The Importance of Being Ernest Ernie Ernesto Jack

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When I was growing up, I loved reading the dictionary. Not the cheesy large print all-the-big-and-bad-words-removed dictionaries in the classrooms at school, but the old Webster’s dictionary we had at home with its tissue-thin pages that oozed musty old book smell. I’d bounce through the tiny print like I was on a scavenger hunt, each looked-up word always leading to another. But as much as I loved words in general, my favorite part of the book was the section at the back that listed common English names. I re-read this section ad nauseum.

Sparked by this name list, I started “collecting” names. Throughout my pre-teen and teen years, I had a blank book where I kept lists, quotes, clippings and ideas. The first thing in the book was a list of names that I liked.

It didn’t stop there. I still make note of names that intrigue me when I hear them and compile lists of names. In a way, my name obsession fuels my need to write. I have this theory that the names I am most drawn to, the ones I maybe heard or saw once, but can’t forget, belong to potential characters—characters not yet written, but conceived of in some form—and that this is why I noticed the names in the first place. Until I match a character with a name, they rattle around in my head, waiting.

I put substantial thought into naming my characters, probably more than a lot of people put into naming their children. Before I bond a character with a name, I want to know I’ve chosen the right one. I’ll often start a story using only pronouns—he, she or I—until I’m certain that I’ve locked onto the right names for the characters. Taking the time to select the perfect name is worth it. Having to change a name mid-story can shatter your whole concept of the character.

While a single name may be sufficient for characters in a short story, or minor characters in a novel, it’s a good idea to give the main characters in novels full names—First Middle Last—and consider all aspects of that name: birth name, nicknames or diminutives and the name the character prefers to use. If the character is adopted or if they use a pseudonym, there can be further variations. Parts of this name may never be revealed to the reader. What’s important is that you, the writer, know it.

Think of naming a character as the reverse of naming a person. Instead of choosing a name and hoping the person will fit it, you have an image of the character in your mind and now you have to find a name that fits them. But wait. What many people fail to remember when choosing a character name is who chose this name. Unless your character is using a pseudonym, a stage name or has legally changed their name for some reason, their parents will have chosen their name. You need to get inside their parents’ heads and decide what factors would have influenced them when they chose the name. You may decide that the parents would have chosen a name that’s completely unsuitable for the character. That’s okay, it happens. It would be unrealistic if every character had a fabulous birth name. If your character’s birth name conflicts with their personality, they’ll probably go by a nickname or some variation on their name.

When naming characters, realize that most of the common wisdom on naming doesn’t apply. Many parents ignore the advice of experts and choose precisely the names they are counseled to avoid. So instead of trying to sidestep the pitfalls and perils of naming, feel free to throw yourself into them, wholeheartedly.

10 Points to Ponder when Choosing a Character Name:

  1. Do you want your character’s name to be COMMON, TRENDY or UNUSUAL?
    • COMMON names are those that consistently make the most popular name lists, regardless of generation: Michael, Sarah. You might consider a common name if you’re trying to write a story that is “timeless” and don’t want the characters identified with a certain time period. However, a name like John Smith is too ubiquitous, unless you plan on having the name itself be a running joke in the story.
    • TRENDY names are names that are popular for a time. Karen and Susan were extremely popular names for girls born in the 1960s, but these names have disappeared off the popularity radar. Using a trendy name will invoke a certain decade and can be a way of implying your character’s age without actually saying it. If you like the idea of using a trendy name, you’ll need to find out what names were popular for children born in the decade your character was. The flip side of trendy names is that you should avoid using a name that’s indicative of an era other than the one your character was born in, unless there is a special reason for your character having this name. Mildred, which was popular in the early 20th century, would seem out of place on character born in the 1980s. Conversely, it would seem odd for a character in a story about WWI to be named Dakota.
    • UNUSUAL names include the made-up: creating Patriste by combining the names Patrick & Stephanie, the offbeat: September, and the familiar, but uncommon: Rhiannon. Even if you give your character an offbeat name, consider the year they were born and the likelihood of that name being chosen. A character named Rainbow who was born in 1969 is plausible, whereas one born in 1919 is not. Familiar but uncommon names work well for characters. Choose a name that is recognizable enough not to have to be explained, but unique enough that the reader will notice and remember it. By virtue of their low popularity, these names also have the advantage of not being tied to a particular era.
  2. If you do choose a common name, think about the possibility of using an ALTERNATE SPELLING. Consider the difference even a small change such as using Jon instead of John or Mari instead of Mary makes. However, it’s best to avoid spelling names in a way that makes them look misspelled: Kiel, Wakine, Rebacca —unless the peculiar spelling is integral to your story.
  3. Decide whether you want your character to have a UNISEX name: Kim, Tracy, or a GENDER-SPECIFIC name: Felicia, Roger. The femininity/masculinity of the name can have a bearing on how your readers view the character, but remember that it’s possible to modify most names. So even if you’re certain that your character’s mother would have given her a feminine name such as Melissa, you can have her go by Mel if you want her to project a less girly image. Another option is to give the character a gender-specific first name and a neutral middle—then you can choose which one they would use. Consider using last names as firsts and vice versa. A female name used as a last name, particularly with a male character, can be an unusual and interesting twist.
  4. Consider all possible NICKNAMES and DIMINUTIVES of the character’s full name. NICKNAMES include monikers based on physical characteristics or personality: Red, Smiley, pet names: Sweetie, Baby, as well as regular names a person uses in place of their own. In Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller’s character, Gaylord Focker, uses the name Greg. DIMINUTIVES are variations on a given name, which are usually shorter or cuter than the original. Diminutives of James include Jim, Jamie or Jimmy. Nicknames and diminutives can be temporary: a summer camp nickname, or permanent: Deborah might go by Debbie her whole life. They can also change over time: Barbara might be called Barbie as child and Barb as an adult. If you choose a nickname or diminutive for your character, consider who gave it to them, when and why.
  5. Check your character’s INITIALS to make sure they don’t spell out an unflattering word such as BUG or ASS, unless this is a part of your story.
  6. Say your character’s full name out loud. Does the name have a pleasing RHYTHM? Adjacent names that end/begin with the same sound can blur together: Darren Nathaniel. Think about rearranging the names if the combination doesn’t sound right. Think twice about cutesy combinations such as Gary Perry, Candy Kane or Rose Rose. Unless there is a reason for such a choice, the name will be a distraction. If the PRONUNCIATION of your character’s name is difficult: Siobhan (Shi-VAWN) or unusual: Marcia pronounced Mar-SEE-ah, rather than MAR-sha, do you plan to convey the correct pronunciation to your readers and if so, how?
  7. Consider the MEANINGS of the names you’ve chosen for your character. If you’re waffling between a couple names or spellings, what the names mean may help you finalize your decision. A meaning that fits the character always makes you feel confident that you’ve made the right decision. A neutral meaning is fine, but try to avoid names with meanings that clash with the character’s persona, otherwise you may have readers struggling to figure out why you chose Marvin, meaning “lover of the sea”, for a landlocked farmer character.
  8. Consider your character’s family HERITAGE, especially when choosing a surname. Opening up the phone book and choosing a name at random is often suggested as a method for choosing a last name, and it can work, but it’s important to select a name that’s appropriate: if your character is of Chinese descent, don’t name them Rossillini. If you’re trying to be historically accurate, have a look at census data for the region and years in question. Genealogy sites or your own family tree, maps and atlases are all good sources for names. News articles and magazines such as National Geographic are good sources for names from other countries. If you travel, jot down names for future reference. The character’s family background and ethnicity can also play role in deciding what given names to choose. For example, Catholics often choose saints’ names for their children. Consider whether the character’s family is embracing their heritage or trying to shed it, e.g. an immigrant family that is trying to fit in might choose English names for their children, whereas a family that’s rediscovering their roots may choose precisely the names their parents and grandparents avoided.
  9. Is your character a NAMESAKE? If so, who or what are they named after? Are family names de rigueur? Perhaps it’s tradition that the first son is named after the father or that the mother’s maiden name is passed on to the children. Maybe the parents chose the name to honor a friend, a mentor or someone famous they admire. Think about what other sources may have influenced their decision. A botanist might choose botanical names: Linnaea, Salix. A person who’s traveled a lot—or dreams of it—might choose place names: Paris, Milan. A Trekkie might choose names from the ships’ crews: Data, Scotty.
  10. Consider any STEREOTYPES associated with the name you’ve chosen. Realize that anyone named Elvis will be connected to Mr. Presley. This is fine if that’s a part of your story, but if it’s not, perhaps another name would be a better choice. Also, avoid selecting name combinations that are associated with well-known people: Tom Cruise. Unless there is a reason for such a choice, the name will be a distraction—readers will keep wondering why you chose it.

Finally, consider which form of their name the character prefers to use. This is your opportunity to consider the personality of your character, rather than that of their parents. Does your character dislike one or more of their given names and/or nicknames? Is there is conflict between what they prefer to be called and what other people call them? Perhaps Gwendolyn‘s family calls her Wendy despite her repeated requests for them not to. Do they go by different names depending on who they’re with? Robert might be called Bobby by his family, Robert at work and Rob by his friends. If your character is a married woman, does she use her own surname, her husband’s surname or a hyphenated combination?

Try out all the variations of the name you have chosen. A character named Davis Whitby Smith, could be known as D. Whitby Smith, Davis W. Smith, D.W. Smith, Dave Smith, Davey Smith, Whit Smith, Killer Smith, Buddy Smith, etc. Notice how your perception of the character changes depending on which aspect of the name you choose to emphasize. This is the name readers will identify with your character, so take your time and choose the perfect name.

When I chose a name for the main character in my novel, I wanted a first name that was familiar, but not overly common. I’d decided that his name would be his mother’s maiden name, so I wanted a name that would work both as a given and a family name. I settled on Riley, which means “valiant”. For his middle name, I wanted something generic, the kind of name people pick as middle names so often. I also thought it would be good if the name could work as a namesake — something that would’ve been trendy for the time period. Since he was born mid-60s, John works in that respect (Kennedys, Lennon, etc.). His last name proved most difficult. I wanted a name that would sound ethnic without being obviously a particular nationality. I started with Castillou, the name of a street I lived on when I was a kid, played around with that for a while and came up with St. Lucia. Since Lucia is used in a variety of languages and I’d already decided that one of the character’s grandparents had come from the Caribbean, St. Lucia was perfect.

It takes time to choose a name this way, but it’s worth it. In your quest to find the perfect name for your character, you’ll learn a lot about their background: their family, their past and their motivations. You may never reveal all of this information to your readers, but your awareness of it strengthens your story. If you don’t know the reasons behind your character’s name, then you don’t know Jack… er… Ernest.


Resources:

Character Naming:

Bestselling Naming Books at Amazon:

A Few Name Sites:

Other ideas:

Character Development Worksheet

Jam & Judicious Advice

Create a Character

NAME:
Nickname:
Meaning/History:
Notes:

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION:
Gender:
Age:
Age claimed:
Birthday:
Astrological sign:
Hair color:
Shape/style/length:
Eye color:
Vision:
Skin tone:
Marks (freckles, birthmarks, tattoos, scars):
Height:
Weight:
Build/Body shape:
Mannerisms:
Parents & Siblings:

RESIDENCE:
Country:
State:
County:
City:
Street:
Type of Home:
Condition of Home:
Reason/History of Home:
Time in this Home:
Roommates/Housemates/Guests/Family In Home:
Grounds:
Outside Upkeep Habits:
Interior Design:
Furnishings:
Inside Upkeep Habits:

PERSONALITY:
Character’s Best Trait (to character):
Character’s Actual Best Trait:
Character’s Worst Trait (to character):
Character’s Actual Worst Trait:
Character’s Motto (to character):
Character’s Actual Motto:
Hopes/Dreams/Desires:
Religion/Philosophy:
Politics:
Temperament:
Actions while Angry:
Actions while Happy:
Hates:
Reaction when presented with above:
Loves:
Reaction when above are threatened:
Vices:
Type of Self Rewards and When:
Type of Self Punishments and When:
Biggest Regret & Why:
Reaction to Adversity:
Reaction to Triumph:
Manners Alone:
Manners Around Same Gender:
Manners Around Opposite Gender:

CURRENT INFORMATION:
Time of Story (past, present, future, era):
Occupation:
Occupational goals:
Occupational “lingo”:
Awards/Recognition:
Emotional reaction to work:
Notes on “Work Personality”:
Skills:
Income:
Income goals:
Saves or spends:
Favorite thing to purchase:
Wants to purchase:
Hobbies/Leisure pursuits
Biggest accomplished achievement in life:
Awards/Recognition (non-work):
Current Relationship:
Relevant Friends:
How the character relates to each:
Current relationship with family members:
Politics:

BACKGROUND INFORMATION:
Birthplace:
Religion:
Feeling About Childhood:
Childhood Trauma:
How trauma affects character today:
Education:
Best/Worst/Favorite subject:
After school activities:
Biggest influence/Mentor:
Friends/Teachers/Relatives/Pets from past that could influence plot (includes invisible friends/dolls/bears):
Childhood habit hardest to break and how it affects character today:
What did they want to be when they grew up?
Special childhood abilities:
Childhood hideout:
Event that will affect plot:
Past relationships that affect plot:
Last relationship:
How did it end & why:

ETCETERA:
The most bizarre thing about your character:
The very best thing about your character:
The very worst thing about your character:

NOTES:


Basic Astrological Information

Aries
March 21st to April 21st
Keyword: “I AM”
Fire
Energetic, optimistic, courageous, impulsive, and open-minded.

Taurus
April 21st to May 21st
Keyword: “I HAVE”
Earth
Patient, stubborn, practical, dependable, and affectionate.

Gemini
May 21st to June 21st
Keyword: “I THINK”
Air
Responsive, lively, adaptable, versatile, and intellectual.

Cancer
June 21st to July 21st
Keyword: “I FEEL”
Water
Kind, loyal, imaginative, sensitive, and sympathetic.

Leo
July 21st to August 21st
Keyword: “I WILL”
Fire
Powerful, extravagant, exuberant, creative, and expansive.

Virgo
August 21st to September 21st
Keyword: “I ANALYZE”
Earth
Modest, industrious, organized, curious, and conscientious.

Libra
September 21st to October 21st
Keyword: “I BALANCE”
Air
Artistic, charming, peaceful, diplomatic, and harmonious.

Scorpio
October 21st to November 21st
Keyword: “I CREATE”
Water
Magnetic, intense, obstinate, passionate, and persistent.

Sagittarius
November 21st to December 21st
Keyword: “I PERCEIVE”
Fire
Generous, ambitious, adventurous, optimistic, and freedom loving.

Capricorn
December 21st to January 21st
Keyword: “I USE”
Earth
Prudent, steadfast, cunning, determined, and disciplined.

Aquarius
January 21st to February 21st
Keyword: “I KNOW”
Air
Assertive, friendly, original, inventive, and independent.

Pisces
February 21st to March 21st
Keyword: “I BELIEVE”
Water
Intuitive, emotional, romantic, compassionate, and mystical.

Crafting Memorable Characters

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

A convoluted, exciting plot or exotic, sensual setting is worthless without compelling characters. It doesn’t matter what happens in the story if the characters are boring, flat caricatures whom readers care nothing about. But like an episode of Seinfeld, a story “about nothing” can be entertaining if the characters are interesting. If readers care about the characters, they’ll keep reading.

Without a reason to care, readers will secretly hope a rogue Mack truck or pesky asteroid will swoop in and pulverize everyone. When this fails to happen, they’ll end their misery by closing the book—forever. If they don’t care what happens, why should they keep reading?

In his review of Accordion Crimes, Walter Kendrick of the NY Times lavished praise on Annie Proulx’s way with words, her attention to detail, and her impeccable research. He praises her prose as “brilliant”. And yet, he sums up his review by saying “Ms. Proulx wrings glorious language from her characters’ agony, yet in the end the spectacle is both repellent and trivial.”i

Accordion Crimesii is a novel without a single compelling character. The book follows an accordion as it passes through a series of owners, but these characters are generic and uninspired. They appear to exist only so that they can meet increasingly more ludicrous fates—even if they manage to generate an iota of sympathy, they aren’t around long enough for readers to bother. The lack of intriguing characters in Accordion Crimes makes the quality of the writing and the depth of the author’s research irrelevant.

One of the many negative reviews at Amazon reads, “I have been reading this book for months, am almost done with it, and I still don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, it is that uninteresting. This author writes marvelous prose and I loved “The Shipping News”, however, I have been totally unable to develop an interest in the characters, the accordion, the crimes; the total absence of humanity in any of these characters is remarkable. Should one become slightly interested in the fate of one of these families, it is too late, as they will be devastated by a weird calamity and that will be the end of them. This book was eminently putdownable.”iii

Naturally, we want to prevent this from happening in our own writing. We want to create characters so convincing that they keep readers turning pages, characters who, like Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler, Heathcliff, Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer, Anna Karenina, Jay Gatsby, Ebenezer Scrooge and Jo March, are so memorable they stick in our minds long after the details of the plot have faded.iv

A memorable character is composed of three basic elements: they must have a history, they must need or want something, and they must have both good and bad qualities.

A HISTORY. Characters must have a history and you, the writer, must know this history. Based on their past, you know how they’ll act and react in whatever situation they find themselves in. But even though you may know such minutiae about your character as their favorite brand of toothpaste, the color of their hair at birth or how their front tooth was chipped, it’s not necessary for your readers know all these details. Many times even more significant information can be left unsaid. In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway said: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”v

To use Hemingway himself as an example, in The Sun Also Risesvi, we know that Jake Barnes is unable to perform sexually, but Hemingway never actually comes right out and supplies us with all the gory details of Jake’s injury. That in itself is not important. What is important are the consequences of that injury: how the characters react to it.

A NEED. Characters must want or need something. It’s what makes what you’re writing a story! Sometimes characters may not know what they want, but you, the writer, must know. Characters may achieve what they want/need or they may be stymied in their attempt to possess it, but regardless of how the story turns out, they must be given a choice of actions on the way to the conclusion. They can make the wrong choice, the right choice or choose not to choose, but if they don’t have the opportunity, you don’t have a story. Readers don’t want to feel that the character’s fate has been predetermined. There needs to be an element of surprise, the possibility that things could turn out more than one way—that’s what keeps them reading.

Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of Anne of Green Gablesvii, wants a place to call home and a family who loves her. When she is selected from the orphanage by an acquaintance of people who are looking for a child, she thinks her dreams have been answered. But it turns out a mistake has been made—the bachelor brother and spinster sister wanted a boy to help out on their farm, not a girl. Do they keep her or send her back? And so it goes through the book. While the story ultimately has a happy ending, Anne faces a series of obstacles on her road to happiness and each time there is a choice to be made.

BOTH GOOD & BAD QUALITIES. The more “human” characters are, the more believable they’ll be. Real people are not 100% good or 100% evil; they fall somewhere in between. Let your characters exhibit inconsistencies in behavior: an otherwise perfect priest may be unable to keep his vow of celibacy, a sweet stay-at-home mom may clean her house in the nude, a straight-A college student may be addicted to methamphetamines.

In Belovedviii by Toni Morrison, Sethe kills one of her children. But this terrible act doesn’t make readers hate her, instead, we feel more deeply for her and her plight and we wonder what we would we do if we were in her situation. It’s the protagonist’s defects that endear them to readers. Real people are not martyrs; they behave in ways that are not always admirable. No one can relate to a character who’s perfect.

Readers need to see a little bit of themselves in the characters, and that goes for antagonists too. Give your antagonist some good qualities—this will make them human and real, rather than impossibly wicked: a serial killer may break down when his cherished dog is run over, a cliquey high schooler who torments less popular students may be the primary caregiver for an ailing parent. Don’t tell your readers to hate your antagonist; let them make up their own minds.

If you provide your characters with a history, a need, and both good and bad qualities, your readers will be engrossed to the last page and will close the book dreaming of sequels. And perhaps your characters will even become iconic, like Jake, Anne and Sethe. Characters that have transcended the books they live in. Characters that everyone recognizes and no one can forget.


iWalter Kendrick, “The Song of the Squeeze-Box”, The New York Times, June 23, 1996

iiE. Annie Proulx, Accordion Crimes, Scribner, 1996

iiiAmazon.com reviews of Accordion Crimes

ivHolden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger), Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler (Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë), Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain), Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy), Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald), Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens), Jo March (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

vErnest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, Scribner, 1932

viErnest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, Scribner, 1926

viiL.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables,1908

viiiToni Morrison, Beloved, Knopf, 1987