How the F*** Do I Name My Characters?

If you’re a parent (or even if you’re not), it’s easy to understand the agony behind choosing a name for this squirming mass of flesh you’ve created. You want something that’ll represent them, something that’ll stand out, but not too much, and God forbid you pick something with an automatic and unfortunate nick-name attached.

hello-my-name-is-351-x-234

As writers, we go through the same torment. We peruse all the baby name databases. We say their names over and over to see how it’ll sit on someone’s tongue should they read it out loud. We scribble them in notebooks and on napkins and try to imagine a face that’ll reflect the person we want them to be. It’s torture, but it’s vital to the success of a book (in which I define “success” as a book readers talk about or think about after the cover is closed).

First, I want to say that I’m not knocking the Marks and Julies of the fiction world. Names don’t have to be unusual to stand out. It’s all about the name that accompanies the personality. Example: Andrew Yancy from Carl Hiassen’s BAD MONKEY and RAZOR GIRL. Pretty standard name, right? But when paired with the ironic swagger of an ex-detective-now-roach-patrolman, it’s a name that’ll stick in the reader’s mind. He’s Andrew, not Drew or Andy. Yancy is the kind of surname with a nondescript background, so you’re free to mold him any way you like in your mind.

For the writer who wants a more unusual name without throwing in useless consanents and ridiculous accent marks, I give you these examples:

Bunny Munro from THE DEATH OF BUNNY MUNRO. The name “Bunny” is ironic, given his less than soft nature, making it unusual enough to stand out. The same principle goes for Fat Charlie from ANANSI BOYS who is anything but fat and Abby Normal from Christopher Moore’s BLOODSUCKING FIENDS series who would love to be anything but normal.

You could go for something more literal, like SERGE STORMS from pretty much any Tim Dorsey novel who blows through the book like a category 5 hurricane on a mix of speed and coffee. Or there’s Mr. Wednesday from AMERICAN GODS, whose literal meaning takes a little bit of digging. His name is one of convenience, granted to him when he asks Shadow Moon what day it is and then replies, “Today is my day.” That statement alone is a summation of Mr. Wednesday’s character, which gives his name meaning.

Then there are names that carry with them the entire heart of the story. Osceola Bigtree from SWAMPLANDIA isn’t the protagonist, but she carries in her name (and her character) the soul of the book, which takes place in the swampy underbelly of South Florida.

In the end, readers will interpret your character names however they want. I could be totally off about Osceola, but her name stuck with me because I was able to extract meaning and because Karen Russell GAVE her name meaning, even if it wasn’t the same as mine. The name you choose isn’t as important to your characters as the reason behind it. Sometimes, it’s just because the name “suits” a character. That’s PERFECTLY FINE. Names that suit characteristics will make sense and serve to draw a clearer picture for the reader, making your story memorable.

I’ve given you some of mine; Now, let’s hear some character names that’ve really stuck with you, long after you’ve finished reading.

Advertisements

How the F*** Do I Plot?

I recently finished reading STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron, on the advice of a writer friend.

It was awesome.

It was always debilitatingly depressing. Never before had I read a writing advice manual and walked away realizing that I published four novels having known jack shit about what makes a good story.

story-genius

Notice I said story there, and not book.

STORY GENIUS spends a lot of time decoding what makes a person’s brain crave story, and what writers need to do to harness that power over the reader. (We will use this for world domination, eventually. Don’t say you weren’t warned).

I FULLY recommend getting your hands on a copy to get the full extent of Cron’s amazing tips and exercises. But I will tell you the part that resonated most with me.

WHY?

As a parent, it’s the question of doom. It spirals into realms terrifying and unknown and the only way to get out alive is to keep throwing out answers until there are none left. Amazingly, being a parent makes you uniquely adept at answering this question when it comes to plotting.

Most writers already know that something has to happen because something else happened. There’s a general understanding of cause and effect that most of us already adhere to when plotting the external forces that will propel our protagonist through the story and out the other side. What most of us forget is that this question of WHY has to answer questions internally of the protagonist, too. Each event has to have a POINT, and not just, “Well, she has to get from A to B so I’ll put her in a car and then I’ll get a chance to throw some setting in there.” (Real example of my former thought process, no lie).

Here’s an example from a WIP I’m working on now.

I have a scene planned where Gretchen (my protagonist) is picked up from the airport by her awful step-mother.

Enter the ‘why.’

Because her sister (who asked her to come in the first place) is at home with her kid.

Why?

Because he has pink eye.

Why?

Because the little shit can’t be bothered to wash his hands more than once a month.

Okay, so, we’ve got a perfectly logical reason for someone Gretchen hates to be picking her up from the airport. But what does that have to do with her story? Her character arc?

In this WIP’s case, Gretchen’s story arc begins with her desire to cut her family out of her life completely and ends with her realizing that she can’t establish any kind of meaningful relationship with other people unless she forgives her family their transgressions and lets go of the idea that People Will Betray You.

So. The step-mom.

She picks Gretchen up from the airport.

Why?

Because even as Gretchen gets off the plane, she feeds the delusion that she can deal with being back in her family’s orbit from a distance. Having step-mom, the person she hates most, gather her from the airport dispels that misbelief.

Since the reason pushes Gretchen toward her final goal (even only a little) the scene gets to stay. If, when you’re plotting, you can’t think of an internal reason why the scene should stay, it’s time to get out the axe.

Don’t feel bad. It’s easy to forget that a story isn’t just a collection of things happening to a person. They’re events that force the protagonist to change internally, which is where the real story happens.

So don’t write a book; write a story. Ask why.