What’s In a Name? Just About Everything!

Funny this article came through my email blast today, regarding naming your characters. Just in time, right when I needed it.

(As an aside: “Grayson?” Are you kidding me? I would have never come up with such a name. George, maybe, but never Grayson.)

I’m in awe of writers who can come up with witty names for their characters. They’re also the ones with inventive Twitter handles and email addresses. I am notoriously terrible when it comes to character names (and Twitter handles and email addresses – it’s j-l-h-u-s-p-e-k for everything). I usually use something generic and stupid, until I’ve finished the piece and start the first edit. Then inspiration might hit me like a bolt of lightning and I might come up with something more interesting. Maybe. Maybe not.

Now that I’ve finished my second edit of Finding Cadence, I’m seriously considering name changes. The manuscript is almost ready for querying, and I don’t want to saddle my baby with character names that are humdrum. I can just see some agent looking at my query and saying, “Maggie? She couldn’t think of anything besides Maggie?” I must give the name process careful consideration; after all, this book is my labor of literary love. When I first began writing, the original name for Cadence’s two-timing husband was “Tom” – as in my brother Tom. I love you, Brother Tom, but the name is BORING. Then my daughter went away to college and hooked up with an a**hole surfer boyfriend from Marin named Carter. After a bit of drama which included several tickets he incurred on her car and a trip to the emergency room (accompanied by a panicked phone call in the middle of the night), I decided to rename my errant-husband-character CARTER. Fit perfectly, and gave me more than a smidgen of satisfaction to click “Find-Replace” with such wild abandon.

Actually, I labored over Cadence’s name for a long time. I started writing the story without a first name, that’s how bad I was. I wanted a musical inference, and Harmony was too cheesy. (My apologies to anyone named Harmony. It’s not personal, honest.) Melody is Cadence’s sister’s name. Then I opened up my son’s Dictionary of Musical Terms and Cadence popped out at me. Now the name makes so much sense, since she didn’t feel any harmony at all for the duration of the story, and her life’s cadence endured its shares of ups and downs.

I might have to rename “Bill,” Jackson’s (Cadie’s son) roommate. I just don’t like the name, it doesn’t fit the character. The character is a big, lumbering, old hippie type. Smart, laid-back, and mildly attractive. Teddy, perhaps? Jerry? Kenneth? Definitely not Fabian.

In Virtually Yours, I ended up renaming just about everyone. Diana became SKYE, Lori became LAUREN, Scarlett became RHETT. (In that case, there was a gender change as well. Don’t ask me, just read the book to find out.)

By the time I’d penned Oaks and Acorns and Acorns and Oaks, I’d already started with kick-ass main character names. Amberly Cooper. Maya Cooper. Clementine Bartlett. Of course, I’m not happy with the sister’s name. Martina. Don’t like it. I’ll probably change it someday. I also will have to change the name of Amberly’s love interest, Trent, and probably Grandma’s. Don’t like either one.

I tend to draw upon my real life peeps for names, which might be why I’d gravitate toward George rather than Grayson. My choices may be thinly or heavily disguised. For example, Jackson’s girlfriend’s initials are M.T., just like the initials of the Real Life girl I based her on. Or I might name someone after a place I’ve been. Blaine comes to mind.

Come to think of it, I had a difficult time naming both of my kids. We called our son “Baby Boy” and wouldn’t name him until the hospital threatened to not release him without a name. And while I came up with my daughter’s name while she was still in utero, we ended up changing her middle name from George (there I go again) to Cristina. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I wanted to keep the peace.

Perhaps I name my characters lamely because they are just germs of ideas, not full fledged people, at least, not until I take them out for a spin and slap them around a little. I saddle them with emotions and problems and flaws they must overcome. Only then do they somehow morph from a two-dimensional thought into a many-layered organism.

Place as a Character Builder, Tool, and Embellishment

Another San Francisco Writers Conference has come to an end, and just as with the other SFWC I’ve attended, I’ve learned so much. Honestly, they could hold a month-long conference and there would still be things to learn.

One of the workshops I attended was on place being an intrinsic part of the novel. It makes so much sense, you’d think it was a no-brainer. Location description is one tool the novelist can use to transport the reader into the characters’ world.

This is preaching to the choir. I enjoy writing about different places, just as I enjoy reading about different (or familiar) places. As a reader, I want to be able to feel, touch, and smell where the action is. One book that does this seamlessly is the Hunger Games series. I’m a reader not “into” dystopian, teen fantasy, but the author does such a great job of place description (an imagined place), and along with the compelling story, I couldn’t put the book down. In fact, I think about that world even today, months after I finished the series, and compare and contrast the author’s world with the present day one.

I’ve said elsewhere that I enjoy reading stories about places I’ve been. San Francisco comes to mind immediately. I’ll pick up and read any novel with a photo of the Golden Gate on it. San Francisco is a city rich with history, culture, and diversity. The architecture is stunning, the nature of the ocean here is so unlike any seaside I’ve ever been to, and the native plants are intriguing in look and feel. No where else could you find squat trees with gnarled bark, calla lilies growing out of postage stamp sized yards, or trees precariously angled toward the east, their stance shaped by relentless ocean winds. I love the smell of the neighborhoods, the scent of eucalyptus. The people are different, too, a contrast from those in the Midwest, the West, and even from Southern California. Being in the City is an all-out assault on the senses.

Is it any wonder that I love to use San Francisco as a setting? 🙂 It’s why I return: to get an accurate feel of a driving wind on Ocean Beach, the bustle of Union Square, the squeak of MUNI brakes. Because even though I’ve experienced those things in the past, I can lose the memory of such things.

Because a character is in a certain place obviously shapes the way they behave. In the book I’m working on now, Finding Cadence, Cadie begins life in Colorado in the late 1960s, when the high plains were wide open and wild. Then she moves to Michigan and marries into a rich family and assumes the role of socialite, even though deep down she’s far from it. By the time she ‘finds’ herself, in San Francisco, she is a different person altogether, but probably the truest she’ll ever be.

One of the presenters stated you can use the Internet to help with research on your place. I agree, but only to a point. Some places have to experienced in order to get the correct pulse of place. I grew up in Colorado, and every time I return, some sensation comes to mind that I had forgotten; the subtle shading of the mountains, the way storms roll in, the arid landscape. (That’s why it’s handy to keep a notebook on you at all times!) Also, you as the writer will have a different view of a place than another might. You can only trust the Internet so far.

In using place, be careful; I sometimes concentrate so much on place description, it detracts from the story. It’s because I’m so excited about the place, I want to take you there. As a writer, you don’t want to overload your work with too much description (unless you’re writing a travel book). As with all parts of the novel, the descriptions should be succinct, and your use of words should be judicious. Take your readers there with vivid and realistic portrayals, and let the story begin.

The Story Within The Story

I come from a very large family, with lots of siblings and even more cousins. Even though my sisters and brother and I shared the same parents (and my cousins the same grandparents), our view of our collective upbringing varies wildly. I notice this more now that I have children of my own. There’s only two of them, but according to them, their childhoods couldn’t be more different. When I get together with my sibs and relive old times, it’s like conversing with five strangers.

I’ve noticed the same with those in my high school class. Some are new friends, connected late in life by Facebook and reunion dinners. Others I’ve been friends with since the very beginning. No matter what the history, our recollections can be unique, if we can remember them at all.

We’re all different, and our stories are different, even though the principals and the plot are the same. Even though we live through the same crisis, at the same time, our brains will never see the same facts in the same way.

A good novel weaves the stories of all of its characters seamlessly, not just the antics of the protag and the antagonist. I’d never noticed the careful crafting of a good book before; I was too busy enjoying myself to take it apart, but there are typically stories within the story, interwoven like a hand-loomed sweater. You need all those loops, not just the main show.

I used to rather stupidly write from the top of my head, with little forethought to plot or character development or story lines or arcs. Hell’s bells, I was on a tear. Who had time to think? I was writing as fast as I could. Those “minor” components could be added later, tweaked and polished once the words “The End” came into view. (Boy, was I a rube!)

I now realize (after a lot of revision and editing and plot changes on the first two stories) that it’s a whole lot easier to begin plotting and character development before you sit down at the computer and begin pounding out dialogue.

Last summer, Mr. Ed gave me a series of assignments to complete before he began editing. One was to describe each character and their story. He knew each was unique, but they all came out sounding like…ME. (All of them are me, but they’re also not.)

My first thought was “Oh, come on. You can’t see them? One’s overweight, one’s a beauty queen, one’s gay, one’s down-home and honest. One’s a gadabout, one’s a middle-aged mom. You can’t see that?”

NO, he couldn’t see them that way, mostly because I hadn’t written them that way. I knew who they were and what they were doing, but no one else could see them. In deconstructing the characters, I realized I hadn’t really seen them in the way I wanted them to appear. That’s because I took the lazy-man’s way out of it and told more than I showed.

Boring.

In the last week, I’ve taken my other WIPs and done the same thing: List the cast of characters and write a sentence or two about their story. Because, you know, their view of the proceedings has necessarily got to be different than my protag. They’re not just pawns on the chessboard; they all have stories of their own. I wrote each in long-hand in my notebook (ecosystem – I’m cured from Moleskine), and when I forget about a personality quirk or trait and it all melds together, I can open it up and find my true characters.

It was a good exercise. Now back to writing.