Naming Your Characters

It’s time to break out the baby-names book! Because your protagonist needs a name, and any old name won’t due.

The go-to option is to name your characters after people you knew. Just remember to, later on, change it to something else! Your book may be published with a villain named Timmy Blankencheck, the kid who pushed you in the sandbox back in preschool.

Somewhere, Timothy B.  is on a flight for business, picks up a book he’s heard good things about, and is surprised to discover that he shares a name with a fictional penguin-murderer.

Don't feel bad. All Timmy's are evil

Don’t feel bad. All Timmy’s are evil

I know several people who have named their villains after a teacher or mentor who didn’t believe in them enough.

(By the way, if your instinct is to name your protagonist after yourself, you might consider reading my post about the Mary Sue).

Method number two for name selection is to name them after characteristics.  I like to call this method “Neil Stephenson-ing” because of his brilliant book Snow Crash, in which the main character is Hiro Protagonist. It’s a little strange, but it’s a strange book.

This can also be called “George Lucas-ing.” Seriously, his villains have the dumbest names: “Darth Vader” “Darth Sidious” “Darth Venamis” “Darth Tyranus” “Darth Maul” and “Darth Plagueis”.

Let’s play a game: guess which one of those villain names I made up. Wrong. They’re all real.

This calls to mind one of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000: Space Mutiny. Throughout the movie, Mike and the Robots call out new ideas for the muscle-clad meat-head protagonist.

“Plank Manchest!”

“Splint Chesthair!”

“Dirk Hardpec!”

The slightly-more subtle, but still cliche’d method is name your character Cane, Kayne, Kain, or Kanye. This just telegraphs that the character is a villain.

Similarly, be careful with any name that tells us how dedicated your character is. Detectives or Private Investigators named Hunter or Archer or Spade or Skywalker or Arrow or Captain America.

Full disclosure: my first book starred a homicide detective named Archer.

Damn it, FX!

Damn it, FX!

You will eventually have to change the name of one of your characters because you subconsciously named someone after your favorite ninja turtle (this was, tragically, discovered too late for the DiCaprio family).

Anyway, just remember, there’s something wrong with every character name you choose. And nobody use Principle Illustrion. That’s what I’m calling the lead character of my legal thriller.

Story ideas I had today that I’ll probably never get around to writing

An experiment gone awry sends a man back in time. He must live hidden away from the world lest he alter time an prevent his own birth. He risks everything to save a woman lost to history. A woman forgotten by history and no legacy, but someone he comes to love. Their very lives threaten his existence – can they find love?

A scientist builds a robot capable of love…. but does it love too much?

Dammit, scooped again

Dammit, scooped again

A woman with a terminal illness is put to into medically induced coma, never expecting to wake up. Thousands of years later she is awakened from cryogenic sleep into a culture where death hasn’t just been defeated – it’s illegal.

A scientist creates a robot capable of farting… but does it fart too much?

A young man without any ambition in life accidentally achieves nirvana. But maybe that’s not what he wants either (Just kidding. I wrote that story. It’s in my collection VISOLTH: A GIRL AND HER ELDER GOD)

A bunch of interesting ideas without a good writer to back them up

A bunch of interesting ideas without a good writer to back them up

A group of retired law enforcement, lawyers, and hobbyists have meetings in coffeehouses, exchange emails, and trade information about old, unsolved murders. Until one of the pensioners is killed. Which armchair investigation got him killed? Only Peg Fleming, retired columnist, can find out.

Maybe I’ll get around to writing full manuscripts for these. I’m especially proud of the robot ones. Those have legs.

Committing the ideas to paper

Every writer has heard some variation on the following:

“Oh! I had this idea about a story once. It’s about blah blah. You should write about that.”

In my experience, most writers are not lacking in ideas. Today I’ve had sixteen. One of them pretty good. But mostly, that brilliant idea about a robot designed to love who loves too much is followed by the following thought: “I really need to finish the story I’m working on already.”

Plus, that story has already been perfected (I don't know who to credit this picture to. It's amazing)

Plus, that story has already been perfected
(I don’t know who to credit this picture to, but it’s amazing)

The hard part of writing isn’t the idea, it’s the follow-through. Doing the actual writing, the actual editing, the actual telling of your friends and family about how difficult those previous steps are… it’s exhausting.

But why do we do it? Is it that yearning, deep inside, to tell a story? Is it, perhaps, that we want to explore the idea as much as the reader? Is it the hope that, one day, we’ll be published and famous?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. Seriously, why do I do this to myself?

Oh, right. The groupies.

Oh, right. The groupies.

I suppose I don’t mind people telling me their ideas. Just don’t suggest I write it for you, or imply that you may write that story if you have time some weekend.

It takes at least two weekends.

Villains done right (and wrong)

Villains are the best. I spend so much time thinking about them, writing them, wanting to be them, etc.

Recently, the Fantastic Four movie has tried to re-re-reintroduce one of my favorite villains, Dr. Doom. And screwed it up again, but that’s not important.

Writers and agents tend to agree that the important part of creating a good villain is thinking through the character and fleshing them out as their own character. If your antagonist just kills aimlessly, you might not have needed a villain. You might have just needed a disease.

Further, you can sympathize with the best villains. Or even root for them. Take Dr. Doom:

Plus, Mr. Fantastic is a tool.

Plus, Mr. Fantastic is a tool.

I’d argue that his primary characteristic is his genius. Sure, he has that iconic armor. And in the comics he’s kind of a wizard. But when it comes down to it, he actually is pretty much smarter than everyone else.

He has his own country, Latveria. It’s a technological utopia, where the people are well provided for and generally happy. Sure, it’s run by a tyrant. But he’s really good at it.

In one comic, Doom claims to have used his science/magic to look into thousands of possible futures. In all of them, humanity has been destroyed – or just likely – has destroyed itself. Except the one future where he takes over the planet.

For another brilliant take on The Tyrant Who’s Always Right, read any of Terry Pratchet’s books that include the side character Lord Vetinari. Or the badguy from The Watchmen.

My other favorite villain is Mr. Freeze from batman. Specifically, I’m referring to the version in which his wife was killed/frozen. Now he steals diamonds necessary to forward his experiments to preserve her or bring her back to life. Yes, he steals and even kills in his burglaries, but to him, it’s all worth it to bring her back. Nothing is more important.

Unlike most doctors, he doesn't correct you when you call him

Unlike most doctors, he doesn’t correct you when you call him “Mr.”

In this version, he doesn’t kill for the fun of it. His motivations are clear. And in a way, you can root for him. Other villains to check out that have REASON: Magneto, the god-emperor of the Mistborn books.

This is why it’s so disappointing to see a villain whose soul characteristic is to be a dumbass or jerk. The villain who is simply there to be an obstacle for the hero.

So your villain doesn’t have to win. Just make me WISH they did.

Getting my sheets together

I’m in the process of putting together materials for agents and editors and well-wishers and not-so-well-wishers.

I read, re-read, do some illicit substances, then re-read again my first 10, 20, and 30 pages.

How do you bribe in an email? And is it too forward to send their loved ones' fingers with the query?

How do you bribe in an email? And is it too forward to send their loved ones’ fingers with the query?

Then I think, “Maybe my YA comedy adventure would work better as a gothic romance. Is there time to retool?”

Then I hit send.

Then I remember that I left the “To:” space blank just to stop myself from accidently sending without the necessary/requested attachments.

Then I repeat all of the above steps before ACTUALLY sending.

Fingers crossed, everyone

Correct Punctuation

After you’ve been writing for some time, the type of editing you seek changes.

Early on, I was eager to recieve any help I could get fixing typos and minor grammatical errors. After a while you begin to know your own mistakes. At that point you want to say to critiquers, “I know there’s supposed to be a period at the end of that sentence. Can you tell me what you think of the major plot in this scene, please? Microsoft Word could have told me I misspelled ‘receive’ up there.”

But there are some things Word won’t catch. So here are some errors I still make or forget about.


 

Skip the end quote.

If a character continues to speak, uninterrupted, in a new paragraph, don’t close quotes at the end of the first paragraph.

Wrong:

Blake said, “It’s true. I murdered the duchess.” 

“But in my defense, she was being totally ratchet.” The murderer sniffled.

Right:

Blake said, “That’s a lie! I would never smuggle turnips!

“But I am a mad mango miscreant.”

Bonus tip: ‘ratchet’ is, by the standards of dumb things kids say, not bad. Calling someone “Cray” instead of “Crazy” just sounds stu and laiz.


 

This is probably just me, but one must be careful with ellipses. Far too often I see an author use the ol’ three-dots when a character is interrupted.

“I couldn’t have stolen the cookies from the cookie jar,” said Edward. “I was busy with…”

“It must have been you,” interrupted Bella.

The problem above is that ellipses indicate Edward’s statement trailed off. So Bella was just interrupting the silence that followed. Use a hyphen if you want to indicate interruption.

Oh, and don’t overuse ellipses. When YOU read it, they sound like dramatic pauses. The audience just sees a scene with lots of strange, awkward silences in the dialogue. Unless your scene is depicting any of my dates. The ellipses correctly capture that awkwardness.


I am shit with commas. I do my best to avoid sentences that require them. Seek advice elsewhere.


 

Narrative Voice in Point of View (POV)

Point of view is a heckofa difficult issue for writers, novice and expert.

1st person:

The first project I really threw my weight behind was 1st-person-perspective. And am I glad it was. When writing narration, I didn’t have to worry about inadvertantly adding individualization as long as it was the lead’s color. What do I mean?

In telling the story of Goldilocks, it’s wrong to write,

“And then the dumb b**** just climbs straight into a bear’s bed after eating its food. Geez, what an idiot.”

This fairy tail narrator is adding his own views. It can take away from the pure story  (sometimes). However, if the story is told from the Woodsman’s point of view, it makes sense for the narration to sound exasperated.

And yes, I know the Woodsman is from a different story.

3rd Person Limited Omniscience (One Character):

Now you’re outside the head of the main character, but your narrative voice is still influenced by her. Say your lead is named Josephine and she’s a typical american midwestern teenager.

Josephine was so angry she couldn’t help but slam her locker shut. And there was Tara on the other side of the little door, smiling that perfect, s***-eating grin. But she was wearing that gorgeous green empress-cut top Jo loved loved so much.

Did you see how, even though the narrator wasn’t Josephine herself, it colored the prose? For example, all empress-cut tops are ugly, no matter who they’re on. But Josephine likes them, and therefore it’s “gorgeous.”

Also notice that Josephine is “angry,” but Tara is wearing a s***-eating grin. If Tara was the protagonist, it would be written differently.

“Tara wore her friendliest smile and the green top she knew Josephine loved. It might not be enough today, though. Josephine slammed her locker door, and she scowled with her whole body.”

aStatements like “she was angry” can only be written if you’re in that character’s head. Otherwise, they scowl. We can infer their mood from body language.

3rd Person Limited Omniscience (With Multiple Lead Characters):

Ugh. The most popular example of what I’m talking about here is George R. R. Martin. Every chapter begins with a character’s name so we know where we are and who we’re supposed to be paying attention to.

This is pretty common with, say, two characters. I see it all the time in thrillers (1 goodguy, 1 badguy) or romances (1 guy, 1 girl – in most cases) It’s a little harder to write because your voice changes from POV to POV. One character may know more about what’s really going on.

Some mistakes to avoid here: Don’t introduce a second voice halfway through your story. There’s nothing more jarring to a reader than suddenly entering the head of a new character when you’ve attached yourself to another for so long. I remember reading a book where the main character died unexpectedly, leaving us to follow around his protege for the rest of the story. It was meant to be a twist but was just kind of irritating.

Remember the video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty? After following the beloved character Snake in the prologue, you started a new level with Snake in a mask. Then, BAM! he took off the mask and you spent the rest of the game following around a wannabe Snake named Raiden. Fans were upset.

If you add more characters, you are forced to divest your narration of almost all voice. Like George R. R. Martin’s beloved clusterfuck complex tale of millions of characters generally being miserable assholes complex. If you end one chapter in the voice of a mother holding her dying child and begin another chapter in the head of a torturer, your audience gets whiplash. It can be done, but is for an advanced, talented writer like Mr. Martin.

3rd Person Total Omniscience:

This one may be the hardest. It’s hard for the reader to connect with any one person’s view, and therefore harder to get invested in the story.

The Mary Sue

A Mary Sue character, for those unfamiliar, is an idealized character in a story. It’s often a stand-in for who the author wishes himself/herself to to be. And importantly, real consequences don’t really apply to them.

CONSEQUENCES

Writers and critics alike tend to look down upon the Mary Sue, and for good reasons. The MS is all about wish fulfillment. Who doesn’t want to imagine themselves as The One, that person that’s special? The unique fella who discovers he’s actually a lost prince, or has a secret superpower?

Sue. Mary Sue.

Sue. Mary Sue.

Hell, I’m no different.

Any day now I expect an attractive young person to approach me and say, “This Starbucks was actually built as a test to see who could idle their time in the most ineffective manner possible. You’ve passed that test, and are therefore the Last Starfighter And Supreme Makeout Artist.”

So is wish fulfillment inherently bad? Well, no, not when it’s done right. For example, Harry Potter is the Boy Who Lived. “The Boy Who Lived”… they practically nickname him “The Mary Sue.” But they’re wonderful, beloved books.

Contrarily, why does the ancient, beautiful vampire desire the bland Mary Sue? Just ’cause. It’s inexplicable and there’s no ‘cost,’ for lack of a better word.

Why is Harry Potter different? Because his parents died. And magic. And it’s as much a curse as a blessing. And REASONS. Hell, Harry even asks “Why me?” and gets unpleasant answers all the time.

Picture: Neo

Picture: Neo

Harry’s still a Mary Sue, but a darned good one in a darned good series.

RELATABILITY

The other complaint is that the character isn’t relatable. I have less of a problem with this, mostly for reasons you can find here and here. Often, people who say they want “relatable” really mean they want to read reflections of their own flaws and the conflicts they face. Pain, more often than not.

Personally, I’d rather read about the Mary Sue. But moving on…

OUT OF CONTROL CHALLENGES

There’s another problem with the Mary Sue. One for the author, rather than the audience. The problem of out-of-control ramping goals.

With each successive… success, the writer has to find a new challenge for our walking deus ex machina. “Well, he saved the city by discovering he could fly at the end of the last book. What power does he need to suddenly have at the end of this book to make it fun?” And the challenge has to be bigger and bigger with every story.

Example: I LOVE the Mass Effect games. The story is about the very first human to join an elite space police-force.

Next up: Balancing the checkbook!

Next up: Balancing the checkbook!

In the first game you have to save the citadel, the galatic hub of civilations. By the last game, you’re tasked with saving the entire galaxy.

Now there’s talk of a sequel.

About what, exactly? Saving the galaxy again? The universe? You blew your load a little early, Bioware.

Personally, I love me a good Mary Sue story. But unless you’ve considered the consequences, your story is going to be considered fluff by some people.

Give your protagonist consequences, some relatable characteristics, and if you’re planning on continuing the adventure, don’t write yourself in a corner.

 

Make Your Hero a Bastard

This isn’t so much a post about improving your writing as much as something to think about. It’s about your good guy and how he fights.

The instinct for many of us is to put our hero in the white hat. He prefers a stand-up fight. He’s fair, giving the antagonist a chance. That’s what makes him the hero and it’s what the audience loves about him, right?

Turns out, not so much.

It may be obvious to some, but audiences today in particular like the antihero. Hence the popularity of characters like Artemis Fowl, the Dragon in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, semi-reluctant-hero Wolverine, and any former-cop-who-plays-too-loose-with-the-rules.

Funny thing is, we love when our heroes fight dirty.

Author Lee Child often has his character Jack Reacher describe himself in simple terms. He’s big. Really big. Like six-five and built like a truck. Not the smartest guy, but very well trained as an investigator and fighter. And big.

Uh, close enough?

Uh, close enough?

He runs into a lot of badguys. And when he does, he doesn’t give them a fair fight. If he knows a fight is going to happen before the other guy does, he ends it. It’s pretty awesome.

There’s nothing wrong with below-the-belt blows when the guy getting tagged is a pedophile terrorist woman-abusing Nazi.

When the badguy tosses sand in our heroine’s eyes, it’s a dirty trick. And it makes it better when the heroine wins by remembering how sensei made her train in a blindfold.

But when she tosses sand in the badguy’s eyes and eviscerates the antagonist right in the middle of his pompous ‘I-have-you-now’ speech?

Oooo…. that just kicks ass.

Worldbuilding: Establishing the rules

This post is not so much about a how-to as much as a please-do. Too often writers have built themselves a fun world without ever building boundaries about what is possible. Example, you ask? Why, sure. Star Trek is about flying around space, exploring in a ship named Enterprise (in case you grew up under a rock on Vulcan).

This was a fun movie that made no sense

This was a fun movie that made no sense

In Star Trek: Into Darkness, the villain (Benedict Englishname) blows up some stuff on Earth and teleports himself away to Kronos (Google told me it’s properly spelled Qo’noS, for some reason.) Starfleet can’t chase him there, because Kronos is the home to the warlike Klingons.

There’s a reason no one transported themselves from one planet to another in the TV show. If you can just jump from planet to planet instantly, WTF is the point of the Enterprise? And don’t get me started on the whole magic-blood thing. The gods of science fiction and logic wept.

Similarly, the Time-Turner in the Harry Potter books so break any reasonable rules of magic that the reader is forced to ask “Why the hell don’t they just do that again?”

An aside: It’s okie dokie to break these rules in the right place, by the way. In fact, the start of your story may be “Evil Lord Kongoth(®) just took his power to tier 8, when we all know and have previously established that tier 6 is as high as it goes!” You know, just as long as your characters react appropriately when someone DOES break the rules.

Anyway, the final impact of your story can be wholly ruined by poorly established rules. If in your knights-and-swords historical fiction someone pulls out a shotgun and blows away your villain, you make your reader feel cheated and you’ve lost the impact of your work.

“Why didn’t he just do that earlier?” the audience asks. “If King Arthur had guns, Guinevere didn’t have to die by Atomic Hamster in scene 2! I feel cheated! And the impact of the author’s work has been lost!”

Horrors

Horrors

So invent some rules for your story. And then, for your own sake, don’t break them lightly.