentences of nonsensical structure strung together while discarding convention and sometimes thought. Yet they delight both adults and children alike. Unlike most genres, writing for children is a vortex to the fantastic. However, today’s society differs greatly from past eras.

While Beatrix Potter once danced in the minds of exuberant expectation, the youth of today are far savvier to life’s mechanisations. Write with ardour, write with zest, but remember – without following some basic guidelines your wonderfully created work may well slip through the fingers of both parents and publishers alike.

As each age group has its own guidelines, the following points should be considered when deciding to delve deeper into the complex world of writing for children.

Keep It Simple

Your ideas can be big while striving to find a unique way in telling a story, but the language must be simple. Don’t use multiple words where one will do the job nicely. Pictures tell part of the story for early children’s stories, so the words shouldn’t duplicate what is already shown. For example, if you’re talking about a red ball, the colour of the ball can be shown in the picture.

Keep With The Times

Children of today are computer literate, they know how to use mobiles, and are far more technology savvy than their parents were when they were that age. Don’t underestimate the maturity of a child, but keep it age appropriate. If you are unsure of the correct terminology to use or doubt the content, then get advice first.

Keep Abreast Of Current Issues

Children suffer more health issues than ever before. They battle stress, anxiety, and depression to name a few. Some other important topics are bullying, struggling to fit in at school, and loneliness. Don’t be afraid to write about it. Children will relate and feel empathy and understanding. Parents may even thank you for the support it lends them in assuring their child.

The every-day topics could be about the first day at school, or wanting a pet, or longing for a new bike. Think back to when you were a child and what you can remember – there’s bound to be a story idea hidden in your memory.

Age Appropriateness

The most important rule is that in most cases the story needs to pass parental approval first. This can be achieved if rules are followed, and as an author you shouldn’t cross the boundaries. Never forget who your audience is.

Banned Topics

Obviously heavy romance is out. This is simply not appropriate in a children’s book.

Sex, religion, and politics are usually best left for a parent to wade through with their child when the time is right. While these are hot topics for an adult, they are inappropriate on most levels for a child.

Characters

Young children need only to be introduced to characters, while older children will enjoy a slightly more in-depth version.

Rhyming Words

Many children love rhyming words. A rhyming story has its own rhythm that children readily respond to. However, you have to be exceptionally skilled if your story is told in a poem-style, as publishers usually avoid this.

Write for Fun!
What better excuse to fling off the shackles of adulthood? Touch base with your inner youth and explore once again the sheer freedom of being a child? Let your imagination soar and, in doing so, a child’s imagination will soar also.

Suitable Language

Obviously children are not going to grasp cumbersome, difficult words. Keep language simple and pronounceable. For very young children, one and two syllable words are far more appealing. If the child isn’t at reading level and the story is being read to the child, then an occasional bigger word can be used. The reader can explain the more difficult words to the child.

Under no circumstances should swearing be permitted in children’s literature. While parents may not always know what their child is reading, if parents discover swearing in their child’s book, they might re-act in a way where the author is undermining what they are trying to teach. Do you want a mob of angry parents trying to break down your door? Best to stay on the side of caution here.

Honesty

While fiction is the creation of a writer, a story that is honest in its telling will go down far better than one filled with lies. A child will spot an untruth and will be quite unforgiving for it!

Publishers And Parameters

There are stringent guidelines when writing for children. The targeted age group needs to be stated clearly. Make sure you research the intended publisher before you submit your manuscript.

The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (US annual publication) and The Australian Writer’s Marketplace (available online only now) are good resources to find markets for your book. They offer detailed submission guidelines for hundreds of markets. The guidelines may include information, such as pay rates, where and how to submit your manuscript, as well as other relevant and important information. Alternatively, you can search the internet for online and print children’s publishers.

Choose a few markets that seem like a good fit for your work, follow the guidelines set out by those chosen publishers and submit a neat, professional manuscript. It’s recommended that you have your manuscript professionally edited before you submit anything. Publishers will toss a manuscript into the slush pile without a second consideration if it’s not presented correctly.

Children’s Writing Genres and Ages

Ages may differ between publishers, so check before submitting your story.

  • Picture Books (up to 7) – Designed with the aim for an adult to read to a child.
  • Baby Books (1 to 3) – Designed with the aim for an adult to read to a child, but may contain pop-ups or novelty books, such as lifting flaps or pressing a concealed pad to make a sound, etc.
  • Beginner Readers (5 to 8) – Used to teach a child how to read.
  • Middle Grade Books (8 to 12) – Teaching children to love reading through a large range of topics and interests.
  • Young Adult Novels (12 and up) – Based around teenagers, these are a stepping stone to novels loved by adults.

The ability to capture and conquer the enthusiasm of a child is a gift not to be wasted. The experience is an enriching one from which both children and authors can benefit. Remember, some of our most renowned children’s authors, such as JK Rowlings (author of the Harry Potter books), began with humble yet tantalising beginnings by writing and reading to their own children. Nicky Johnston started to write as a means to help her own child with his anxiety disorder. Her book Go Away, Mr Worrythoughts! has reached huge audiences.

Children’s writing is a large field broken into age groups, which all have their own rules. This article is general, and writers are encouraged to focus on the rules of the age group for the intended story.

 

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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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