Monday, July 10, 2006

On the Make


Some writers claims they have to barricade the door in their brain to keep characters from rampaging out on the page like a bunch of Pamplona bulls.
And it seems some characters leap out of mental hidey-holes, brandish an AK-47, and shout, "Write me, or DIE!"
Pushy buggers.
On the other hand, memorable characters can also be created like homunculi by cold and calculated construction.
We're word wizards, right?
Leaving aside the character's character - as in soul - what makes a character unique and memorable to the reader?
The tools involve attention to the conventions - the rituals of ceremonial magic - laid out in genre grimoires, but the incantations can apply to secondary characters in any novel.
Some basic talismans are : name, physical appearance, occupation, speech, and body language.
(1)The Name:
Don't know how many rants I've read about the use of feral apostrophes and spelling variants like Randi, Brandi, Candi and Dandi.
Unfortunately, there are fads in novel names just like in the real world.
Some years ago readers were thrilled by heroines be-jewelled and be-metalled by names like Amber, Silver, Solitaire or Jade.
But those names got old really, really fast.
Pity. They were pretty.
Whole pantheons of pagan gods/goddesses have been stripped to supply a new bandwaggon.
Too many writers tended to toss such names in the mix without the slightest vestige of plot support, expecting the names alone to bear the entire weight of the allusions. The poor things died from over-work.
Now one's eyes tend to glaze a bit over Thors and Briannas. Staled by custom.
The fad of using masculine names and surnames for feminine characters is still on-going, I believe.
Writers pursue websites dedicated to name lists and examine obituaries, baby books, phone books and the Bible to seek out something different in the name game. Writers employ many strategems, including reversal of letters.
Some of us have difficulty bringing a character into focus until we have named them.
The secret may be to avoid obvious immitation "favs," and justify the chosen name within the story. Don't just stick it on like a post-it note.
Because the fact remains: the Unusual Name is a good tool.
I'll favour you with other peculiar observations tomorrow.

Note: Flood showcases Jeff on this week's interview.

39 comments:

Dennie McDonald said...

I write w/ characters that are my own age - to get names, I cheat and go through my yearbook to remind me of those named back then - I don't want to use names that are trendy now for kids that weren't in use in 1970-something when I was born y'know (just don't think Espn McGee would cut it in a contemp romance for a 30ish-y-o - and yes that name is out there!)

Bernita said...

Wise approach, Dennie.

Ric said...

In my latest novel, I begin with names for the two principals - names used in school - when they separate, the names change for their adult years, then, when they rejoin, the names revert back to where they were when they first fell in love.

I think it works - but haven't sold this puppy yet, so maybe I'm wrong. I thought it was a interesting device - the reader doesn't really notice it.

At one point, I was using alternate spelling for one character and thought of leaving it that way - you know, young person, not fully formed - with an amorphous name - but it seemed too confusing.

Don't like goofy names. But I will admit it is hard to come up with new ways to spell Skarlet.

S. W. Vaughn said...

I love unusual names! Funny, I never noticed the metallic heroine trend, but you're right about that, Bernita.

I confess to have thumbed the phone book a time or two for name inspiration, but I don't usually end up going for a name I find. Many of my characters are culturally diverse, so I get a whole set of unfamiliar names to play with. :-)

My favorite unusual character name of mine so far is Loyal (he's a guy).

I think your heroine's name is unusual, but not unintelligible, which makes her interesting!

Bernita said...

Think that's a very neat thing to do with their names, Ric.
The reader will absorb and recognize it as real and natural - a certain nostalgic effect.
"Skarlet" just doesn't make it, I don't think. Maybe in a futuristic.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Sonya.
Interesting you should mention Loyal - ran across a real historical person named "Lion."
During the 1600's all sorts of virtue names were in evidence, some picked from the Bible, with the rest of the quote/passage being understood by the faithful, such as "Preserved."

Dennie McDonald said...

I guess I should have pointed out - there were 775 in my graduating class - over 2000 in my hs - I have A LOT to choose from!

Flood said...

I try to stick to names I'm familiar with, either by culture or my generation, too.

When reading, I hate names that make me stop each time they're mentioned. Or anything like Ja'el or with a '.

Bernita said...

Which means, Dennie, you have enough to establish naming patterns and be entirely authentic.

That convention has become a bit tedious, hasn't it, Flood?
There's nothing basically wrong with it as a device to introduce/emphasize a new language/ different culture, but too often it is superficially applied and is nothing more than a cute trick that leaves us floundering in a welter of either vowels or consonants.

Scott said...

Try saying were word wizards then times real fast. Talk about alliteration.

Bernita said...

Brat.
So is consonance.
Alliteration is one of my irradicable follies, I fear.

kmfrontain said...

Since I write mostly fantasy, I try picking names that sound similar to names used in a given language, but then warp them a bit -- different vowel, consonant, etc. Also, I'll use names that match ones from a foreign language (preferably ancient versions of the name), and since my work is all in English, it adds some exotic flavour to the work. Therefore Geoffrey becomes Jeffery or Kehfrey; Kevin is Kehfen, etc.

If a name matches one on our world, I chalk it up to the fact that some names just sound nice and maybe it exists elsewhere for that reason, not to mention, we have spelling rules with regards to pronouncing syllables. There's only so much you can do before you make up some ridiculous looking name (not that I haven't on purpose).

I hate seeing names that cannot cannot cannot be pronounced. This is a sure way to make reading out loud a ridiculous experience. I see someone doing this, I remind them that they want to be published, don't they, and what if they have to do a reading, or someone wants to read the story in public for an audience.

I don't mind apostrophes in a name, but there better be a reason for it -- grammatical, logical, not necessarily some strange pronunciation for the apostrophe invented by the writer.

I don't care if names look ugly at first, because an ugly name can be worked with, an ugly name can have an effect that works.

And I don't choose names by trends. I always choose to fit the character or the story.

Bernita said...

Older spellings can sometimes work too, Karen. Have seen Hugh rendered as "Hu" and Alice as "Als/Alys" in old transcripts.
In addition those with the unpronouncable have just kissed the audio book market good-bye.

I agree, don't mind apostrophes or any other device - if they are used with a logic behind them.

Flood said...

Forgot to thank you for Jeff's interview plug.

Thank you.

Bernita said...

You're welcome, Flood.
It's a great idea and deserves it.
Besides, it would be a fine thing if I only trumpeted my own interview and ignored everyone else, would it not?

Erik Ivan James said...

I tend to begin to develop the character first. The name seems to evolve during that process.

Robyn said...

Oh, to use names found in the actual register of Cornwall in the 1700's- with all the Hornblowers my favorite was Gentle Fudge. Who wouldn't love a man named Gentle Fudge?

The heroines had metallica, but the heroes were only allowed one somewhat guttural syllable. Stone, Jack, Jake, Cole, Zach, Nick, Shane. Gesundheit.

Rick said...

My own challenge (we've talked about this before) is finding enough names to go around that will have a 16th c. flavor. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry really was named Tom, Dick, or Harry, and their sisters were all Ann, Jane, or Kate.

Dennie, that's a good strategy for getting names with the right age flavor. The subject of name fashions also reminds me of a nifty bit I saw. A YA novel set around the middle of this century has a character called Grandma Jennifer. Which seems just about right - by 2050, it will be a name lots of people's grandmothers have.

Seeing it out of context, "Hu" looks like a Chinese name - I don't know if it really is, but it gives that sort of impression. Though I suppose if I encountered it in a medieval English context I wouldn't think so.

Why is it that apostrophes in names have become such a fantasy cliche? More precisely, how did that habit get started?

Bernita said...

Yoy're fortunate to be able to do that, Erik.

"Gentle Fudge" - what an evocative name, Robyn.
The original gingerbread boy?
I tend to like short men's names.Force, vigor, strength and all that.
Have difficulty imagining a passionate moment with Florient, Peregrine or even Launcelot.

Bernita said...

A very good question, Rick. I have no idea.
Out of context, you're perfectly correct I'm afraid.
My answer to Tom, Dick and Harry is genealogy sites.
Though some names are surprising and, prima facie, might not convey the proper period in the eyes of the general public.

EA Monroe said...

Serendipty works for me, and intuition -- a name pops out when I least expect it. Maybe I am walking around in an altered state of consciousness when I am "visualizing" the story and characters. "Clues" abound in the environment, too. Native Americans once named their babies after the first thing they see upon the child's birth. Once upon a time, I sat at my kitchen table writing and the character "appeared" upon the page. Quick! A name. I looked at the refrigerator and on top of the fridge was a loaf of bread. Poor guy has been named after a loaf of bread ever since. No matter how many times I tried to change his name, he still wears the name from a loaf of bread. The Workman Family History Book also works.

Gabriele C. said...

I have to find names that follow the naming patterns of the respective historical setting. But I admit, I like names with several syllables and tend to pick those even if there are easier ones around. I hope Talorcan, Muirtholoic and Cailthearn, Raginamer and Mataswintha or Theodalinda will not kill the poor readers. I have some easier ones, too: Alamir, Ciaran, Roderic, Alastair, Kjartan, Maldras - and the Roman names who usually are less exotic, except the half-Greek Aurelius Idamantes.

BTW I could never get into Hobb's books because of characters called Fitz, Shrewd and other such. Those are no names for me.

Bernita said...

Don't think it matters a hootinhell where you get the names, EA, as long as it fits the character, or - which works sometimes - is diametrically opposed.

I might have a bit of trouble with Muirtholoic and Cailthearn for awhile as break-teeth names, Gabriele, but the rest would not bother me.
Besides they are all authentic to the periods, which I think is reasonably important.
I like Aurelius Idmantes.

Shesawriter said...

It's all in the body language, speech and attention to detail. The little things mean SO MUCH. I was reading an excerpt from Catcher ITR, and the character's voice (or the writer's) was so strong, and the attention to detail so vivid, that the character leapt off the page. I only read a paragraph, and I feel like I know this kid inside out.

Ballpoint Wren said...

No way, Dennie. "Espn McGee" is really out there?

I think the most creative namers out there today are spammers. I get a lot of mail from people like Elocution V. Firmest, Audibility Q. Incompatibilities, and Reyes P. Huffstutler.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I never actually thought about HOW I name a character. Do you know how sometimes you can look at a person and say, "You don't look like a Phyliss"...or some other name.

Well that's how I name characters, they sorta' have to 'look' like their name.

I know that sounds crazy, but I had written my whole first manuscript...and the heroine's name kept bugging me...I changed it. Now she looks like her name :-)

Jeff said...

I like uncommon names, but not ones I have trouble pronouncing.
I usually have to have a characters name firmly in place before I begin writing them.

Thanks for plugging my interview on Flash Flood, Bernita. :)

Bernita said...

I planned to get to those later, Tanya.

You've welcome, Jeff. A very small thing and a very interesting interview.

Some people have been eyeing the verication code jumbles as well, Wren.

Seems like a nature vs. nuture effect, Bonnie. Either fit the character to the name or fit the name to the character.

Sela Carsen said...

Most of the time my characters come to me either fully named or with a hint of a name -- my name starts with N or it's Russian or French in origin or it fits some distinctive part of my personality.

Did you ever read my blog entry about the worst romance heroine name EVER?

Vyrgynne St Sebastienne.

I swear to you I am not kidding. I didn't even get past the blurb once I saw that mouthful.

One wonders if she had to change her name once she and the hero had "relations." Notte A Vyrgynne Annymoore St Sebastienne.

Carla said...

Sela - Ha! Thanks for sharing that!

Rick - I always wonder when I pick up a novel of Mary Queen of Scots how the poor author is going to deal with Mary and her four Maries.

Bernita said...

Wonder if Blogger will let me post now?

Must have missed that one, Sela.Pity.
~suppressing rude snickers at the name~
Some of them do try waaay to hard, do they not?
Another wince is "Cherry" in a similar scenario - even though I know it was a pet form of "Charity" at one time.

"Mary Beaton and Mary Seaton and Mary Carmichael and me..."
Thought that was apocryphal, Carla.

M.E Ellis said...

D'you know, my kids pick my character's names.

When writing I call out, 'Man's/woman's name please!' and one gives me the first name. Then, 'Surname!' and someone else gives me that.

A little bit of my kids in my books, forever.

:o)

Carla said...

"Mary Beaton and Mary Seaton and Mary Carmichael and me..."

The song is apocryphal, it was written a couple of hundred years later in a different context and there was no Mary Carmichael, but Mary Stuart did indeed have four Maries as her chief ladies in waiting - Mary Seton, Mary Beaton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston. They went with her as children when she went to France to marry the Dauphin, and Mary Seton was still with her at the time of her execution.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla - couldn't remember which part was authentic and which part not.

Talented kids, Michelle - no surprise.

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