Monday, September 20, 2021

Dialect in Dialog

 QUESTION: I want one of my characters to be a boy from England. How do I get the language and vocabulary right?

Like the US, Great Britain has regional accents and expressions, and their language and accent is also affected by class and education so you need to figure out where that British kid comes from and what his social class is before you start your research.

Most writers seem to forget about class and region when they write, and I always snicker when the housemaid is mistaken for a lady, or the Southern character doesn't sound or act remotely Southern or is from the wrong part of the South.

Take care, though, not to be so accurate that your character is unintelligible to most readers.

The trick is to give the feel and rhythm of the language without making the reader scratch her head over the slang and expressions.

The Internet is a glorious place full of resources and the ability to contact people from all over the world so you should be able to find someone to help you with the specific language and sound of your character. Ask around on reader and writer lists or among your Facebook friends for someone from that area. If that doesn't work, do some search engine hunting.

You should also ask around about movies or TV shows that have characters who sound right for the character you want to write.  If you can “hear” that character’s voice when you write, you usually won’t go wrong.  

Monday, September 13, 2021

Using Text Messages in Fiction

 QUESTION: I need to include multiple lines of text dialogue in my story. My question is about rendering the punctuation of it.

For example, in a rapid fire text exchange with short snappy one word answers, in real life, the writers would be unlikely to use much punctuation including periods. Can I eliminate them in my rendition of it to the page?

ANSWER: As long as what you write is clear to the reader, I see no problem with doing the punctuation or lack of it as you wish. Just be consistent.

One thing to consider is who your reader is. If your book is aimed at younger readers, they will be much more comfortable with nonstandard punctuation than the older reader.

To differentiate the text dialogue from the regular text, I suggest you narrow the margin on both sides of the page by another inch and use names in the same way as in movie and play scripts.  You can also italicize if you wish.  Just be consistent in your choice.

JANET: OMG OMG Dirk asked me to the prom.

MARY:  WTF He asked me, too!

Monday, September 6, 2021

Figuring Out Paragraph Lengths

 QUESTION: I have trouble trying to figure out when to begin and end paragraphs and when to have dialogue included in the paragraph and when to have it stand on its own as an independent paragraph. 

Unlike nonfiction, there are no hard and fast rules for paragraphing in fiction.  Much of this is the writer's choice which is informed by experience as well as their need to emphasize certain things or break between actions.

And, surprisingly, some choices are as much visual as mental.  Most readers, these days, don't like long paragraphs so many writers paragraph more frequently than did past writers.  Visual space makes the page more attractive to the reader.  

Here are some good rules of thumb, though.

When you start with narrative followed by dialogue, the narrative should be about the person who will speak.

Adam studied the book's page then glanced back up at his friend.  "Pete, we have a problem here."

If the narrative is about Pete, Adam's line would be in a new paragraph.

Pete watched his friend anxiously as he read the rule book.

"We have a problem here,” Adam said.

If you have a long bit of narrative, it's usually a good stylistic choice to paragraph before the character's lines.  This breaks up the lines visually, and it also emphasizes the dialogue.

When you are writing a long speech by a character, you paragraph to emphasize subject, changes in subject, and the rhythm of the scene.

If you aren't sure about any of the above, read the dialogue aloud as the character would speak it.  Notice when you have natural pauses.  That's a good place for a paragraph break.

Dialogue shouldn't be too long, though.  Break it up with a bit of narrative. 

Adam shook his head in disgust and continued,

Or have other characters react or comment.  

"I can't believe Pete said that.  It doesn't sound like him."

For straight narrative with no dialogue, you should paragraph when the action shifts to another character.

Pete tripped but caught himself before falling flat on his face.  

Behind him, the sound of Adam's running feet moved toward him, then his friend stopped at his side. 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Making Your Characters Sound DIfferent

 QUESTION:  My critique partners say most of my characters sound alike in dialogue.  Help!

Cast all your characters with actors you are very familiar with so you can hear their voices when you write dialogue.  Unless you have a tin ear for speech, you will rarely have two characters sound alike.

When you pick your actor, consider what part of the country or country of origin your character is from.  Make sure their voices reflect that. You don’t want an actor from DOWNTON ABBEY to play a cop from Philly.

Writing dialogue as what it sounds like rather than the proper spelling is frowned upon these day unless used very sparingly so don’t go overboard with phonetic spelling ("Yo' ole father doan' know yit what he's a-gwyne to do. Sometimes he spec he'll go 'way, en den agin he spec he'll stay.”--from HUCKLEBERRY FINN) or apostrophes to show words that are slurred together. (“If’n you think I’s stupid.  You be wrong!”)

If you aren’t that familiar with a region’s speech, be very careful how you write it because it’s easy to stereotype or get it wrong.  For example, most of us in the Southern US don’t use “y’all” that often, and, when we do, it’s in very informal speech and means more than one “you.”   (Jennifer turned to her cousins and smiled sweetly, “Y’all come home with me and have some supper.”  Her voice turned frosty as she glared at her brother.  “You don’t come, period.”)

You should also consider social class and education.  Someone with a college education and an upper middle class background won’t sound the same as someone who never finished high school whose parents never finished high school.

Read your dialogue aloud or in your head to see if you’ve got different voices, or ask a few friends or family to read your dialogue like a play to see how it sounds.

Another good test is one line of dialogue that isn’t attributed to who is saying it.  If a reader can tell who is saying it by how and what is said, then you’ve succeeded at your task.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Formatting Internal Dialogue

 QUESTION:  I have a query about the correct way to convey internal thoughts and sounds.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style:  "11.47 Unspoken discourse: Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference."

I gather whether quotation marks are used and which type varies from publishing house to publishing house. Is that correct?

The only times I’ve ever seen quotation marks used for interior dialogue in popular fiction is along the lines of -- 

“Brilliant move,” I said silently to myself.  

The standard method is to italicize the thought--  

The bell slipped out of my fingers and clanged loudly as it hit the floor.  I winced. Brilliant move, Byerly.

Some publishers, particularly of nonfiction, will state the stylebook they prefer, but most fiction publishers don’t.  In the case of no stylebook mentioned, use grammar correctly and be consistent.

In deep third POV, it’s quite common to have a fair amount of interior dialogue.

I ask myself whether the person is asking themselves a specific question or stating some fact to themselves. If they are, I put the question in italics; otherwise, I don’t.

I tend to avoid italicized internal dialogue because it breaks the reader’s rhythm, particularly if it’s done too much or too little.  Instead, I write so that I remain deep in POV.

For example, to remove the internal dialogue of my earlier example, I’d write: 

The bell slipped out of my fingers and clanged loudly as it hit the floor.  I winced at my clumsiness.  

QUESTION CONTINUED:  I also have problems with the verb’s tense in internal discourse.  

She loosened her grip, so the rope slid through her hands and let her feet slide over the knot. Shit – rope burn. Her feet reached another knot. She clung to the rope, her body shaking, her palms sweating so hard they felt cold. This wasn’t working.

Should the last bit be This isn’t working.?

ANSWER:  If  “This isn’t/wasn’t working” is deep POV, the sentence would use “wasn’t.”  If it’s internal dialogue, use “isn’t.”  

If you’re confused about the tense, pretend the internal dialogue is regular dialogue and speak it aloud to see if it sounds right. 

If it’s a thought, the tense remains the same as the rest of the narrative.

QUESTION CONTINUED:  If you’re trying to signify there is a sound made, does it go inside single or double quotes or can you use italics? 

ANSWER:  If the sound isn’t dialogue by a human or other living creature, it is italicized.

The cow said, “Moo,” and its bell went clank.  

Monday, August 16, 2021

Say That in Elf

 QUESTION: I have several scenes where a man is around elves. I don't want to invent my own language, and I'm afraid to use Tolkien's elf language. What can I do?

You're right to avoid using Tolkien's language. I doubt Tolkien's estate would be too pleased about that.

The simplest way to write the scene without inserting the language is to use the viewpoint of someone who doesn't know the language. You can then write something like--

Adam listened to the two elves talking to each other. Their language sounded like the wind in dry oak leaves mixed with babbling creek water. 

Finally, the elf who could speak English said, "Our king says we will not help you."

Or you can have the scene from the viewpoint of the elf who speaks English.

The king said in their own language, "I do not trust these humans. Tell them that I will not help them find passage through our mountains."

Mossbark nodded and said in English to the humans, "Our king will not help you."

These tips works with any language.

NOTE: I use the word “English” as a catchall, but you should use the term for whatever language your viewpoint character speaks.  

Monday, August 9, 2021

Making a Long Story Short

 QUESTION: My novel is way too long. Someone suggested I cut four lines off every page instead of trying to cut whole chapters, etc.

Anyone who can do that needs to work on their writing skills because they are writing weak, bloated prose.

There are other ways to cut length.

From working with writers over the years, I'd say that the primary thing most writers need to cut is writer information. We sometimes do our thinking on the page before we write down what the reader needs to see, and we fail to cut that out.

Writers also tend toward too much introspection. If all a character is doing in a scene is thinking about other things, get rid of that scene, and insert that information into dialogue.

The great Phyllis Whitney once said that the only reason a character should be folding laundry and thinking is so an ax murderer can sneak up on her, and the reader knows this through subtle clues.

There's also the rule of three. If a scene doesn't contain at least one or two plot points (information or events which move the plot forward), and one or two character points (important character information) so that you have at least three points total, then it should be tossed, and whatever points included in that scene should be added to another scene.

For major cuts, you can also consolidate several secondary characters into one character who handles their plot needs, or a subplot can be simplified or removed if it doesn't influence the major plot or the influence can be moved to another subplot.

Happy cutting!

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Drama Queen Opening

 Here’s how not to start your novel.  

One or more of the characters is acting like a lunatic because she’s so frantic about something she doesn’t mention.

Dire language about a vague disaster is used.

The other characters and the pace are as frantic.

Then all this drama proves to be about a minor problem, or one that is such a problem that the overkill of the scene would be best replaced with one that is considerably more informative and lets the gravity of the situation speak for itself.

Drama queen opening scenes simply don’t work because the reader realizes she’s been fooled which may make her put down the book, or she won’t trust you when genuine disasters happen.  

Often, too, the drama queen scene proves to be unintentionally funny which can set the wrong tone for the novel.  

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Back Plot Thickens

 Tell me the plot of "The Hound of the Baskervilles." 

Easy enough, you say. A country doctor comes to Sherlock Holmes and Watson for help. The local lord has died of heart failure. But there were a giant hound's tracks near his body, and there's this family legend about....

But is that the only plot? 

Not really. Long before old Sir Charles is frightened to death by a hound, there is a man in South America, a distant relative of Sir Charles, who decides he will be the new lord of Baskerville Hall so he changes his name, makes his wife pretend to be his sister, and....

Some mystery writers call this second storyline the back plot. It is the story behind the story. The detective's plot is the discovery of the back plot. Holmes must reconstruct the murderer's back plot through the clues left behind. He must understand what happened before.

This twining together of two plots is the glory of the mystery and the agony of the mystery writer for she must not only have one plot which is logical and interesting. She must also create a second which intersects it backwards in time.

No, that's not crazy. Think about it. A murder occurs, and the detective investigates. He finds clues, and these clues point toward the past of the victim and the murderer. The detective must decipher these clues to discover the who, what, when, where, and why of the murder. He must travel back in time to the murderer and his motives. 

Holmes studies the crime scene, the stories of the butterfly collector, the sounds of the moor, and the ancestor's portrait, as well as other clues, to find that distant Baskerville relative who has designs on the family fortune.

How does a writer create these two plot lines? The answer to that is as diverse as the authors questioned. 

Some create the back story, pick the relevant clues to pepper the novel with, then set their detective to work.

Other writers are as surprised as their detective at the murder scene and never guess the killer until the last chapter. Somehow the clues through the miracle of the writer's subconscious have pointed to the murderer all along.

Still other writers mix a little of both methods. Cold calculations about clues and the killer's identity are leavened by the spontaneous generosity of the writer's muse. The writer is as surprised as the reader to discover why the killer hums but never sings and how that fits so perfectly into the puzzle.

No one can tell you what method to use to create a perfect blend of detective's plot and back plot. Each writer must discover what works best for her. But the wise writer takes the time after the book is written and before the rewriting to ask herself, "What is the plot? Does it make sense? Is it complete?"

Then the even wiser writer asks the same questions about the back plot. The wisest writer also remembers that in the back plot the killer is the major protagonist, and it here where the true heart of the novel lies.

Now tell me the plot of "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Monday, July 19, 2021

When to Copyright Your Novel

QUESTION:  When should I copyright my novel?

According to US copyright law, your book was copyrighted the moment you put something on the page.  

If, however, you want to file an official copyright with the US Copyright Office, the answer is different for your publishing choices.  

If you want to be published by a traditional publisher, aka the conglomerates mainly in NYC, you shouldn’t do an official copyright because it makes you look like an amateur.  And, if they buy it, it will most likely will be copyrighted again because it will have been changed drastically in rewrites.  In most cases, the publisher will do the copyright for you.  Check your contract on this question and make dang sure the copyright is in YOUR name. 

Some small publishers expect their authors to file their own copyright.  Do this as soon as you have the published version of your novel. It can be done before the book reaches the shelves.

If you are self-publishing, copyright it as soon as you have the final version of your book.  An official copyright is a good thing because you won’t be able to sue someone for plagiarism or downright theft in an American court without that official copyright notice.

Here’s a link to the Copyright Registration form.


Monday, July 12, 2021

Making the Victim Matter

Mystery, romantic suspense, and urban fantasy novels often start with a dead body, and the main character’s goal is to find out the who, what, when, where, and why of his death so she can solve the crime.  

The first hook for the reader is curiosity about the victim and the crime as well as the main detective/character’s personality, etc.  

Most readers will allow the writer time to set up the situation and to gather the first clues, but a certain point, the reader’s patience and interest will wear thin unless the writer gives the reader a reason to care about the victim.  Simply getting justice for the victim isn’t enough to keep most readers reading the whole novel.  

The simplest way to make the reader care is to make the victim someone the reader would care about instantly -- a child, an innocent, a good person, or a person with a job that matters like being a school teacher, doctor, social worker, or an honest cop.  

Even someone who was a jerk or bad person will matter if he died doing something decent, or he had survivors who care.  A weeping mother or wife who begs for justice is a strong motivator for the detective and the reader because they create an emotional stake in the person’s death.  If the detective must prove it was murder, not suicide, so the young widow with little kids will get death benefits, the solution will matter.

If nothing about the victim will give the detective or the reader any reason to care that he was murdered, then the detective must have another reason to solve the crime.  Perhaps, he will lose his job because his failure rate at solving crimes is so high, or he’s caught in a political situation where only solving this crime will save his career.  The victim could be one of a string of serial killings, but the killer has made several sloppy mistakes in this killing which could be his downfall so the detective is trying to stop other murders as well as solving this one.  

A method used in TV shows like CSI or BONES is to make the good guys and their scientific methods as important as the crime’s solution.  We care about them more than the rotting corpse of the abusive pimp at the crime scene, and their lives are the soap opera that drives the emotional plot while the science drives the mystery plot.  

Having the killer go after the detective or people he cares about is also a tried and true method to make the solution matter.

Whatever method you use, just remember that the main character’s goal in solving the crime must be a strong and worthy one, and the emotional reasons for the solution must matter to both the reader and the detective.  


Monday, July 5, 2021

Creating Suspense

QUESTION:  How do I create suspense?

The simplest answer is that a suspense scene involves possible danger, either physical or emotional, to the main characters. 

A successful suspense scene must also draw the reader in by using the senses. The words must be vivid, the reader should experience what the character is experiencing and be in the head of the character who has the most to lose in the scene if multiple viewpoints are used. 

Suspense is more complex than that, though, in novel-length stories.

First, the writer must keep offering questions to the reader who keeps reading to find out the answers, and, as the reader finds the answers, the author offers more questions to keep the reader reading.

A question can be a simple what happens next or why is this character doing this.  All the questions and their answers are the clues the reader gets to understand the novel and the characters.

Think of these questions and answers as bread crumbs leading the reader bird through each scene and through the novel. Part of the suspense in each scene comes in finding out the answer to some of the questions the author poses.

Suspense won't work if the reader doesn't care about the person in danger so part of creating suspense is making the reader care about that character. In my romantic suspense, GUARDIAN ANGEL, if my hero had been a jerk instead of a charming, decent man, most readers wouldn't care if he survived to the end of the novel, and they certainly wouldn't think him worthy of Desta, the brave and kind heroine.

The character must also have a worthwhile goal so that the reader wants the character to succeed.

If the main character wants to find the treasure so he can live a lavish lifestyle, the reader may root for him if the search for the treasure is interesting enough, but, if he wants the treasure to ransom his beloved wife and children before they face torture and death, the reader will be as anxious as the character that he succeed. Each suspenseful scene will be a hurdle or threat to his reaching his final goal, and failure is unthinkable.

If the reader cares for both the character and his goal, your story has even stronger suspense than just an exciting plot would create.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Bad Things and Good Characters

 Writers are told to make things hard for their characters.  They must heap on the problems so that moving forward toward a goal becomes increasingly difficult for the characters.  That’s good advice, but there are problems, then there are problems.

The problems presented should be logical within the plot, as well as reasonable.  If a character is on the way to rescue his girlfriend from a bad guy and his car won’t start, you should have shown that his car was prone to starting problems or he’d been in a car chase being shot at earlier, and, unknown to him, his gas tank had been slightly nicked, and now a puddle of gas is on the ground.  

An occasional problem may come out of nowhere, life is like that, but try to keep these down to a minimal. 

Bad things out of nowhere as plot stalling tactics simply don’t work.  Let your hero face obstacles that mean something, that stand legitimately in the way of his goal.  Your character defeating a true obstacle means something to the reader.  A false obstacle means nothing.  

Monday, June 21, 2021

We Foreshadow Our Own Futures

 At a writing forum I hang out at, Quora if you are interested, a newbie asked if writers put foreshadowing in while we are writing or when we are editing.  The answer is both, of course, but I have found as I start editing my books that I have added foreshadowing of things I wasn't even aware that I was going to do until I did them.  My subconscious knew that an important thematic and plot element was the darker self, and there were images and metaphors of mirrors, shadows, moonlight, and twins sprinkled from the first page.

All this to say aren't we all writers long before we know we are, and the writer in our brain has been busy taking notes?  Yeah, now I've stopped everyone here who decided to write late in life to consider that question.

From the first bedtime stories my dad invented on the spot, I always wanted to be a writer, and stories were flowing through my mind, but putting them on paper as a book was some day, not right now, while I'm worked on my college degrees in literary analysis and teaching.  

When I finally started putting it on paper, I realized that many of those long analysis papers I wrote were as much about figuring out how to create the stories I wanted to write as figuring out the metaphoric structure of a novel by James Fenimore Cooper.  

So, I’ve always been a writer and a reader, plus a writing teacher, and my subconscious has known my whole life.  How about you?

Monday, June 14, 2021

Finding Your Character's Weakness

 According to Greek myth, Achilles' goddess mother dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable to injury, but the heel she held him by wasn't dipped.  As fate and story would have it, he died when someone shot him in that heel.   

Most people and the most interesting fictional characters always have an Achilles heel, that one weakness which will defeat them unless they overcome it.

As a writer, you must figure out what your main character's weakness is and attack it through plot.

That weakness can be fear of some physical danger.  If like Indiana Jones, your character is afraid of snakes, then snakes he must face to achieve victory.  

A better weakness is an inner one.  If your character prides himself on his dignity and fears ridicule, he must find the strength, at his high school reunion, to race across the room in his bunny underwear to protect his girlfriend from the same bullies who just stripped him.  

If he fears death, he must find the strength to risk dying for something or someone who is more important than life.

Minor weaknesses and disasters can add conflict to a scene, but that one Achilles' heel of your character and his attempts to overcome it are the heart and soul of a good story.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Selfish Goal

 A powerful novel needs a main character with an important goal he must achieve by the end of the novel. At all costs, the main character must achieve that goal or fail utterly with devastating cost to him and those around him.

A recent novel I tried to read reminded me of when that goal won't work.

Here's the premise. The heroine is the standard urban fantasy woman-- incredible supernatural abilities, snappy leather outfit and dialogue, sharp weapons, and a supernatural boyfriend. So far, so good.

Even better, she is the prophesied warrior who can stop the supernatural baddies before they can start the Apocalypse by opening the gates to Hell.

The Big Bad holds her innocent kid sister hostage, and the ransom is the keys to open all of Hell's gates to Earth.

She must decide whether to save her kid sister by helping the demons of Hell wipe out human life or lose her sister and save everyone else.

A no-brainer, right? She'd choose to save humanity.

Instead, she chooses to help the demons end life on Earth with the very faint possibility she may be able to stop them.

At this point in the novel, I said some rude things about the stupidity and selfishness of the heroine and stopped reading because this wasn't a heroine I could root for.

When you are thinking about your main character's goal for the novel, remember that it must be a goal the reader can root for. Saving a sibling is a good thing but saving a sibling at the cost of everyone else's life is a bad thing.

A hero's goal is selfless, not selfish.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Your Character's Emotions During Action Scenes

To make an action scene work, you must not only detail what the characters are doing with their bodies and weapons, you must also include the viewpoint character's emotions and senses.

Adding emotion isn't an either/or situation. It's just as vital to add emotional layers to the physical action as it is to have brief moments of introspection when the battle isn't going on. 

Characterization isn't just introspection. It's characters interacting with each other and revealing themselves in bits and pieces. 

Your band of adventurers may not sit around "sharing their feelings" in touchie-feelie moments like a Dr. Phil show, but they've been around each other enough to know that one hates the bad guys because they murdered his wife and kids, and he's liable to attack without thought and ruin their surprise attack. 

He may be clutching the sword at his side, his other hand opening and closing in nervous energy, and another adventurer may warn him to relax and may mention the wife and kiddies. 

The image of his wife's raped and brutalized body could flash through his mind, and he fights his raw anger and lust to kill. That won't slow the action down like having a long interior flashback of him finding his family's bodies, and his vow of revenge. 

Instead, it adds to the excitement of the coming action because the reader now questions whether this guy will lose his cool and get everyone killed.

An even better way to present this information is to put it in an earlier scene that isn't action intensive so the reader will know the details and will only need a slight reminder of this character's motivation and tendency to attack without thought.

After some rewriting, if you still aren't happy with the emotional content of your story, you may want to look at the central story idea. Do your characters have a real emotional reason to be doing what they are doing? 

Their hunt for the lost treasure should be as much about their emotional reason for needing the treasure as it is about simple greed. That emotional reason should be important enough to make the reader want them to succeed as much as they do.

Maybe the main character is after a magical sword which is the only weapon that will kill the dragon currently ravaging his homeland, and he doesn't really care about other treasure and the life of drunken decadence and dancing girls it promises the other characters. 

Maybe the other characters have laughed at him, but they've admired him and gradually they have been drawn into his quest for the sword, and in the end, they'll choose to get the sword with him and lose the other treasure. 

Maybe the one who laughed the hardest and made the main character's life hell along the journey will be the one to sacrifice himself so that the hero can rescue a homeland the scoffer has never had, but now wishes to have with his whole heart.

If you make your character emotionally invested in each action scene, and make your reader emotionally invested in your story, you’ll have a novel no one will put down.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Reaction Versus Goal in Plot

 When I started plotting my romantic suspense novel, GUARDIAN ANGEL, I decided that my plot line would be the following--

(Back story) High-powered defense attorney Lauton O’Brien hires Gard Gardner to protect his adult daughter Desta if one of the organized crime lords or killers he defends decides to go after him or his family.

(Book plot) Lauton realizes one of his clients is out to kill him. He sends Desta and information about who is out to kill him to Gard, and he disappears. Desta comes by boat to Gard’s lake home. The boat blows up with the information, but Gard saves Desta. 

Desta and Gard go on the run with hired killers hot on their trail.

At first glance, the plot sounded great. Lots of action, adrenaline, scary bad guys, and a perfect situation for two people very suited to each other to find love and a happily-ever-after.

Then I realized the plot had a fatal flaw. The two main characters spend the whole novel reacting to what others are doing to them. Reaction is passive, and passive creates less than stellar main characters and a much weaker book. 

I needed to give the characters a goal which is active. 

I wanted to keep the hired killers hot on their trail, but I decided that Gard and Desta weren’t running away, they were working toward their goal -- following clues to find Lauton so they can figure out who is trying to kill them then stopping that person so they can have a life together. 

When you are creating your main plot, you also need to be sure that your main character or characters have an active goal instead of being swept along by circumstances or by someone’s actions against them.

Make them heroes, not victims.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Choosing Your Character's Name

 Finding the right name for a character involves a number of variables.

*The period the story is set in.  Names must be authentic for the period.  A number of websites are available for different historical periods as well as recent years.  Do your research, and don't have a Medieval heroine named Tiffany. 

Here are a few sites to look at

First names:


Popular first names in recent years:

*The location of the story and ethnic background of your characters.

*The current impression the name gives.  Years ago, for example, men were named Leslie, but it has become a woman's name.  Naming your hero Leslie might be authentic for the period, but it will give your reader the wrong impression.

*How hard the name is to type.  I avoid some names because I can't type them.   If you must use a name that's hard to type, pick a simple nonsense string of letters then do a universal search and replace.  Be absolutely sure the letters are nonsense so you don't insert the name in the middle of words that have that string within them.


The right name for your hero or heroine is one of your most important decisions.  

For major characters, I don't just pick a name I like.  Instead, I wait until I see a name, and a frission goes through me to tell me I've hit the name for my character.  Most of my character names have been gifts of that sort.  Sometimes, the character will tell me his name at a certain point in the creation process.  

The name, in other words, is as much a part of making the character real for the writer as it is for the reader.  


Try to avoid  a secondary character's name that is similar to your major characters' names.   That includes names that begin with the same letter or look similar (Al, Sal, and Sally).


Before I start writing and after I have my main characters' names, I make a list of other names I can use in the book which fit the period, etc., as well as being different from the major characters' names.  This allows me to pick a name for that waitress who has a few scenes without having to stop my writing while I think up a name.  


I have used similar names deliberately in my writing.  In TIME AFTER TIME, my hero remembers all his past lives, and he's trying to convince the heroine they have been reincarnated lovers in each of those lives.  He restages and retells their past lives and their loves so I needed different names for them in each time period.  

I decided that I'd use the same first letter or letters of their current names for each past name so that the reader would recognize instantly when I mentioned a name even if they couldn't recall the period that name was from.  Each name would have to fit the historical period as well as the personality of the character.

Justin was earthy Jed in the Old West, and Alexa was Annie.  In the 1940s, Justin was sophisticated Jared and Alexa was Alicia.  Their other names also reflected character and period.


For main characters, particularly villains, it's a good idea to put the name into a search engine to see if someone out there shares the name.  Put the first and last name into quotation marks so you will only receive results with both those words close together.  If you find someone with that name, you may want to consider a different name.  If the name belongs to a serial killer, you definitely want a different name. 

Looking for the same name is also a good idea for book titles.


As you develop characters and names, you'll discover a new fascination with names and their power, and you'll probably find yourself scanning obituaries and newspapers for that unusual name to add to your name list.  Enjoy this.  It's part of the fun of creating characters.