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.

 

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Short Story Writing

Short story writing is a good way for writers to break into the publishing world of storytelling. With each published story, you can add to your finances, increase your experience and writing exposure, and add successful writing credentials to your curriculum vitae.

You may choose to submit to magazines that have a fiction section – this applies to both print and electronic options. Not all publishers will offer payment for published stories, so make sure you read their publishing terms. This is ultimately your decision if you want to pursue financial rewards as well as recognition. Writers who are well known will have a better chance of receiving payment or a better payment, but don’t be disheartened. We all have to start somewhere, and then building on that.

Remember your audience

Newspapers and magazines are read at cafe’s, on trains, in waiting rooms, and over breakfast and in short periods of time. It’s now a common sight to see people with an electronic device pouring over the screen. In some ways, people are probably reading more than they did a few decades ago, but be aware of the changes that the electronic world has brought us and the times when people are reading. When people are on the go, travelling from one place to the next, or looking for a little distraction for a short period, those people’s mindset is not geared for the big read as they are when settling in with a good book.

These short breaks are the perfect time to read a short story – maybe your short story.

Content to suit

Content is expected to be light-hearted, entertaining, and to the point. If the short story is too intense, then it could cause the reader’s attention to be lost and – unlike a book – a turn of the page or tap of the screen will serve to lead the reader away from your piece to someone else’s.

This doesn’t mean that people don’t read about intense subjects. It’s all around us and in the news daily, and this is why people delve into short stories – to get away from the real world for a few minutes and get lost in the imagination of the writer.

Surprises, twists and turns

Short stories with a surprise twist or ending used to be the normal formula along with choosing the right words and telling the story. These days, it’s more about the crafting of words and story without the twist. (I read a review recently where the critic didn’t like the story simply because it had a surprise ending.)

There are magazines that cater to all readers so writers can find publishing opportunities that suit their short stories, but make sure you read the submission guidelines and that your style fits.

A good story is one that can introduce characters, create and establish a storyline, and wrap it all up with a good ending leaving the reader feeling pleased they took the time to read it.

Humour

You can infuse your story with humour or thought provoking content. The importance of writing a short story is the ability to make an impact. Don’t underestimate the expectations of the reader. While a reader who is pressed for time will not want to be bogged down with too much reading, there’s still the expectation of being kept entertained.

Publishing and competitions

Many magazines (both print and electronic mediums) specialise in five-minute fiction or flash fiction. This is a great opportunity for writers, even those early on in their careers, to see their work published. Content is generally upbeat and easy to read. Those that are savvy, modern, and abreast of current issues will be viewed far more favourably than the traditional ‘Mills and Boon’ style of writing. When writing love stories, the happy ending can still be there, but it’s how you get there that matters.

If you’re considering writing a book containing a collection of your short stories, unless you’ve hit the big time, your book may not sell. Usually this type of book works best for well-known authors, but not necessarily for those still trying to break into the publication world or trying to make a name for themselves.

Competitions are another good source for your short stories. They help to establish your name as a writer, and the winning prize money is always a nice bonus. Some authors have made a career out of winning competitions and then go on to holding lectures, writing books on how to write short stories, and guest appearances at writing functions.

Don’t give up, keep writing and chasing publication. Hard work, skills, determination and motivation will get you there.

 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Settings Are More Than Just A Place

Besides believable characters, a sound plotline and a compelling tale, all stories – whether they are non-fiction or fiction – must have settings that paint an image in the reader’s mind. Characters don’t exist or relate to each other in a vacuum, they are surrounded by buildings, nature, technology and the environment. They hear noises, smell odours, and they feel. Use settings to paint a picture, to inspire, or to unnerve the reader.

Be specific
If your character is in a cafe, bring that cafe to life. There will be the murmur of other people’s conversations, mobile phones ringing, background music, the clang of dishes in the kitchen or perhaps the crash of a glass hitting the floor and breaking, and staff moving around or interrupting diners. Depending on the type of cafe and where it’s situated, there may be a baby crying or children squealing, parents scolding their children or the footsteps of people walking past – especially if it’s in a busy shopping centre. What about the mixture of odours from cooked food and coffee? Don’t overlook anything.

Use all your character’s senses
There’s a whole world going on in that cafe and your character should be a part of it. Your character can hear all those noises competing with each other and the aroma of blended smells. Your character can see the staff rushing around, the other patrons enjoying their drinks and food. Is there a couple at a nearby table arguing? Is there a couple that are on their first date? What about an older couple that are so used to each other’s habits that they pass the salt or pepper without being asked?

Let’s not forget to include what your character feels. This could be handling the hot cup of coffee, or the gritty salt from chips. Does the chip burn the mouth and tongue or does your character savour the taste? Or perhaps your character ordered a hamburger and a slice of beetroot has slipped from its confines to land on the character’s white shirt leaving a wet purplish-pink stain. Perhaps your character ordered a salad and with that first bite wished it were marbled chocolate cheesecake instead.

Settings influence mood
A setting can be used as a contrast or a similarity to how your character is feeling. A troubled character may be drawn to the shoreline to watch the rough seas, whereas a complacent or pensive character may prefer calm seas. Or a particular setting might be used for actions, such as: overgrown bush land with a murky swamp, mosquitoes, and a foul odour may be the perfect place for your character to dispose of that corpse. A gloomy and ramshackle two-story house may be the perfect abode for ghosts to rise at the strike of midnight.

Triggers to write settings
There are many sources for writers to be inspired and write appropriate settings. Here are a few ideas to help create your settings:

  • postcards, photographs, cards, travel brochures and magazines
  • your memory of places you’ve visited
  • your imagination – create unique locations
  • visit places – take photos and make notes of everything you see, hear and smell.

A setting is not just a place where your character goes; it has a life of its own.

 

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

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.

 

Image by Alexander Gounder from Pixabay

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.

 

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay