Monday, July 27, 2009

What's in a Name? and other character building questions

by Austin S. Camacho

A while back I talked about character inventories - a list of traits and details that you could use as a fill-in-the-blank character starter. Each of those traits tells a bit more about your character and if you remain consistent with all of them you’ll have a great character who readers will take to their hearts because they will feel as if they really know this person.

Character inventories usually start with names and that’s not just for convenience. Superficial as we humans are, we draw a lot of meaning out of a person’s name. My detective Hannibal Jones has a very common last name, indicating an everyman. His father named him after the only African military conqueror he could name, the man who led elephants in his army and almost defeated the Roman legions. Who is your character named after? Who named him, mom or dad? Does she have a name that indicates parental personality expectations? Many common women’s names do: Chastity, Felicity, Hope, and Faith. Such characters often either grow into their names or they may take a stance in opposition to it like fictional adventurer Modesty Blaise?

Last names often indicate nationality with all the assumptions they bring. If you have a fellow named Patrick O’Connor in your cast and he ISN’T Irish, you’d better tell us quickly, because we’ve already slotted him. And in fact if he isn’t, there’s a great story there about how he got that name that will tell us a good deal about him.

Similarly, nicknames tell us a lot about your character, but we need to know if he took the name himself or if someone stuck him with it. If you introduce me to a character named Tiny I expect a giant. But if her pals call her Brain, she might be the one who always has a plan, OR she might be an idiot. Either way, the fact that she accepted that nickname tells us about her confidence level and self-image.

As for backgrounds, consider your own nationality. I think very few of you will say, “American.” We all come from somewhere, or our ancestors did. There are no generic people, and readers won’t care about your characters if they are too generic. Everyone has a race, a nationality and a religious background – even if the person doesn’t practice a religion. Consider how that affects your character’s personality.

Economic background affects personalities too, even if the character has moved on from that background. Habits learned during a poor childhood don’t vanish when your character strikes it rich, and vice versa. Know how she’ll behave in a store, in a restaurant, or in a bar. How much does money matter to her choices?

I’ve said all that before mentioning appearance because I think too many people think looks make a character. A description is NOT a character, friends. It’s probably the least important thing. However, it does matter for a few reasons. It indicates race and nationality, and whether the person is inclined to sports or not. It indicates how often others might be attracted to them.

When describing your characters don’t forget importance of clothing and jewelry. Beyond what we’re born with, consider what the character chooses to change. Has he had plastic surgery? Is she dieting? Do they wear a wig or toupee? All those tell us a lot about this person, just as being bald and proud of it does. How do they dress? How much makeup do they wear? These are all more clues to this personality.

Personally, I consider descriptions to be the most boring part of most books. So this is my personal plea for the use of simile and metaphor for description. He’s as tall as what? As fat as who? Her voice sounds like a… what, exactly? Pretend you’re describing your character to a friend who’s never seen him because that’s exactly what you’re doing.

And remember that, beyond description, characters are best revealed by what they say and what they do.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I find descriptions boring, too. Good point on how names can help us visualize characters.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Mark Troy said...

I think names are very important in picking a character and say a lot about his/her personality. Some of the best have already been taken:
Nero Wolfe
Sam Spade
Mike Hammer
Peter Gunn
Thomas Magnum

Hannibal Jones is a great name, too,

Helen Ginger said...

I agree that what characters say and do best describe them, but names are important. It's why we writers labor over them. Have you noticed that in "most" memorable character names, one part of the name is "normal" and the other is unusual? That way it's different without being too different.

Straight From Hel

F. M. Meredith, author said...

In my next Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery, Dispel the Mist, there's a Community Service Chief on the rez named Cruz Murphy--his step-father adopted him. I love naming characters, so much fun.

Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good article, Austin. You're right. Names and dialogue say a great deal about a character that pages of description cannot match.