Naming Your Characters

I’ve read a lot of blog posts about how to name your characters. I even wrote a post about it a while back, which you can read here on the Mythic Scribes website. I don’t know that there’s one right or wrong way to come up with names for characters, and there are different tips and tricks that vary depending on genre. (My post on Mythic Scribes is about inventing names for fantasy. That article probably won’t help you much if you’re writing contemporary women’s lit.)

So how do you come up with good character names? Well, here are a few suggestions that are not so much tips and tricks, but are ideas to consider when you sit down to populate your story with characters.

Consider your genre. If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, then you might be able to get some ideas from that post I wrote for Mythic Scribes. (If you do read that post, then scroll down and read the comments – lots of good ideas there.) If you’re writing historical fiction, then do your research and choose names that fit with the time period and location. It wouldn’t do to have a character named Jessica in a story set in ancient Rome (unless, of course, you’re doing a sci-fi time-travel story).

Consider symbolism or meaning of names. This is a common thought process behind the naming of characters – at least from what I’ve read on blogs and heard from other authors. Depending on your genre and the story itself, you can go heavy-handed with the symbolism and meaning – for example, like J.K. Rowling and her name for Remus Lupin. If you know anything about mythology and/or the Latin and Greek roots of words, his name is a dead giveaway that he’s somehow related to dogs or werewolves. Symbolism in names can also be more subtle, such as naming a strong male character after your beloved grandfather, even if the character is not based on him. Some authors want a name that has a particular meaning, which may or may not figure directly in the story. Baby name books are a great resource if you’re looking for meaning or symbolism in your names.

Use humor or in-jokes with your names, if appropriate. This one really depends on the genre and the type of story you’re trying to tell. A comedy might benefit from pun-like names or names with a certain humorous meaning behind them. This may not be the best example, but in the fantasy series I’m writing, I have a character whose last name is Abernathy. This in itself is not funny (nor are the stories supposed to be funny), but I use his last name for (very occasional) humor within the tale. The books are set in Finland, and all of the main characters (with the exception of Mr. Abernathy) are Finnish. I deliberately picked a name that would be challenging for native Finnish speakers to pronounce. This is an incredibly minor point in the books, but I thought it would be fun to toss in elements of other characters occasionally mangling his name.

Scroll through the phone book or pick a Scrabble tile from the box. Did I just say phone book? I feel old now. Well, hopefully you get the idea. This is the “random selection” idea of generating names, and could work if you are totally stuck for ideas, or if you just need a quick name for a minor character and don’t need to put a lot of thought into it.

Now over to you – do you have any ideas or special techniques for naming characters in your stories?

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5 Things I Like about Stories

Since my online moniker is StorytellerGirl, you know that I like a good story. Long, short, fantasy, factual – if it’s a good tale, I like it. I could wax über-philosophical about storytelling, or write another post about plot or character development. But this time, I think I’ll just make a short bullet list. So what’s so great about stories?

Stories are fun

Stories take us away from reality

Stories teach us about reality

Stories are everywhere

Stories tell the truth

And there you have it. That about sums it up for me. Stories are life.

Why do you love a good tale?

An Interview with your Character

There are so many tips, tricks, and exercises to help a writer with developing their characters. I’ve written a couple of posts about that myself.

One technique that I recently learned is to answer questions about your character as if they were being interviewed. To really get into our character’s psyche, try answering these questions in first person, in your character’s voice. Write it out, and be sure to use your character’s speech pattern, mannerisms, everything. How would your character respond if someone in the story were asking them these questions?

Some of these questions would be most applicable to a human character in modern day, but I’ve tried to make some of them general enough to apply to fantasy/historical/sci-fi, etc.

So your character sits down to answer these interview questions. What does he or she say?

What’s your favorite band?

Who’s your favorite athlete or favorite sports team?

Do you have a Facebook or Twitter account? Why or why not?

What makes you laugh?

Are you right-handed or a lefty?

What’s your favorite hobby?

Do you have a nickname? Are you proud of it or embarrassed by it?

Have you ever killed anyone?

How many countries have you been to?

If you could permanently change one thing about your physical appearance, what would it be?

Feel free to share some answers or dialogue exchanges! What are some other interview questions that could help with character development?

A Mother’s Day tribute to Great Moms of Literature

Mother’s Day is this coming Sunday, so I thought I’d devote this post to some of the great moms in books. I have a wonderful mother, as I’m sure you do, too. But here are my top five favorite fictional mothers.

5. Mrs. Rabbit, from Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter

Poor patient Mrs. Rabbit, who had a son who always did exactly what she told him not to do, and lost his shoes and his jacket repeatedly. Even so, she didn’t punish him harshly—she just put him to bed with some chamomile tea. For all the headaches Peter gave her, she stayed a gentle and loving mom.

4. Missis, from The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith

Sure, we all loved Perdita in Disney’s various film versions of this story, but I’m talking about the original. In the book, Perdita was a different dog—Missis was Pongo’s wife. First off, she gave birth to fifteen puppies. Props to her for that alone. Then, when the puppies were kidnapped, Missis risked her life facing the wild outdoors and Cruella De Vil to get her kids back. And she wound up being a mother to 97 puppies by the time it was all over. Now that’s a mom.

3. Leia Organa-Solo, from The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn

There are hundreds of post- Return of the Jedi stories out there, but the ones I have in mind are the Thrawn Trilogy, which basically launched the Star Wars multi-media franchise back in the 90s. In this story, Leia gave birth to her twins Jacen and Jaina Solo. She dealt with all the joys and struggles of raising two infants while traipsing around the galaxy, rescuing Luke, fighting off the remnants of the Empire, and holding a government post in the New Republic. A true super-mom.

2. Molly Weasley, from the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

Molly raised a herd of wild red-headed kids, and managed to keep a lid on things despite those kids doing things like quitting school to open a magic shop and flying their father’s car into a Whomping Willow. But she still had enough love to all but adopt Harry into her family, and she had enough ferocity to take out some Death Eaters and Bellatrix Lestrange. Another super-mom.

1. Marmie, from Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy lovingly called their mother “Marmie” when they were young, and as they grew up, Marmie stayed central to their lives. Through marriages, births, deaths, career struggles, and the general pains of growing up, Marmie kept her family together. She encouraged her daughters’ creativity and independence, wasn’t afraid of disciplining them, taught them how to be loving by showing kindness to strangers and neighbors alike, and stayed strong while her husband was away at war. Marmie was just an all-around awesome mom.

Any other literary mothers you’d like to add to this list? And don’t forget to wish your mom a happy mother’s day!

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Character Development – the Power of Two

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

All the Characters

Babylon 5, like any good epic, has a huge cast of characters. Minor characters add spice and realism to scenes, and the supporting and main cast take turns in the spotlight as plot threads weave in and out. But even in an epic saga with a large cast, there are usually just one or two main protagonists. This is the character who has the most to lose, for whom the stakes of the story matter the most.

In Babylon 5, the two main protagonists are John Sheridan and Delenn. Coming in a close second, as the two main supporting protagonists, if I could use the term that way, are Londo Mollari and G’Kar.

These two pairs of characters exert the most affect on the overall story of the series. And just as they drive the plot, the twists of the story affect their lives more drastically than the other characters.

No character (at least, in most epics) functions in a vacuum—at some point the protagonist must interact with other characters. And this interaction fuels character development. I paired these four main characters of Babylon 5 this way because they drive the plot, and are affected by the plot, together.

Main Characters

Sheridan and Delenn’s power as a character duo comes from their love. Not only are they the main romantic lead in the story, but they have a great love for the people that they lead. Together they spearhead the war against the bad guys, and together they build a new alliance dedicated to peace. And they have to figure out how to overcome cultural differences and haunted pasts in order to have a successful marriage and raise a baby while doing all of this.

Londo and G’Kar’s power as a character duo comes from their hate. At the start of the series, these two represent the epitome of blind racial hatred. The shaky peace treaty between their two races is one of the subplots. And a force that drives the main plot is Londo and G’Kar trying to figure out how to work together for the good of entire galaxy without killing each other. Through the overcoming of their hatred towards one another they grow as characters.

Put your protagonists in a tight spot, raise the stakes, use another character to test their limits. Give your protagonist someone to love, someone to hate, something they want to do. Not every character development technique (these, or any others) has to be used, but if you’re writing a long saga, there’s plenty of time to introduce new pressures to further grow your protagonist. Sheridan and Delenn’s romance grows over the course of three seasons. And Londo and G’Kar, though eventually calling each other ‘friend,’ never do stop trying to kill one another.

Whether your epic is action-oriented or paced a little slower, whether you have a cast of hundreds or just one obvious hero, remember that other characters, not just the plot, can be the catalyst for character development.

“I am grey. I stand between the candle and the star. We are grey. We stand between the darkness and the light.” -Delenn, “Babylon Squared”

Writing Exercise – Christmas with your Characters

For the month of December, my posts will all be Christmas-themed, just to be festive (or annoying, depending on your point of view). You can love it or hate it, celebrate it with joy or celebrate a different winter-time festival—but either way, Christmas is here and so is its impact on our culture. So I figured it would be appropriate if my blog reflected that.

I love Christmas (just in case my regular readers hadn’t picked up on that yet!) And every year starting about mid-November, I get a strong urge to write a Christmas story, or at least a Christmas scene, even if the current project I’m working on has nothing to do with Christmas.

I often do write at least a partial scene that involves Christmas, and it can be a fun and insightful writing exercise. Especially if your story does not involve Christmas, writing a Christmas scene with your main characters can be a way to learn something about your characters that you may not have known before.

For example, if your story takes place most anywhere on earth sometime during the past 2,000 years, it’s likely that at least one of the characters has at least heard of Christmas, right? So what might that character’s Christmas traditions be like? Take a moment and just imagine, and then write it down.

Does your character come from a dysfunctional family where no one gets along and holiday gathering consist of arguing and watching  TV? So what if that character was invited to a classy Christmas party with their new spouse’s happy, well-adjusted family? How does your character react?

What if your Native American character is just learning to trust the ranchers who moved into his territory, and they invite him to spend Christmas day with them on their new farm? Does he just watch through the window as they bring a tree into the house and sing songs around the old piano, or does he go inside?

Really, this writing exercise doesn’t even have to be about Christmas at all. Use a different holiday—any holiday. Or some other special event—a wedding, a football game, a concert, a family reunion.

This sort of writing exercise works best if it’s about an event that is not part of the plot of your story. It’s intended to get you to explore a side of your character that you hadn’t thought of before, to add depth to their personality and background.

So if your story is about a teenage boy who follows his two favorite bands all over the country in hopes of becoming a rock star one day, then writing a scene with him at a concert would be important for the story, but not a unique exercise.

But for a crime drama about a hardened cop who’s forgotten how to enjoy himself, writing a scene with him at a concert might be a way for you to discover what your character is like when he unwinds.

Or send the rock star boy or the hardened cop home to the grandparents house in the country for Christmas. Now what does the character do?

If you’re taking some writing time over the holidays, then try this exercise with one or more of your characters. It doesn’t have to be about Christmas, or any other winter-time festival. Just put your character in some setting that is logical for their life, but may not occur in the actual plot. And then write!

Spend some quality time this holiday with your characters, and get to know them a little bit better.

And have a merry Christmas!