Archive for April, 2012

What’s in a Name…

Currently, one of my most favorite shows on television is “Justified”, which airs on FX, though I’m not sure of the day because I usually watch it using ‘On Demand’. It’s an incredibly well-written show and is vastly different from everything else on television that I’ve found. The show stars Timothy Olyphant in the main-character role as Marshall Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as his foil, mild-mannered convicted felon, Boyd Crowder, and I honestly can’t decide which one I find sexier.

The reason I’m talking about this is because the show is based on characters from a couple books and a short story written by Elmore Leonard. Desperate for more Justified drama following the recent scintillating season finale, I had searched everything I could find connected to the show and that included an interview with Leonard in which he discussed how he came about naming his character “Raylan”, and naming characters in general.

I have a love-hate relationship with naming characters. For me it can be the most difficult part of the entire character development process but, at the same time, it can also be the most fun.

Now, some people might be wondering: what’s so difficult about giving a character a name?

Think about it.

Your character’s name is typically going to be the first thing your reader will know about your character, for your reader it will be the most intimate part of her relationship with your character because it will be the reader’s only identifier of the character, and because of this, the name will play a huge role in how your reader will view that character throughout the entire story.

This is reasonable when you consider that even in everyday life we formulate impressions of people based on their names. For instance, would you take a doctor more seriously if his name was Scooter? Or William? Would you be more inclined to think a woman a sultry vixen if her name was Delores? Or Cassandra?

Let’s face it. Names are powerful things. Parents-to-be generally put a lot of thought and research into what name they’re going to give their child and the name they choose for their child is usually a reflection of the person they want their child to become. How is an author birthing a character any different?

Well, for starters, having a name like ‘Scooter’ might not hold back a bouncing baby boy from becoming a world-renowned neural surgeon but it could possibly keep your audience from connecting with your character, which could potentially severely hurt your story.

Methods for naming characters vary from writer to writer, even, and from character to character.

Sometimes you get lucky. You stumble across a name that just begs to be a character. This is what happened with Leonard, who just happened to meet a gentleman named Raylan, and just like that, the modern-day cowboy Marshall Givens with his own brand of justice was born.

If you’re anything like me, however, most of the time you linger in character name purgatory, sifting through ‘baby-name’ websites for inspiration.

Regardless of methodology, there are a few things I like to bear in mind when name-hunting.

* How do you want your readers to view your character * – Considering this has been what the majority of my post has been talking about thus far, the impression our names give other people, it’s no wonder I’m listing this as the first, if not most important, thing to always bear in mind when character naming. Remember though, the name doesn’t have to be a stereotype and it doesn’t have to fit the character’s personality to a ‘T’. What I mean when I say “how do you want your readers to view your characters” is exactly that, how do you want your characters viewed?

Take for example, Indiana Jones. The name conjures up someone dashing, adventurous, someone a bit flashy, and that’s exactly how we – the audience – are expected to view him. Right away, we find him interesting, because he has an interesting name. But is that exactly who Indiana Jones proves to be? Yes. And no. I don’t care who you are, you have to admit Harrison Ford is dashing. Adventurous? He’s an archeologist that regularly treasure hunts, gunfights, and he’s got a little bit of a whip fetish. Yup, definitely adventurous. He fits our expectations, but not exactly. He’s also a professor who wears reading glasses and tweed suits with little bow ties. And oh yeah, he’s deathly afraid of snakes.

Now, think about this: would we have found Indiana Jones as interesting if his name were, say, Norman Jones. He certainly sounds like a professor now but Norman Jones and the Temple of Doom. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it…

Looking at the flipside of interesting, let’s look at another example: Harry Potter. (Yes, I’ve used Harry Potter before…not because I’m a huge fan of the series – I never finished the last book, I admit as I hang my head in bookworm shame – but because it’s well known) Nothing interesting about that name. No sir. It’s actually quite…average. Which is exactly the picture Rowling’s wants her audience to conjure up. Harry is an average boy, he’s got messy brown hair, is a bit on the scrawny side (his fat relatives apparently don’t feed him and I guess there’s no such thing as Child Protective Services in the UK), wears black-rimmed glasses and isn’t extraordinarily intelligent or athletic. Aside from being a prophesized savior in an underground wizarding world, Harry is about as interesting as a packaging peanut. Maybe even less so because packaging peanuts make fun crinkling noises when you squish them.  J

Now, if Rowling had given her character the name Flash Potter (Yes, Flash…you see, because of the lightening shaped scar on his head, ha..ha…), it would have completely skewed the image she was trying to create for us. Right away, we would find it hard to believe that this boy were average, not with a name like Flash.

As you can see by these examples, name choice can play heavily in character development. Not only by giving the reader that first impression but by creating a springboard from which to more fully flesh the character out, proving some first impressions wrong but reinforcing others.

* What is the character’s cultural/ethnic background * – As an anthropology major, I tend to think about characters and even story development in terms of culture and ethnicity but it also helps when taking into consideration a character name. This doesn’t mean you should choose a name based on his ethnicity but remember that we are reflections of our upbringings.

Socialization is the term used to describe the process by which a child comes to understand the cultural norms of her society; likewise your characters should be socialized within the context of their story.  Readers will expect a character to behave appropriately to her society’s social norms, at least, to some extent (rebellious character types may purposely break from social norms to be rebellious…which is only further proof of the importance of considering culture when creating a character).  Her name can be an extension of that cultural identity.  Furthermore, certain names and even different spellings of names are more prevalent in particular parts of the world.  For example, in America we’re more likely to spell the name ‘Jeffery’, but in the United Kingdom, you’re more likely to see the name ‘Geoffrey’.

The names of your characters will help to build the scenery, lending to the atmosphere of the environment.  The television show Justified takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky.  Along with Marshall Raylan Givens, and his counterpart Boyd Crowder, other characters in the show include Raylan’s father Arlo Givens, Boyd’s lovely wife, Ava, the Bennett clan headed by Mags, her son Dickie, and his friend Dewey Crowe, and then there’s seedy criminal mastermind/pig farmer, Ellstin Limehouse.  Though these names are not necessarily unheard of in other locales, they have a decidedly southern twang to them, and help to build upon the imagery and atmosphere of the world around them.

Sometimes when creating characters, writers will aim for ethnic neutrality in order to attract a more diverse audience but I kind of think this is folly.  I think readers will connect better with characters who have an established cultural or ethic connection, regardless of whether they share that culture or ethnicity, simply because we all possess that connection  and can understand it.  We can’t ever forget, in our efforts to create a character readers will like and relate to, that readers like and relate best with people.  Give your characters a cultural identity, and don’t be afraid to let that identity be reflected in their name.

* What is the time period this character lives in * My mother’s name is Velma which was a fairly popular name in the 1960’s, when she was born.  Nowadays, you would be hard-pressed to find a baby christened ‘Velma’.  Names, like fashion, music, and everything else in our pop culture world, go through phases.  There’s a reason names like Ethel, Marge, Frank, and Jasper remind us of grandmothers and grandfathers, because, along with flappers, moonshine, and zoot-suits, those names were in and have since gone out of style, though eventually they may come back.

When searching for a name for your character, the time period is an important thing to consider.  This doesn’t mean that you have to give your character the most popular baby name of that era.  But bear in mind, certain names that you’ll find in our modern society may have been completely unheard of, say, one or two hundred years ago.  If your story centers on a young Confederate soldier during the United States Civil War, you probably aren’t going to name him Justin.  On the flip side, names that were frequent in ancient times may seem strange or outdated in a modern world.  While you can certainly name your lead female character of your modern day mystery novel Hippolyta, be prepared for other characters to comment on the oddity of such a moniker.

Also, and much like the previously mentioned point about culture/ethnicity, character names can help set the tone and date of your story.  Remember my question at the start, “who sounds more like a sultry vixen, Delores or Cassandra?”  Well, in the 1940s-50s, Delores might have been considered the name of one hot mama, so if you’re staging your story in that time period and need a name for a sultry vixen character type, you might want to consider Delores.

* What sounds good * Remember good ole Norman Jones?  Aside from sounding like a stuffy professor in a sweater vest, his name doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue quite like Indiana Jones.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve come across a lot of beginning writers that never seemed to take this simple concept into consideration.  Names that were too much of a mouthful, were far beyond abnormal, too much effort put into making them unique that they didn’t fit the story or the character, or they just simply did not sound good.  If a character’s name is long, strange, or doesn’t have an appealing phonetic arrangement, the reader will have difficulty remembering it.

Yes, remembering it.  Recall that I said the characters name is the identifier of that character?  Well, if your reader has trouble remembering that name, then they’ll have trouble identifying the character in the story, if they have trouble identifying the character then they’ll have trouble relating to the character.  If they have trouble relating to your character then they aren’t going to care about your character.  If they don’t care about your character then they aren’t going to care about what happens to your character.  What happens to your character is your story so if the reader doesn’t care what happens to your character then that means they don’t care about your story.  Readers don’t read stories that they don’t care about.

Starting to grasp the importance of naming a character?  Or are you just staring blankly at the screen wondering about my sanity?  Yeah…I am slightly paranoid, but that doesn’t demean my point!

Anyhow, when I name a character, I like to say the name aloud.  The entire name.  Get a taste for it on my tongue.  If it doesn’t sound right, I scrap it and start the search over again.

Like I said before, naming a character can be the most difficult part of the entire character development process but, like every process in story writing that can be equally if not more so difficult, it can also be really fun.  And the end result can be incredibly rewarding, especially if you happen to create a character that becomes as wildly popular as Raylan Givens.

One last thing, if, like Elmore Leonard, you have the great fortune to come across a really cool name, take note of it whether you yet have a character in mind to fit it and/or a story to surround that character or not because you never know, later down the line you may be staring at the screen searching for a good name and, lo and behold, that cool name you jotted down might just happen to be the name your looking for.  Otherwise, think about the things I’ve said here, and good luck.

Moral of the story: You want your character’s name to stand out, but not too much, to say a lot about your character, but not everything, and, of course, to be memorable.

It might also help your character to gain in popularity if he's portrayed by an incredibly awesome (...sexy...) actor like Timothy Olyphant.

I’m not dead, I swear…

Wow, I haven’t updated in forever!  I wish I could say it’s because I have all these other things going on and I’m just so very busy, but really the reason is simple…I’ve come down with a severe case of the ever dreaded Writer’s Block (yes, with a capital W and B).

So I figured instead of giving in to it, why not use it?

If you’re a writer, chances are pretty good that you’ve come across the big W-B at some point in your life.

Most writers (especially the successful ones) have their own tricks and techniques for breaking past the blockade.

I’m not a successful writer and I usually find myself thwarted by Writer’s Block, so much so, that I’ve built up my own little stash of tricks and techniques to help get myself back in the game, many of them suggestions from other writers.  Today I’m going to share some of those techniques in hopes that reviewing them will help remind me on how to break past the Block.

Who knows?  Maybe someone out there is struggling, same as me, and will find in this post the trick to win their own battle, go on to write the next New York Times Bestselling novel and mention me on the Acknowledgment’s page.  Hey, a girl can dream can’t she?

Trick #1: Read your favorite book or watch your favorite movie, something that you find inspiring or that stirs strong emotions inside of you.  You ever heard the saying: Monkey see, monkey do?  That’s kind of how this trick works..  You see, most writers got into writing because at some point in their life they were told a story.  And they felt something, a great and powerful passion building in them from the words, the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the scenes, all of it, that they just had the urge to tell a story, many stories, of their own.  Writers are passionate about storytelling, but when they feel their passion growing stagnate, it makes sense to go back to the root of that passion and renew it.  That and it gives your brain a nice break from the pressures of trying to write which allows the creative juices to start flowing.

Trick #2: Take a walk.  Go out somewhere, to the park, to the mall, grocery store, go hiking in the mountains, just go!  And take your notebook with you.  This is advice you’ll find in just about any book (or chapter in a book, or on a blog, or website, etc.) on defeating Writer’s Block and  there’s a reason for it: it works!  I believe that broken down into its base molecules (I’m talking subatomic particles here), every great story is ultimately comprised of two elements: perspectives and experiences.  But you can’t tell a great story if you don’t have a lot of diverse perspectives and experiences of your own.  So go out and have them!  And, once again, going out helps relieve the stress of trying to write.  That’s why you take the notebook, that way if (when) the flood gates open, you’ll have a place to jot down all your new, great ideas.

Trick #3: Do writing exercises.  You know those annoying prompts your teacher used to make you do in Creative Writing class?  Oh yeah, you remember.  The ones that would go something along the lines of, “Write a dialogue between two characters such that the reader knows their having an argument even though it isn’t obvious from their words” or, “Tell a story from the perspective of an inanimate object”.  Turns out their great little platforms for jumping right over your Writer’s Block and getting back on the path of creativity.  How does it work?  Well, it gets you writing again for one thing.  And, it gets your mind back into the frame of brainstorming around an idea and developing a story, without the pressure of having  to come up with that starting point.  And who knows?  Maybe the work you turn out for that simple prompt will be the springboard for that novel you’ve been wanting to write.

Trick #4 Read back over your older work.  If your goal is to start turning out new material, this may sound slightly counter-intuitive but there are several benefits I’ve found to reading back over work.  For starters, it can be a bit of a confidence builder.  Kind of like saying, “Hey, look brain, we could do this before, we can do this again.”  Also, I’ve found it kind of reminds me of the mindset I was in when I wrote the story.  It kind of refreshes those parts of my brain that write, reminds the old gears how their supposed to be turning.  Another benefit, if you’re anything like me, reading back over an old piece generally leads to proofing the old piece which leads to making changes to the old piece which leads to rewriting parts of the old piece and I think you get the point.  Voila, you’re writing again.  And in the same vein, turning out new material doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be new material for old material.  Pull out a story you never finished, or an idea you started developing but kind of shoved aside when something else came along.  Coming back to a piece you’ve been away from for awhile can cast it in a whole new light, and you might find the story flowing from you anew.

Trick #5: Read non-fiction.  I was reading an interview with authors Terry Pratchett and Niel Gaiman (because I’m obsessed with him) a while back and when the interviewer asked the question, “What types of fiction books do you read for motivation?” I was intrigued by Terry Pratchett’s response.  He said something along the lines of, “I only read non-fiction because there’s not much inspiration to be found in fiction, the story ideas are already there and developed, whereas in non-fiction, the ideas are there still waiting to be turned into a story.”  Obviously, if you’ve read my first trick, I don’t really agree with the first half of his answer, however, when I was in school, I never felt inspired to write in my English classes, but I had an abundance of ideas for stories jumping out at me form all angles of my teachers’ lectures in social studies, government, history, science, and even once calculus (yes, math can be inspiring too!).  Stories are reflections of real-life, so it seems logical to look to real-life for inspiration for your stories.

Trick #6: Create a soundtrack.  I might be revealing a bit too much of my crazy in this admission but I like to pick out background music for scenes from stories I’m writing and when those songs play I visualize the scene unfolding to the music; kind of like imagining the movie version of my story I hope some Hollywood producer will someday make :P.  This way, everytime I hear the song, maybe if it pops on the radio, I think of the scene, planning it out, pinpointing the appropraite dialogue, perfecting the descriptions, and most importantly, finding the right emotions.

Music is a form of storytelling, by stringing together notes which tell the story and elicit an emotional response from the listener.  Picking out songs to fit particular scenes is a great stress reliever that keeps your mind focused on your writing without the pressures of trying to write, and playing those songs while visualizing the scene can help put you in the mood to write that scene.  Listening to music, also, a great stress reliever.

The last trick I have to share is not only the most important one.  It’s also the most obvious.

Trick #7: Just write.  Now wait a minute, some of you might be thinking, this isn’t a real trick.  But it is, isn’t it?  In fact, it is the most trickiest trick of them all.  As the old saying goes, when you fall off a horse the only thing you can do is just get back on and ride it.   So sit down and write through your writer’s block.  Write anything, write everything, write the first thing that pops in your head or the last thought you’d ever think.  Just write.  I know, it sounds so silly it just might work.  And I can honestly say, 1300 plus words later, that it did.

So I hope someone out there found some use from this late night excursion in deafeating the dreaded Block.  If anyone’s got any tricks or techniques of their own for defeating Writer’s Block, please, feel free to share.  I know I’ll run into it again someday and I could always use more tricks for beating it.

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