Characters & Viewpoints

Creating Character Names

What’s in a name? Contrary to what William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo & Juliet, a name can say a lot about you. Certain names have certain associations or ideas linked to them. A character’s name can excite, terrify, or bore a reader (can you imagine Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes sounding interesting if their names were Roger Wilkes or Hugh Liddell? I can’t). There’s a reason why parents obsess so much over a baby’s name. They know that, one way or another, the name they give their baby will have an effect on it. And as the parents of our characters, we authors go through a lot of work to decide on names for our characters.

Occasionally though, we end up stuck for a name. We can’t think of one, no matter how hard we try. And if it’s an important character, we can’t proceed until they have a name. So what do we do? I have some ideas on what to do in these situations:

1. Use a name dictionary. Plenty of bookstores carry books filled with the most popular baby names, as well as names you’ve never heard of and names you didn’t think could ever exist (ever hear of Grunka? Neither have I, but apparently it’s a girl’s name in Sweden). You can even find dictionaries for names that are sorted by region, by what years they were most in use, by sex, by culture, by just about anything you can think of. The possibilities are endless.

And if you need a striking last name, I’ve got just the thing: some universities have directories on their websites that allow students, faculty, and staff to find contact information much more easily (my wonderful Ohio State does, by the way). An unintended consequence of this is that it provides a great place for finding surnames for characters, especially since it’s a big school with students and teachers from every walk of life imaginable. Two characters from my upcoming novel Snake, Blake Harnist and Angela Murtz, got their family names right off of OSU’s directory. It’s also great for first names too (though I couldn’t find Grunka on there).

2. Look to history and literature. Ancient Greek history, the Bible, A Thousand and One Nights, the age of colonization, Chinese folktales, Elizabethan England, philosophers throughout the ages. Any one of these is a great source for a character name. You never know what interesting name you’ll find among them that could be just the perfect fit for a character. For example, one of the main characters from Snake, Allison Langland, got her last name from a contemporary of Shakespeare whom I read about in an English class back in 2012. The name fit everything I was looking for in Allison’s surname, and I ended up using it. And with these sources and so many more, there’s got to be some great names out there (just avoid using Oedipus if you can).

3. Look through a cemetery. As creepy as cemeteries can be, they make great places to find people’s names. JK Rowling said that she got the name of Gilderoy Lockhart partly from a gravestone. And you can find the most interesting names in a cemetery: Hamoud, Earps, Rosen, Kraczynski, MacBannon, Chang, Gupta, Owusu. And that’s just last names! Imagine what you can find with first names, especially in an age when some parents like to give their kids very unique names.

4. Name a character after someone you know or admire. The nicest thing an author can do for someone sometimes, besides dedicating a book to them or listing them in the acknowledgements section, is to name a character after them. It makes a great gift, and you can even model the character or make them a parody of the person being named. It can almost be like an inside joke between you two.

Just be careful whom you name your characters after: sometimes if you name a character after someone you know, they may feel entitled to tell you as the author what they think of “their character”. For example: “my character does what, exactly?” “My character would never say this or flirt with that sort of person!” “Why the heck is my character a ginger?”

5. Use a name you dislike. Granted, you hate the name and would at the very least hesitate before using it for a character. But in situations where the naming of a character is proving difficult, using a name you dislike might be worth it. For example, I dislike naming my characters Jack or John (no offense to anyone who is actually named Jack or John, it’s just that those names are used too much, so I tend not to use them). However if I was sutck on a name and I thought Jack or John might work with my character, I’d use it.

I would probably never use Bella though. Stephanie Meyer kind of ruined that name for me.

6. Derive a name from another language. In many languages, people’s names are the same or similar to words reflecting plants, animals, objects, events, or concepts. You could name a character after the Hebrew word for mystery (“Taloma”) or the Japanese word for island (“Shima”). You can also take names from dead languages or languages that aren’t used much anymore. What would be the Latin, ancient Egyptian, or Yiddish word for something you believe describes your character? You never know until you find out.

7. Just make up something new. I believe I said earlier that parents are starting to name their kids in very unique ways (“Apple”, “Brick”, “Bronx Mowgli”, and “Tripp” come first to my mind). You could make up something new and interesting for your character, especially in a fantasy or science fiction story. Use random syllables or sounds and see what comes together. I’m pretty sure that’s how they named most of the characters in Star Wars, anyway.

However you end up naming your characters though, it’s up to you to figure out what is the right name for them and yours alone. So remember to have fun with it and not get too worked up about it. If you dislike a character’s name after a while, you can always go back and change it if you want to. I’ve done that before, and I’m sure I’m not the first author to do so. Nor will I be the last, either.

Happy naming, everyone.

Categories: Book Setup, Characters & Viewpoints, General Writing, The Writer & Author | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Creating A Great Antagonist

The antagonist or antagonists of a story are often the central driving force to the story or what causes the central driving force to come into being. That being said, a lot of thought has to go into creating an antagonist, especially the central antagonist. In fact, for horror novelists such as myself, it’s often one of the first things we come up with in a story, and what we often use to describe our stories to others (ex. “an evil clown demon terrorizes a small town”, “a cult leader with horrifying dark powers and those who stand against him”, “two children fall through a doorway to a world where the demonic ruler has a terrifying interest in the young boy”).*

When designing antagonists (human or otherwise), there are a few things I try to keep in mind in order to make them as evil/terrifying/monstrous as possible. Here’s some of them (the ones I’ve identified, anyway. I’m still new at this and I’m still identifying what I do, what works and what I should probably stop doing):

1. What does your antagonist want? I’m going to use a villain from a hypothetical novel, because I don’t think this is the best place to advertise any of my own books(as fun as that might be). And since I’m watching Once Upon a Time while watching this, I’m going to say…my villain wants to take over the magic kingdom. Why does this villain want to do it? Perhaps he’s a sociopath (I’m going to make it a male villain) who just wants power, mayhem and murder. Perhaps he’s the illegitimate child of the King’s eldest daughter, there was a really bad scandal where they murdered to keep things under wraps and he’s got some mommy issues. Or maybe he’s thinking he’s doing the kingdom a favor by trying to avert a prophecy about the current regime and the destruction about the kingdom, so he’s willing to do some very terrible things to avert disaster. Any of these or even a combination could work. This is also a step where I try to create as much backstory as needed to explain how my villain came to be, though if I need to I can hold that off till much later in the story, when it becomes much more relevant to the story to explain why my villain is so evil and screwed up.

2. What are my villain’s means of getting what he wants? Every villain has a means of getting what they want. Maybe he’s a very dangerous, highly-trained assassin. Perhaps he has magic powers, or a mercenary army with enough magical weapons to do a miniature Chernobyl. It can be anything, as long as you can make it plausible in the universe of your story.

3. Who opposes my villain? I’m going to assume the protagonist. Perhaps it’s the crown prince of the kingdom, who just found out about his elder sister’s illegitimate son and sworn to stop him but bring him back alive for the sake of his sister, who has always regretted letting her child go. Or maybe a knight who wants to protect those close to him by going off to slay the great evil. Perhaps it’d be more interesting to see if an orphan of humble background (or perhaps not; s/he is an orphan, so s/he could have any background I please) could go up against this great threat to the kingdom. In any case, the antagonist needs someone to go up against him, so I have to create that person at some point early on.

And now that we’ve come up with the antagonist’s motives and who’s going to try to stop him. Here comes the fun part of designing the antagonist:

Family values, loves cookies and miniature golf…and he does horrifying magical rituals to become a terrifying demon. What’s not to love?

4. Design your villain’s character. Perhaps my villain will be a full adult, or perhaps a teenager or even a young boy, to drive home that he’s the son of a princess, son being the operative part here. I could give him a dark, sadistic personality. Or maybe he’s like one of my favorite villains, Mayor Wilkins III from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who always had a smile on his face and acted like your typical 1950s sitcom dad even up until the moment he killed you. Maybe he’s got a hobby that indulges in while he’s not busy planning the destruction of the kingdom. Does he actually care for anyone besides himself? Maybe that person would give him someone to interact with besides his despicable followers. All these options and more are at my fingertips, and I can mix and match as I please in designing this villain.

This is basically how I design villains. And it works for all types of villains, from primary to tertiary in importance of plot and in all types of stories. I could also use these steps to design a sultry heiress hell-bent on doing some nasty stuff in LA’s best social circles. Or maybe a company president with some very cruel plans for a Native American community in the Amazon. It even works on zombies and vampires, too.

However you create your antagonists though, if it fulfills your need to create a great villain to go up against your hero or heroine, then it works. I’m just trying to give helpful suggestions, and if these help you, then my job here is done.

Also, if you get inspired by the hypothetical story I created above, by all means write a story about it. I just came up with it on the spot and I have enough on my plate without another story to write. Go ahead. It’s yours.

*Only one of these examples is a story I’ve actually read, and that’s Stephen King’s IT. The other two, if there are stories that are like that, I haven’t heard of them. Let me know if you have.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, General Writing, The Writer & Author | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Components For Successful Sequels

So much more common these days!

It’s no understatement to say that Western art and culture is obsessed with sequels these days. Every blockbuster must have at least one or two continuations of their stories, artists of all stripes are naming their albums with the suffix “2.0” or “Part III”, and even literature’s greats are producing series of at least three or more books with more energy than in previous years.

Plenty of cynics would say that this sequel mania is fueled by a drive for profits, and they wouldn’t be wrong, though there are still several writers, artists, and filmmakers out there that produce sequels not out of greed, but out of a love for what they do and whom they share it with. Unfortunately, those same cynics who doubt the existence of these artists, writers and filmmakers also note that there aren’t enough good sequels out there, and sadly there’s a lot of truth in that.

Since I am about to embark on writing Video Rage, the sequel to my science fiction novel Reborn City, I thought I’d share some of my tips for writing sequels. These tips, though not essential when writing a sequel (or writing any work, for that matter), have been taken from some of the better sequels I’ve seen out there and are categorized into four distinct groups: barest essentials, setting and history, characters, and most important. The right combination of any of these components could help elevate a story from good to great, especially with a sequel.

Barest essentials. If one is to do a sequel, one has to think hard about these components when creating the story. Plenty of sequels have been rocked or bombed depending on their creator’s use of these factors.

1. Is the sequel connected or unconnected to the previous book? This may not seem like a big question, but it actually is. Plenty of series depend on an overarching tale that connects all the books together, and deciding whether or not a sequel connects to the previous book is important to think about. Most writers do answer this question before they even start the first book, but it is still important to think about before you start your sequel.

2. Don’t recycle old material. When we pay for a book on Amazon or a ticket to the latest blockbuster, we hope that it’s worth it, that there’s something new in the story and in the characters, that we won’t be bored in the first five minutes. Of course, we get really annoyed when what we’ve paid for is like Taken 2 or A Good Day To Die Hard, which basically took all that rocked from the previous film or films but not much else. As it turns out, people like something more than what worked in the first film. Yes, it seems like a good idea to use what worked for the last installment for the newest, but in reality there’s much more that is needed to make the story much better, and knowing that is a great start in writing your sequel and utilizing what worked in the last installment correctly, rather than just reusing it.

3. Avoid retcons. If you are unfamiliar with this term, a retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is the alteration of a previously established fact or facts in the continuity of a fictional work (definition courtesy of Wikipedia). Retcons are popular in long-running comic book or TV shows to help new writers continue the story they want to or to accommodate new information. However fans are easily annoyed by retcons and often are able to point them out upon running across them. They will especially cry foul if they feel the retcon was done because of laziness or forgetfulness. For example, in the vampire novels by Charlaine Harris, one character was introduced as a certain shape-shifter, but in the next book that shape-shifter’s type was changed. Many fans wrote letters pointing this out, causing Mrs. Harris some embarrassment.

So in the interest of avoiding embarrassment, retcons are best avoided if possible.

Setting and history. I wrote in a previous article some ways to set up a great world, especially in science fiction and fantasy. For sequels, taking certain approaches to the world you’ve already built up can make the setting seem more real to readers and help them to fall in love even more with the established world.

4. Expand on the world. So in Book 1 you showed us a fantastical world full of magic and wonder. What do you do? Why not show more of it, in terms of places, history and culture? For example, in the Earth’s Children’s series first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, we see the world strictly through the eyes of a small tribe of Neanderthals and the little Cro-Magnon girl who grows up with them and in their culture. In the second book, The Valley of Horses, author Jean Auel expands on the peoples in Stone Age Europe, including different tribes of Cro-Magnon tribes across the continent and their way of life. This gives the readers more of a look into the fictional world of the characters and makes them want to learn more, at the same time causing them to invest more in the story.

5. Go darker. The first Harry Potter book introduced us to a fantastical world full of mystery and wonder and danger. Readers who read the first book tended to see the Wizarding world as somewhat idyllic, full of literal and metaphorical charm and made them want to go there. However in the second book, Chamber of Secrets, we discover that there’s a dark side to the magical world Harry inhabits, particularly in terms of the importance placed in blood purity and how it is wrapped up in Hogwarts’s history.

Showing the dark side of your world, if you haven’t delved too deeply into that yet, can give the readers a sense that this world could exist. Remember, the readers have to be able to identify with the setting, to believe it could exist. And if the darker parts of a setting can make a world seem all the more real to the reader, why not go there?

6. Shake things up with something new. At some point in her Southern Vampire series, Charlaine Harris added the fairy species, supposedly, because she was bored and wanted to shake things up. Similarly, shaking things up can be a great boon to your sequel. By adding something that has never been seen before in the universe of the story, you add all sorts of potential plot elements and ways to change up the story. And the ways to shake up the story are vast and endless: perhaps you could reveal that a character is related to another character in an unexpected way. Or maybe a new technology is available now that changes the entire world of the characters. Perhaps there’s even a new location whose visit will have new implications for the way your characters live their life.

Like I said, anything’s possible if you wish to shake things up a bit.

Characters. Ultimately, any story relies on its characters and how those characters react to the circumstances around them. In a sequel there are chances to expose characters to new circumstances, not just in terms of the world they live in, but also in terms of the people around them.

7. Introduce or retire a new main/supporting character. We are constantly meeting new people and losing old friendships in life. Why not do the same to our characters? Introducing a new character is a great way to explore the changing dynamics of the relationships between the characters, and if you want to get rid of a character or find reason to put them away for a while, a sequel is a great place to do so. In fact, if you retire a character for one book, you can bring them back in spectacular fashion for another book. Either way, it’s a chance to try something new by writing a story with a new character or without a familiar character.

8. Shift the focus onto another character. In the sequel to the 1991 Addams Family movie, Addams Family Values, the movie focused on Uncle Fester. Just one problem: so did the first film, and a sub-story about Wednesday’s first love couldn’t resurrect AFV from the Fester-centric plot that critics ultimately had the biggest issue with.

If you have a story that focuses on a tightly-knit group of characters and no one character is considered the main character or the most important character, it helps to shift the focus from the growth and development of one character to another. After all, no one member of an ensemble cast is more important than the other (or should be, anyway). So juggle the focus every now and then. Every character has a story behind them, and seeing where that story takes them can make for a great story.

9. Change the nature of a relationship. When James Marsters first played the character Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, Spike was a formidable villain throughout most of the season. However in subsequent seasons Spike’s role, becoming a reluctant ally over time and then an essential part of the main cast. Eventually Spike became attracted to Buffy, and later a hero and her lover.

Changing one character’s relationship to another and vice versa can be an excellent way to explore new territory. If you could think of two characters that might warrant having their relationship changed, go ahead and try it. You never know what might arise from such a story.

10. Conflict in a group is always interesting. This is basically the equivalent to Component #5. In the first book, the group usually learns to gel together and work with each other. What would happen if there was friction with the group in the second book? What if two characters were a couple but their friend was attracted to one of them? Or perhaps one of the characters was forced to spy on the group for the enemy, and nobody knew who that character doing the spying was. Sowing the seeds of conflict between two characters, while painful to read and possibly more painful to write (or very fun, depending on what sort of person you are), keeps readers interested and wondering how it will be resolved. I’m planning on trying it in my own sequel. Should be a fun experiment.

The Most Important Of All. There’s only one component in this category, but it’s probably the one you should keep in mind whether or not you decide to use any of the other components.

11. What would you like to see or read in a sequel? One of the best parts of self-publishing is that the author decides what they want to write and can put it out there, rather than having to put out what the publisher feels will sell. It’s the same with sequels. What would you like to see in the sequel you want to write?  New enemies? A torrid love affair? Your favorite character moving from the big city to a small town in Idaho? A new species of magical creature? It’s all up to you, and you can do whatever you want.

It’ll probably be better than whatever they’re cooking up in Hollywood right about now.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, Editing & Rewriting, General Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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