Monday, March 19, 2012

Writing topics: CHARACTERS

I can't count the number of people who have asked me, "Where do your characters come from?" The answer is, "They come from my head." Since that's true, they all have their genesis in what's been put inside my head. But that includes everything I've seen, heard, or read in my life. Since things go in there and mush around a bit before they come out, there's no way of telling which inputs fostered which outputs. (Sorry, slipping into programmer mode--I'll try not to do that again.)

Okay, that's where they come from, my subconscious. But what's the best way to treat them once they pop out?

I'm the happiest when a character stems from a name. Therefore I collect names. If I hear a good one on a TV game show, I write it down. If I see an interesting one on a nametag, same. I get them from billboards, phone books, my spam files, and sometimes from actual face to face people. A name that isn't quite working can be improved by changing one or two letters, sometimes, not always.

But if my character has completely the wrong name, the guy won't do anything. He'll lie on the page like a slug. He won't look like anything, he'll never perform an original action--he's dull. I once had one like that who was supposed to be the romantic interest. Ugh. No one could be interested in that dud. But I searched around inside my mind and found a much better name. VoilĂ ! He came to life! Now my main character could work up some feelings for him.

One thing that bugs me in some of the books I read is character names that confuse me. If the author does nothing to distinguish them from each other, after only an initial description, I don't even bother to remember who is who. In an attempt to avoid annoying my readers like that, I put each character's name, first and last, on a spreadsheet and alphabetize them. If I can manage it, I don't have any characters with the same first initial. I think it help to vary the number of syllables, too. It's hard to tell Pete from Dick from John, or Mary from Jane from Beth, because they're all four-letter names of one syllable. Boring, bland, and indistinguishable.

I'd like to hear any other writing tricks for creating characters. Also if, as a reader, characters bother or annoy you, can you say why? Is it the way they've been created? Or just the way they're acting? Sometimes that can't be helped. They have to live up to their names.

All illustrations in public domain from commons wikimedia.


  1. I think paying attention to character name within a genre is important, too. For example, in YA it can be very telling about how "with it" the author is. You don't typically have a lot of teenagers named Betty or Bertha nowadays. Also, in order not to confuse your reader, stay way from having characters whose names start with the same letter. You mentioned that in your post and it's a very good rule of thumb!

  2. Oh, I forgot another thing I sometimes do, more appropriate for a novel than a short story. I like to give characters the names their parents would have given them, so the name of a character kind of reflects the previous generation, rather than the character herself. A nickname can do that, though.