What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name?

What's in a Name?

Apparently, as I’ve been finding out, a lot.

As authors, we often like to use a pen name. And this requires a lot of thought, since the name is, or will become, part of your identity, part of who other people think you are and can say a lot about not only where you come from, but also the kind of person you are.

Many of our surnames, as this article in the Daily Mail explains, come from medieval times. For example, if your ancestors made candles, your surname may well reflect that – Chandler. Or consider Smith. Wheelwright. Baker.

Or the surname can reflect some characteristic of that long-gone ancestor – Hart, meaning Stag; Belcher (no, not someone who burps a lot), meaning fair, or lovely face; then there’s Dolittle, meaning lazy …

Do you know the meaning of your own name? If so, do you like it, and does it say anything about you as a person?

My name is Louise. In French, this means “Renowned Warrior”. Not just this but also, according to NameBerry, ‘Louise’ has been regarded as having to do with competency, studiousness and efficiency. These two definitions don’t seem to have much to do with each other, but a renowned warrior must be competent, must be efficient. My other name, my real first name, means something almost completely the opposite. Ha. Though I am not efficient, or consider myself a renowned warrior (!), I find aspects of both my names fit me.

I find, when writing historical, I look for names with deeper meanings. The name of my MMC is Egon, which means Blade/Fire, depending if you’re looking at the Germanic meaning or Celtic. He has a fiery temperament and also used a dagger to kill two people. Egon is also a twin, so I wanted the twin to have the same name, or name meaning, with a difference to show how the twins are similar in some ways and very different in others – so I called him Adin, which means born of fire in Celtic, or handsome and pleasure-bringer in Hebrew. Both of these names fit these guys to a T. It took me a long time, but I couldn’t imagine them having any other name now.

When I’m writing contemporary, I look for names I like. I was thinking about this yesterday. If I just pick a name out of a hat, so to speak, does that mean my contemporary characters are not as deep as my historical ones? It’s something to think about for me.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a name:

Find names that suit the characters. Do you want a male romance lead to be called Bill, or Billy? Hm. Maybe some of you might, but it doesn’t have that ring of ‘tall, dark and handsome’ for me:D

  • Maybe make use of alliteration (E.G. Severus Snape, the repetitive ‘s’ and his surname all sound like snakes and hissing).
  • Make sure your character names are not all using the same letter of the alphabet. (This might sound obvious but I find, when first writing something new, most of my names begin with A, lol).
  • Make sure that a reader can ‘sound’ them properly in their heads, that the name isn’t a tongue twister like Maximillian Fungustosian.
  • Make sure your names have a variety of length and syllables.
  • When choosing a name, research all the different meanings there are in the different languages. Granted, some names have similar meanings in most languages – Alexander, eg – but others have a plethora of meanings and this can be a treasure trove when characterising your leads, especially if some seem to contradict each other.

So there are a few things to think about. Names might come easy to you, but for many, like me, it’s like removing a feather from thick mud.

Good resources for finding names:

Baby names websites (obvious)

Graveyards

Film credits

Friends and family

Your school year list

Non-fiction books – open up a book on architecture, or fashion, for example. Have a look at the names and play around with them, mix and match, change first and last letters of first names, etc.

Look at maps. Many place names, street names, names of rivers can be used etc.

Look at parliamentary records, or church records. These are rich resources for names, especially historical.

A name generator can be lots of fun…

Also, if you look at various genealogy websites, they list, in alphabetical order, thousands of surnames. Pick a letter and off you hunt. I used one recently, worked a treat.

If you are looking for names from other parts of the world (since the world is not just the UK and America), then baby name website have a great many suggestions.

Great resources for historical names that I’ve found:

13th century names

Dictionary of British Feminine names

What’s behind a name?

Anglo-Saxon names

British Surnames

There are loads more out there; if you know any, post a comment with the link, thank you:)

Backstory – What is it?

In the beginning photo

 

I’ve been musing over this recently, and I think a lot of confusion comes with knowing what’s backstory, and where our stories actually should begin. It’s something I am constantly struggling with – where is the start of my story?

I think I found a clue!

Our characters are people, first and foremost. Therefore they will, like all of us, have a history. But whereas we live the whole of our lives, we do not necessarily write the whole of our characters’ lives, and our readers certainly don’t. We write only a portion.

Which portion?

In the beginning photo

Usually that which sees the character go on a journey. The journey may be a literal journey – such as in The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo must travel to Mordor (by going on a literal journey he also goes on an emotional journey). The journey maybe simply an emotional journey – like the death of a loved one; or a change in the character’s status – single to married, eg.

Whatever the journey is, the start of the story is not where the journey begins but just before. We need to show the character in their normal environment, in their status quo emotional state. We need to build empathy in the reader, curiosity, and hook them into wanting to find out what happens to change their state, and whether they survive. Normal, everyday situations that show their character as it is, and hint at the changes that must come, or even an unusual situation that nudges the main character (mc) in the direction of the journey they must take.

Some people go on a life-changing journey, or trip around the world. It is vital that we know who they were, so we can understand who they have become.

airport photo

If the mc is at the airport, about to go on a life-changing holiday, then we can show an event that reveals that character as they are, before they need to change. So, if our character is reserved, sometimes gets pushed around, we can show that by having someone bump into her and not apologise. How does she react? Does she ignore what happened? If she is reserved, she may well do. As a reader we want to see her come out if that and stand up for herself and that’s what piques our curiosity. However, you can see that how she reacts now is key in understanding both who she is now, and who she must become.

Why is she reserved? Why does she not stand up for herself? These are questions then raised in the reader’s mind and they read on to find the answers. Does the reader need to know the answers now? No. And, they don’t necessarily want the answers immediately.

Having shown the mc as he/she is, we can then say that backstory is everything that has shaped the character to be who he/she is today, when the story begins.

So when will the reader want the answers?

That is the question, and it’s not easy to answer. There will be times when the character’s actions will need explaining.

 

Pride and Prejudice photo
Photo by The British Library

 

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy acts cold and arrogant – particularly towards Wickham, which angers Lizzy and cause her to resent Darcy, but we don’t find out why Darcy is cold until much later in the book. We have hints at what happened and these come from Mr Wickham himself. By this time, the reader suspects Wickham is not what he seems, but Lizzy does not. The reader wants Darcy to be the hero, Lizzy wants Wickham.

 

Pride and Prejudice photo
Photo by The British Library

 

We don’t discover the true history between him and Mr Wickham until the letter which explains much of why Darcy behaves the way he does towards Wickham.

So, we see that the reader goes on the journey with the mc, but at some point, we can see more than they can, and then comes the tension of when will the mc find out…

Darcy and Wickham’s backstories are only revealed at certain times in the book, and we certainly do not know everything about them, only the important events that have shaped them into the characters they are today.

Your important event that shaped your character might be an almighty one, like the murder of their spouse. Sometimes people choose to show these in a prologue, since they are huge and interesting and ‘hooky’, yet are still a part of the backstory to show who the character is before they must change. Perhaps the murder of their spouse sends them into a spiral of gambling and other issues. Perhaps it’s depression. What the reader wants to see is how the character gets out of this, how he conquers his demons.

The mc might be in a completely ordinary situation – like Bilbo Baggins celebrating his birthday in The Hobbit.

So what is backstory?

The events, upbringing, family issues, etc, that have shaped that character to be who they are at the start of the story. Who they are at the start of their emotional upheaval. To know where we are going, we must know where we have come from.

Also bear in mind that a novel may not start with the status quo of the mc, but of the antagonist – a murderer, for example. In Lisa Jackson’s Cold Blooded, she begins with a prologue showing the murderer hunting. This raises questions – who is he hunting and why, and why is he a murderer?

Backstory isn’t just the prerogative of the mc, either …

Who is your character at the start of the journey? What shaped their characters?

Also, if we know all of this, our characters will be far more rounded as people. It’s worth putting the time in to discover backstory, even if we don’t use it in the novel.

Just some thoughts,

Louise

 

 

 

Interview Your Characters? Why?

56201fb143a907c6_150_interviews

I know people interview their characters to find out details about them, and in many ways these interviews can provide information that adds flavour to the character, but, in my humble opinion, they do not add depth. This post takes a look at that.

So what kind of questions do they recommend you ask?

 

Well, these:

What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?

What is your characters hair color? Eye color?

Or:

Where does your character go when he’s angry?

angry photo

What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?

Does she have a secret?

Or:

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

What is your current state of mind?

What is your favorite occupation?

What is your most treasured possession?

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

love  photo

What is your favorite journey?

What is your most marked characteristic?

When and where were you the happiest?

What is it that you most dislike?

What is your greatest fear?

What is your greatest extravagance?

Which living person do you most despise?

 

These sorts of questions are all fascinating and provide great details, but do they show real character?

I’m not so sure.

In an interview we like to present the best facets of ourselves possible, and we even exaggerate our good points if we think it will produce the result we want. What prevents our characters from doing exactly the same?

We could ask our character these questions and think we know them, then when we start to write we discover that, actually, we still know very little about them.

If you were asked all these questions can you say you would answer each one truthfully? Would your character?

If you had a character who was a compulsive liar, these questions would be no good at all. If you had a character whose opinion of themselves was vastly different to that of other characters, how does interviewing them help? It may reveal their opinion of themselves, but will it also reveal what they think deep down?

These questions might reveal what the character thinks they might do in certain situations, or what the character thinks they know, but how many of us know what we would do in any given situation until we are in that situation?

Most of these questions seem to be aimed at discovering the person/character rather than developing the character.

It might be a good idea to start with such a questionnaire to discover a character, but how do we then develop them? Or find out how their answers to these questions affect them in ‘life’?

There is only one way.

Put them in situations where they are forced to make a decision, for good or bad. Put them in situations that will test their courage, test their emotional responses, test their fears.

Even if these situations and scenes are not used in the final draft, you have learned something about your character you didn’t know before. They have new depth.

 

What do you think? Have character interviews helped you, and in what way?

 

 

How Important Are Emotions When Driving A Character?

How important are emotions in driving a character?

(This is something I also posted on the Happy Authors Guild blog. Check it out, there are lots of fabulous posts from many different writers)
I’ve been mulling this over this past week and had a few thoughts. Feel free to disagree, this is just what was going through my head:)
There are many driving forces behind a character’s behaviour. Needs. Wants. Desires. Revenge. Behind these, either tagging along like cans tied to a newlyweds car or compressing a person until they feel like they will explode, are emotions.

The first three (needs, wants, desires) are often stepping stones into the depth of emotion a person will attach to one of these. For example, the desire to share your life with someone can morph into a want, which then changes to a need. The initial desire comes with the feeling that it would be nice, pleasant, normal. If the desire goes unfulfilled, then the emotions deepen. If the ‘want’ goes unfulfilled, emotions go deeper, and often start to deceive us. A character can think, ‘Why am I the only one not married? Why am I the only one struggling financially?’ It’s easy to slip into thoughts that slowly lead down into a maelstrom of self-pity, anger, depression and fear. (At this point, can I just clarify that not everyone is like this, but it can help to see where a character can go emotionally due to an unfulfilled need.)

Need is often associated with desperation and fear. If I don’t have shelter I may die of cold. If I don’t have enough to eat I will starve. If I don’t find someone to love me I will stay alone. Suffer alone. Age alone. Die alone. If a person cannot meet their own needs, then helplessness, hopelessness and depression can follow.

Want (when not a ‘need’) can be associated with selfishness and inconsideration of others, an assumption that others don’t matter. Some people want to be rich, and will do anything to achieve that – even if it means stamping others down.

Desires can take many forms. In romance novels, sexual desires can often be the main driving force (at first) behind a character. In a thriller, the detective will have the desire to catch a thief or a murderer. When this desire is unfulfilled, then it becomes a want, a need. The passion behind increases, the driving force impels the character to perhaps take more risks.

So emotions drive us in many ways.

Consider yourself. When you wake up in the morning how do you feel? Tired? Buzzing? Still upset at something someone said yesterday? Still slightly drunk???

I know when I wake up tired it colours my whole day a darker shade of whatever hue I feel. Our emotions and reactions colour the way we think and act, likewise with our characters. If some trauma happened when a character was young, that will affect almost everything about them. Even if they shut it out, the fact that they have shut down a part of them means a part of them is missing, regardless how broken up that part is. When does a character learn fear? Love? Consequences of various actions?

In the current medieval novel I am working on, I have a sixteen year old girl who had a traumatic experience when she was about 9. She has shut this out, yet occasionally has nightmares. I have struggled with her character because it isn’t rounded. Part of her is hidden from me, and until she comes to terms with what happened and is willing to remember, it will stay hidden. She has fears, and anxieties which come from this hidden place and these affect her, yet her emotions are dampened because she pushes them down. So it has been difficult to write from her pov, and the novel has turned into one more about her mother while Annie remembers. When she has remembered, she will be much rounder; I will be better able to write her because I know where she is coming from.

Do you know what your characters are feeling in every scene? Do you ‘soul-hop’? I find if I know what a character is feeling, then the dialogue and actions flow easily and naturally. If I don’t know, then everything feels stilted and awkward.

Experiences affect characters differently. One might shrug off an insult, another might take a swing. Another might bear a grudge and nurse it until the tree of bitterness bears the fruit of hatred. Yet all will then adjust their behaviour accordingly. The one who shrugs the insult off may well avoid that person. The one who takes a swing might end up in jail; the one who nurses a grudge may end up sinking into paranoia. A seemingly insignificant detail can end up having pond-wide ripples, which is why, for me, it’s so important knowing how they feel. If I can identify with my own characters, then I have the hope readers will, too.

 

What do you think? How important are emotions in driving your characters? What do your characters first desire, then want, then need? Is the carrot that is being dangled before them always out of reach, or can they take a bite every now and then, thus increasing the fervency with which they seek more?

 

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