Naming Names

A banner saying, Your Name Here."
© Can Stock Photo / MSPhotographics

Just received my weekly newsletter from a fellow writer. In this issue, he discussed his technique for naming his characters.

Naming your characters is something all fiction writers must do, but coming up with the best names isn’t as easy as some may think. In fact, it can be downright challenging. I think we all have different ways of doing this. In reading my friend’s article, I noticed his way of coming up with character names is very different than mine.

My approach for naming my characters is simple and straightforward. I create names that are reasonably common and that most readers can relate to.

Choosing with the right surname

I don’t use Smith, Jones or Johnson as they’re so common they’re almost a cliche. I prefer using familiar surnames, such as Palmer, Campbell, Bennett, and Walsh. One of my friends once mentioned that her maiden name is Bennett. I really liked the name, so I asked her if she would mind my using it for one of my lead characters. She was certainly flattered, but I highly recommend asking before using a friend’s surname, even if theirs is a common one. You don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.

There have also been plenty of times when I’ve gotten stuck trying to figure out the right surname. This is why I keep an old white pages phone book. I’ve been known to open it to a random page and skim through the listings until something pops out at me.

Finding the right first name

For me, this is where it becomes a lot more fun. I write contemporary romance, and my novels are much like the soap operas I watched years ago. Therefore, I’ll sometimes give my characters the same first name as a favorite soap opera character.

For example, two of the characters in my Marina Martindale novel, The Stalker, are named Rachel and Alice. I grew up watching the now defunct soap opera, Another World. It was famous for its ongoing feud between two characters named Rachel and Alice. Their feud began while I was in grade school, and it lasted all the way through college. So, to pay homage, I named my leading lady Rachel, which is also a popular Millennial generation name. I then named her sister Alice. But unlike their Another World namesakes, the two characters have a close relationship. And, because the name Alice is less common today, I also named their grandmother Alice, as many families name children after their grandparents or great-grandparents.

I also invested in a baby name book. It contains hundreds, if not thousands of names, including many different ethnic names. It’s a handy tool that I often use.

Naming fictional businesses and places

Naming a fictional place is just as important as naming your characters. Again, you want names that are reasonably common that readers can relate to. Another Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion, is set in Denver. Jeremy, a supporting character, works as a bartender at a sports bar called O’Malley’s Grill. When I was a kid, we had next door neighbors named O’Malley, and I always thought it was a cool name. However, before using it, I did an online search to make sure there were no bars or restaurants in Denver with that same name. Whenever naming any fictional business always make sure there is no business with that name in the location your using.

And finally, a disclaimer

With over three hundred million people living in the United States, and billions more on the planet, it really doesn’t matter how you create your character’s names. There will be real people out there with the same names. This is why you need to include a disclaimer in the frontmatter of your book. Make sure you clearly state that your story is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

GM

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Redeemable vs Non-redeemable Villains

© Can Stock Photo / hjalmeida

I enjoy streaming a syndicated radio talk show called, Ground Zero with Clyde Lewis. The show has interesting, offbeat topics. Listening helps me unwind at the end of a busy workday. The other night Clyde talked about the latest Godzilla movie. He described how the title character has evolved from an evil beast to a defender of the planet. That’s quite a leap indeed, and it was a fascinating discussion.

(To hear a podcast please click on the link above.) 

While I don’t write science fiction or horror myself, those genres do allow more leeway for using symbolism for political undertones. This may be the case with Godzilla. However, there are certain unwritten rules that fiction authors must follow because it’s what readers expect. High on the list is that good always triumphs over evil.

Fiction plotlines, regardless of genre, are conflict driven. The antagonist creates the conflict when he or she interferes with the protagonist. The antagonist is there to block whatever goal the protagonist is trying to achieve. This is why most antagonists are villains. And the more devious and evil the villain, the more drama and intensity to the story.

In real life, however, people can and do make poor choices. Some learn from their mistakes. In fiction, they would be redeemable characters. For example, Josh, from my most recent Marina Martindale novel, The Letter, is a con artist. He’s working a Ponzi scheme with two unseen characters. However, as the character took shape I noticed he had some redeeming qualities. So, I did a rewrite and made him into a redeemable villain. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll sum it up and say that things aren’t always as they appear.

Most of my villians, however, are unrepentant. Some, like Maggie in The Deception, remain defiant, even while they’re carted off to prison. Most however, are their own undoing. They police shoot them, or they’re killed in accidents while trying to escape. They’re the unredeemable villains. The Godzillas, who have to have their comeuppance, otherwise readers won’t accept it. After all, karma’s a bitch. Not only in fiction, but in real life as well.


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Outline or Treatment?

© Can Stock Photo / katielittle25

It can be a perplexing question for authors, particularly newbies. Do you write an outline, or a treatment, before you begin your book? Or do you just sit down and start writing?

Outlines are recommended for nonfiction books. They can be more precise. However, this blog is for fiction writers, so I’m going to talk about what is the best approach for us. And that is to write a treatment.

A treatment is a short summary of what your story will be about. The amount of detail you wish to include is entirely up to you. Some fiction authors may choose to write treatments summarizing each chapter. Others simply write a brief one or two paragraph description. It’s all a matter of personal preference. We’re creative writers, not technical writers, and the keyword is creative. For us, writing is an art, not a science.


My treatments tend to be short; no more than one to one and a half pages. My objective is how I will begin my story, and how I will end it. I used to fret over what to include in the middle. However, experience has taught me to keep it brief. The details will come after I begin writing. In other words, my treatment is my launching point.


Some fiction writers write bios for their characters, and that’s certainly okay. However, I don’t do it myself. My characters come to life rather quickly, and once that happens they have minds of their own. (This may sound freaky to non writers, but every fiction writer experiences this.)

Some authors like to refer back to their treatments as they write. And that’s perfectly okay. I prefer to put my treatment aside once I begin my story. As your characters come to life you may want to go in a different direction than you originally planned. Other ideas may come to you as you delve deeper into your story. Again that’s okay. We’re creative writers. This is how creativity works. 

Once my manuscript is complete I like to go back and look at my treatment. My books never end up as described in the original treatment. They always turn out better. That’s because I let my creativity flow as I write, and many new ideas will pop into my head as I go. My favorite example would be my first Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion.

One of my supporting characters, a young man named, Jeremy, was intended to be a rogue character. He would do his dirty deed and quickly disappear from the story. However, Jeremy was also leading man Ian’s son. And as I got into the story, I soon realized that Ian would never have a son like that. So, Jeremy went from rogue villain to a rival, competing with his father to win leading lady Gillian’s affections. This made for a completely unexpected twist in the story that resonated with me, and my readers. 


As I’ve evolved as a writer, my treatments have also evolved. They’ve become less detailed and more generalized. But, as I’ve stated before, how you choose to write your treatment is entirely up to you. As far as I’m concerned, there is no right or wrong way to go about it. 


GM

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How to Create an Interesting Villain

© Can Stock Photo / Ostill

It seems like I spend so much time thinking about the good guys that I forget the bad guy needs love too. Plot lines revolve around conflict. So, there must be a source behind that conflict. And that would be the antagonist. More commonly known as the villain.


There are different approaches to creating a villain. One is to have him or her truly evil and completely irredeemable. Think Count Dracula. Your readers will hate him and root for the good guys to wipe him out. This is the villain you can kill off at the end of the story, and leave your readers feeling relieved and satisfied.


A more interesting approach is to create a conflicted villain. Instead of Count Dracula, you have Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire from Dark Shadows. Barnabas had been a good guy until a witch placed a vampire curse him. This leaves him despising what he’s become. I think of Barnabas as a “hero-villain.” He’s an antagonist we can root for. We want to see him cured of his affliction and end up with the girl. In the interim, however, he’ll wreak plenty of havoc.


Some storytellers like to take chances and have their hero go bad. Interesting approach, but it can be tricky. If you’re going to attempt it, your character will need plenty of redeeming qualities. If not, your readers won’t make a connection, and they won’t root for him or her. By the end of the story he or she will have to renounce all the bad things they did earlier. They must also be willing to make up for the sins of the past. If not, your readers won’t be satisfied with the ending, assuming they stayed with your story until the end.


Another way to conclude your story would be to end a tragedy with a tragedy. This works well when your villain has done things that simply can’t be walked away from. At the end of the original Star Wars saga, Darth Vader renounces the emperor and turns away from the dark side of the force. He has to sacrifice his own life in order to save Luke. This made a dramatic, and satisfying, end of the conflict.


So there you have it. With a little imagination, and a few character quirks, you can create interesting and memorable villains who’ll keep your readers engaged. And that’s what good storytelling is all about.

GM

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