Sometimes I have focus issues.
Today, I’m going to talk about names.
Names are an important tool in both creating a character and establishing a setting. In most cases, it will provide the reader’s first impression of person or place, so a carefully chosen name is essential.
Stick around and I’ll show you where to go for names and a few tips for making up your own.
The most common piece of advice I’ve heard for this type of name is “look at baby name books/websites.” This is perfectly good advice. However, I’ve found that by far the best resource is a website called Behind the Name. This is my go-to place for character names, especially if I’m looking for something cultural.
The site is basically an extensive collection of names from different cultures, time periods, and works of fiction. You can search by usage, origin, meaning, popularity, gender – there are even a few lists you can use. (For example, one list is for names with “brave” meanings.) If you look under “tools,” you’ll also find a random name generator, an anagram search tool, and a link to the surname section of the site.
Next up is fantasy and sci-fi names.
In some cases, it’s fine to use names from the everyday category in these stories, especially if you’re using a pseudo-medieval setting. (If this is you, I’d recommend checking out the Ancient/Medieval section of Behind the Name.) Everyday names also work fine for humans in a sci-fi setting. In other cases, you might need or simply want to make up a unique name.
First off, a word of warning: try to avoid names with over-complicated spellings, no matter how cool it looks. If the reader can’t pronounce it, how are they going to recommend your book to their friends? Chances are, they won’t.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t be creative with your spellings – oftentimes, that’s exactly what makes a name stand out. Just don’t go overboard. There’s no need to say “Märyissah” if “Marissa” will work just as well. (Also, don’t use diacritical marks – like the dots over that first ‘a’ – if you don’t know what they mean.)
If you need inspiration, try looking at names or words from other cultures. Using an Asian base will give a name a more exotic feel, while a European base will call to mind something a little closer to home. If you want something truly unique, try looking at an Elvish dictionary. (Nevrast is a good one.)
Pick the culture closest to your setting and go from there. Or, if you like, pick a culture that’s nothing like your setting. Contrast can be an effective tool. Just be careful not to confuse your readers – giving someone in a European-like setting an Asian-sounding name (or vice versa) can be jarring.
If your writing is set in a real place, you obviously don’t need to worry about this. For the rest of us, choosing a name can be difficult.
The easiest way to come up with a believable place name (by which I mean it sounds like a place rather than a random word) is to go look at a map. If you’re trying to name a city, look at the names of real cities. If you’re naming a country, look at country names. Check for patterns in letters, sounds, number of syllables. Most importantly, look at how they end.
City names often end with ‘polis,’ ‘n,’ ‘town,’ ‘s,’ or even ‘city.’ Country names often end with ‘a,’ ‘land,’ ‘ia,’ ‘us,’ or ‘ea.’ Look for trends like these and incorporate them into your fictional names. Alternately, start with an actual place name, then add on to it or take something away.
You can make your place names as realistic or cliché as you want – whatever works for your setting.
Now, my friends, go forth and name thy creations!
Today, I’m going to talk about creating characters.
As a fiction writer, your characters are arguably the most important aspect of your writing. (After all, a plot isn’t going anywhere without someone to move it.) Whether you call them characters, figments, or simply the voices in your head, they should be as real as possible. If they’re flat or uninspiring, it had better be on purpose and for plot reasons.
I know of a few places to start when trying to invent a character; today I’m going to talk about three.
First, you can start with a name. Many names will give you a specific image when you hear them. Sally and Joe are normal, everyday people. Zane and Esperanza are exciting and perhaps slightly foreign. Kyinzarah and Tinuviel clearly belong in a fantasy setting. Pick a name that gives you the right impression, then go from there. If you have an impression, you have the beginnings of a personality.
Second, you can start with an appearance. Sometimes, a character will show up in your head complete with eye color, costume, and interesting hairstyle. Treasure those times. The rest of the time, you can pick some detail of appearance and go from that. For example, a girl with ginger hair. When you picture her, what comes to mind? Probably a stereotype, which you can either use or disregard. The important thing is, you have a start.
Third, you can start with a personality trait. This is especially helpful if you need a certain type of character, like a foil for your lead. Just think about what kind of person you want – serious, playful, etc. – and make that their center. (Both name and appearance should match that center, unless you’re going for irony.) Once you’ve got a basic personality idea, work from there. For example, a serious person will take more care with their appearance than a more relaxed personality would.
So, now that you have a beginning, let’s expand.
One of the most helpful tools I’ve come across for developing characters is the character questionnaire. The following list (courtesy of Gail Carson Levine’s book Writing Magic) is a great place to start, but feel free to add or discard questions as it suits your needs.
Nickname, if any:
Kind of being (human, animal, extraterrestrial, fantasy or fairy-tale creature):
Occupation, if applicable:
Describe his/her room:
Way of speaking:
Physical characteristics (posture, gestures, attitude):
Items in his/her pockets or backpack or purse:
Talents, abilities, or powers:
Relationships (how (s)he is with other people):
What (s)he wants more than anything else:
Although I hope this list is as helpful to you as it has been to me, when it comes down to it, the best way to find out more about a character is to write them. Oftentimes the most realistic quirks are the ones that show up when you’re not looking for them.
When your characters start surprising even you, you know you’ve done your job well. When they start disobeying your well-meaning orders… congratulations! Your characters are behaving like real people. Try your best to keep them on track, but don’t be afraid to let them venture outside the script. Best case scenario, you get some interesting and useful content. Worst case scenario, you get to laugh at them for whatever lunacy they’ve gotten themselves into.
With any luck, yours will be more cooperative than mine.