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Finding a suitable name for your charcter is one of the most crucial decisions you’ll have to make during writing your story. It will have a huge impact on how the readers see the character and there’s a possibility you’ll change your perception of the charcter as well.

How to go around naming the character?

Three things can influence your character’s name. Their gender, their background and their personality. The wrong name will cause your reader discomfort that might even influence their overall opinion about your story. All you have to do is to give it some thought and put some work into choosing the right name.

Gender

Let’s face it, this limits your choices in an obvious way. You won’t name a boy Mary, nor will you call a girl Jeremy. This in mind, remember there are names that nowadays are suitable for both males and females. Names such as Sam, Chris, Jo or Terry are common among both sexes.

However, you as a writer need to remember that those names are usually shorter versions of names that in no doubt are in the charcter’s birth certificate. And so the personality can be influenced by both, the short name the character uses every day and the full name that he or she might be reffered as.

For example. Will Sam’s behaviour change when her grandmother calls her Samantha? Who calls Samuel Sam and how does that influence reader’s perception of the character?

Background

First background information you need to consider when choosing a name is your character’s ethnicity and family history. Irish names will differ from Scottish and English ones. And if you call your American hero Jose, your readers are going to assume he’s of a Spanish or Mexican decent.

Choosing the right name is especially important if your story is a historical piece. Amber or Mike might be suitable for contemporary characters, but if you use those name in your historical romance placed in 16th century England, you will be known as the writer who doesn’t care enough to do some proper research.

Personality

Some say that name doesn’t have any influence on one’s personality. That might be true, however, if you call your character Tiffani and claim she’s sensible and wise… Well, people might have a hard time believing that.

Literary Liaisons also points out that if you end a name on a hard sound like “t” or “s” your character will automatically seem stronger. Therefore Kent will be more confident than Hugh and Ella will be sweeter and softer than Brooke.

Also, with the Internet at your feet, you can surf through various sites that offer you meanings of every name and then name your character after their main trait.

Balance

It’s very important to make sure there are not too many names in your story that share the same characteristic. You can’t have too many people with unusual names. Your story can’t consist of characters with names starting only with the letter J (unless that is the point). Why? First of all your reader might have a problem with following which character is the main focus at the moment or who’s talking. And it’s not very creative :).

Stumble It!

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Look at the title. Who would say it this way? Given that I actually created the sentence correctly, the answer that pops to your mind should me “Yoda! Yoda! Green dwarf full of sex, Yoda!” Okay, I pushed it too far.

But my point is, just by the speech pattern, you were able to recognize the character. And ideally, readers should be able to recognize at least your key players. I’m not saying that you should have a character defy the grammar and be labeled as a freak (let’s face it, not many people can pull the same stunt as Yoda and survive). But there are so many ways to express yourself and the characters you’re writing. An English gentleman will speak differently than a teenage girl from Queens. What scares me the most about some writers is that they don’t seem to realize the difference.

Make sure your characters don’t sound like you.

As Jeff from “Keep Me In Suspense” puts it:

To me, that’s either laziness or ignorance coming out. Either the author doesn’t realize that his or her characters all sound that way [i.e. like the author] – and that that’s a bad thing – or he or she doesn’t want to do the hard work of making the characters realistic and differentiated.

As a writer, you already have a certain speech pattern burnt into your brain. It’s because of your upbringing, people you socialize with and so on. However, you need to remember, that there’s very little chance that the vampire you write about will be around people with the same speech pattern as you. So you need to keep that in mind at all times.

Another thing is your favorite phrases and words you use very often. I’m sure you have some. I know I do. Like ‘Nonetheless’, ‘Oi!’, ‘Just sayin’, ‘I was just being polite.’ I have a certain type of intonation (often described by others as ‘sarcasm’). It’s important you realized your own little sayings. Because when you know them, you can control them and make sure they don’t sneak up on your characters.

A character using a bit sophisticated word like ‘nonetheless’, Britishism like ‘oi!’ and the pattern I picked up from American movies is possible (hello, me) but unlikely to be one of your characters. See, unless you actually have time to explain the character’s roots the speech pattern like that would only cause confusion. And it’s better to have your characters sound ‘strong’.

Let the character’s personality and background influence the way they speak.

That’s pretty well self-explanatory, right? But let’s go with some examples.

Gregory the English Gentleman. If he’s the essence of everything we know about English gentlemen, he will be always polite, with a little stick up his ass. He will form proper sentences, maybe even won’t use any abbreviations. If caught swearing, there’s no chance he’ll utter ‘fuck’. Most probable are British swear words like ‘bugger’, ‘bollocks’ or maybe ‘go shag yourself, Smithers’.

Keesha the Teenager from Queens. She would either use some sort of slang or she’ll pretend to be one of the cool kids by mixing the slang with normal English to appear cool. She will most likely cut ‘g’ from the ‘-ing’ form, use ‘ain’t’ and say ‘wanna’ and ‘gonna’ instead of ‘want to’ and ‘going to.’ She would also make a lot of references to movies, tvshows and such.

Stephen the PI (you might remember him from Fleshing out Characters). We established that he’s a very private person. So he will most likely use short sentences. Go right to the point. He’s a PI and he was a cop. So his vocabulary will be full of codes the police uses to identify the crimes and slang specific to law enforcement officers.

Three different characters. Three different ways of writing their dialogue and inner thoughts. Yes it might be adding to your work. But it’ll pay off. Because if in some weird cracked up universe, those three characters meet and start chatting? I won’t have to keep adding ‘said Stephen’, ‘yelled Keesha’, ‘muttered Gregory’ after each sentence and dialogue line. My readers will have a certain idea about who’s who in this game.

Use punctuation marks to indicate the speaking pattern.

I always considered that an obvious rule. But I was surprised to see writers unintentionally mislead the readers by using the wrong punctuation mark at the end of their dialogue lines. There are three punctuation marks misused the most.

Full stop / period ( . )
The most common. Used with statements and any kind of sentences that aren’t strongly emotional. You can’t finish a sentence with a full stop and then add that the character yelled. Because either your editor will call you names or your readers will call you on it.

Ellipsis ( …)
Let’s make things clear. Like with semicolons ( ; ), there’s a certain rule about ellipsis. You don’t use it, unless you have to. Ellipsis implies that the sentence isn’t finished. It leaves the readers hanging. So unless your character is wondering about something, doesn’t finish a sentence to make a ‘meaningful pause’ or is too afraid to finish the sentence… Use a period. (See what I just did? Also a good example of when you can use ellipsis)

Exclamation mark ( ! )
Your character is yelling or having an emotional reaction to something? Alright. You can use the exclamation mark. And don’t you dare using it in any other situation. Also. More than two exclamation marks in one dialogue line? That’s a first hint you need to change something. You see, exclamation mark is like CAPS in netspeak. Not very realistic, implies that the character yells all the time, and to be honest, is a bit annoying.

I told you that you can base your character’s speaking pattern on his or hers background. To see if you actually know how to do that you can try it backwards.

Write a dialogue between two different characters (it would work best with characters you’ve never written before or know very little about). And when you’re done, try to tell them apart. Try to say something about their past, their experiences, childhood, social circles and age.

Stumble It!

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creativewriting.png

You already know a thing or two about creating a character. I wrote about some basics in my “Search and Destroy: Mary Sue” article.
What I’m about to write here will be closely connected to that previous post.

There are many ways of creating a character. And however you do it, I want you to remember one thing:

You will always know more about your character than your reader will ever be able to learn.

So:

RULE ONE: Don’t force information about your characters onto your readers.

To address the newest buzz.
Let’s say you’re character is gay.
Not many authors have the opportunity to give the readers additional information in interviews, like JKRowling did. The vast majority approaches the subject more like Neil Gaiman.
So ask yourself this: How relevant is this to the plot?

Stephen is a PI. He recently accepted a job from Nicole, a woman one could describe as an old fashioned femme-fatale. He needs to find Nicole’s nephew before Evil Uncle John takes over the family empire.

See, I know Stephen is gay. But unless it becomes a part of the plot, I won’t be including it in the story. So I have to ask myself if this fits anywhere in the story.
Was Stephen fired from the PD because of his sexuality? Is Nicole trying to seduce him to manipulate him into helping her? Is Stephen’s boyfriend somehow connected to Evil Uncle John? Or is he Stephen’s ‘contact’ in the PD?

Questions like that will help you whether or not ANY aspect of your character is relevant and should be placed in the story.

RULE TWO: Show, not Tell.

This particular rule applies to most aspects of your story, not only your characters. But it’s especially important if your readers are to like characters you introduce.

Stephen is patient, methodic and a romantic at heart. He only drinks Earl Grey tea and is allergic to seafood. He’s also a very private person and is uncomfortable sharing personal details with strangers.

Those are some of the facts I know about Stephen. And because they define him, I want readers to know them too.
But I can’t simply list them somewhere in the story. Because me saying so won’t make Stephen patience appear from nowhere. BUT, if Stephen explains to Nicole for the sixth time that “no, she cannot go with him to see Evil Uncle John”, and remains calm despite her ‘whining’… Then yes. Situation like this really shows Stephen has patience. And should in fact be a saint.

See how that works?

Introduce your character by showing them in situations that will show their personality, their quirks and mannerisms.

RULE THREE: Allow for exceptions.

It’s not so much a rule but an exception from two previous rules. And you can use it if you’re planning to target your novel at certain people.
Let’s go back to Stephen’s gayness to illustrate that.

If I wanted to target The “Stephen the PI” novel at a gay community, than I would make a point of the fact that Stephen is in fact gay. I would throw in some domestic scenes between Stephen and his partner. Hell, I would even started the novel itself with some domestic bliss interrupted with a phonecall from Nicole.

If you’re targetting your own novel at some specific audience you need to make sure your main character (or at least any of your minor characters) is a part of that community.

You want all those insecure teenage girls to read your book? It needs to start a teenage insecure girl.
And so on and so forth.
True targeting your novel is more of a marketing area but it still needs to be introduced at an early stage so you can tweak the character and make it fit.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts?

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No story can go on for long without a main character. So at some point every writer has to create a protagonist. Or, if you’re into the current trend, an anti-hero. At this point it doesn’t really matter. Because I’m about to introduce you to your biggest enemy. Your worst nightmare.

The Mary Sue.

She’s a female character (for most of the time but not always) with unusual name and eye/hair color, beautiful, charming, managing to woo everybody in the radius of 100 feet.
Yes, I’m exagerating. But only a little.

The fact is. Everybody, every writer in his or hers career wrote a character that was a Mary Sue. And I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Afterall, the best way to learn is to make mistakes.

My first Mary Sue, or to be more specific, one that I actually written down was a vampire Slayer. Yes. As in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Only she was literally a Vampire Slayer. A Slayer that was turned into a Vampire. Her name was Sylia and she was from Eastern Europe. She had an amazing voice that could charm anyone. And she had a cross tatooed on her wrist. And she was a DayWalker.

I was seventeen.

I tell you this, and risk total humiliation, because I want to show you how this works. At the time of her creation, I considered Sylia to be extremely original. I was sure nobody came up with such a cool and witty character. Only to discover, 5 months later, A Mary Sue litmus test. Which showed me just how much original Sylia was. (for original characters check here)

But it was good. It made me realize that the main character of the story, be it an original fiction or a fanfic, cannot be too beautiful, too smart, too perfect.
Perfect means boring. And no reader will indentify with a perfect character. No reader will like a boring, perfect character.

Now. Mary Sue is a bigger problem in longer stories. Where you have time and various opportunities to show how the character deals with different problems and situations. Where you can describe what kind of interactions the character has with others.
So basically, the longer the story the bigger the risk of spawning a Mary Sue.

I suppose at this point, especially if you read the articles in the links I provided, some of you might be scared shitless of writing anything. Because you’d rather not write a Mary Sue and become a target for all the potential readers that might call you on that.
Don’t worry. If that was the case nobody would be writing anything.

So how to make sure your character isn’t a Mary Sue?

First and foremost make sure (s)he’s not perfect. Character flaws allow for the character to develop in the duration of your story. Which at the same time shows to the readers that your character can actually learn and improve. Proves that your character is human (or a vampire or a demon or an alien, whatever you like).

If your character saves the world, make sure they have help. And that they actually need help.

If Tolkien‘s Gandalf was more powerful and wiser he would realise that he could use the big birds to fly that damn ring to Mordor and drop it into the mountain.
But that would make for a very short book and not very good movie, don’t you think?

Other traits that will save your character from being called a Mary Sue?

A phobia. A certain type of social awkwardness. A physical flaw. Personality flaw like being easily irritated, reckless not especially bright.

See? There is a lot of way to ensure your character doesn’t end up on the wrong side of Mary Sue line. It just takes a bit of work and consideration.

My advice:
Don’t second-guess yourself during the process of creating a character. Write down everything you know about the character. Then leave it for a day or two and then return adn edit any or all signs of Mary Sue-ish characteristics.

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