Tag Archives: character creation

Free e-book for Renegade Chronicles fans

Hence forth, let Sept. 13 be known as Reader Appreciation Day!

As a thank-you to my readers—and in hopes of reaching more—I’ve created a free compendium for The Renegade Chronicles, my fun fantasy saga featuring anti-heroes aplenty.

Cover of "Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium"

Download Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium for FREE here.

Available for Kindle, Nook, and just about any other e-reader you can name, Capricon and Beyond provides an in-depth look at the world of Altaerra—from the island of Capricon to greater Continae to far, foreign shores.

The e-book compiles a variety of resources for those interested in learning more about the people and places that populate The Renegade Chronicles as well as those who want a behind-the-scenes look at my world-building process. The glossary of more than 250 names and terms will serve as a handy quick-reference guide for “visitors.”

Capricon and Beyond also contains a never-before-published prologue for the series, starring “the Stranger.”

Other content includes:

  • Character profiles
  • Maps of Capricon and Western Arabond
  • Historical and cultural notes
  • Sketches drawn by yours truly

Sign up for my newsletter to receive the link to your copy of Capricon and Beyond.

And have a happy Reader Appreciation Day!

New to Altaerra? Learn more about The Renegade Chronicles here.



Filed under Writing

Coming soon: Renegade Chronicles compendium

An editor of mine once said, “No one wants to know how the sausage is made.”

He was referring to journalistic processes—the hoops reporters jump through in order to research, interview, and write stories as well as edit, paginate, and publish them. Readers care only about the quality of finished article, not all of the work that went into it.

That might be true of newspapers, but as a lifelong fan of fantasy, I know that those who venture into fictional realms often appreciate additional glimpses into the wider world, including supplementary explorations of characters and cultures and even the author’s method for creating them.

Think of them as travel guides.

In the spirit of giving fans a more in-depth look at the people, places, and peculiarities of The Renegade Chronicles—and an excuse to return to Altaerra—I’m in the process of creating a (FREE!) compendium called Capricon and Beyond.

While I put the finishing touches on the e-book, please enjoy this excerpt. It’s a character profile I composed for a certain rogue knight prior to writing the first draft of Rebels and Fools.

Black and white sketch of Dominic Horcalus, Knight of Superius

While I’ve never been more than a dabbler in drawing, I occasionally made time to sketch the natives of Altaerra.

Dominic Horcalus

Horcalus comes from a long line of Knights of Superius. Like his father and his father before him, Horcalus stands tall—about 6’2”—and keeps himself in excellent physical shape. The muscles on his arms, legs, and chest are well-defined, and there’s hardly any fat on his body. His eyes are gray; his hair, brown. A full, neatly-trimmed mustache graces his upper lip. Despite a rather hawkish nose and sharp chin, Horcalus is a reasonably handsome man.

Horcalus’s usual garb consists of combination plate-and-chainmail armor, a shield of some sort, an open-faced helmet with a nose-guard, and his trusty longsword.

Horcalus presents himself with an air of quiet dignity. He acts and speaks proudly, though not haughtily. He has excellent posture, looking comically stiff at times. He doesn’t fidget, and maintains a composed, stoic exterior unless something has him greatly discombobulated. His tone tends to soften, and he is more likely to smile when interacting with women and children.

Horcalus’s speech is the epitome of proper. He’ll almost always use two words in lieu of a contraction. He may use an outdated or archaic phrase or expression without realizing it.

Horcalus’s childhood was not so unlike many other boys borne of Knights. His father was stern but loving, making sure his son was well-disciplined and teaching the boy everything he knew about life and the Knighthood. Horcalus became his father’s squire at a remarkably young age and then went to Fort Splendor to train as a novice when he was fifteen years old.

Horcalus loves a challenge and delights in a hard-fought victory, though he is ever a gracious winner. He spends much time engaged in mock-combat, honing his skill, teaching others what he knows as well as learning from their techniques. Aside from physical trials, he likes games that improve his intellect and sharpen his wit (e.g., solving at riddles and playing chess). He has little interest in games of chance and shuns gambling.

Horcalus is not quick to laugh, but that is not to say he is devoid of humor. He’ll laugh at clever joke but seldom at another’s expense. He hates lies and engages in a lie only when it’s unavoidable. He’s a very bad liar, actually. His conscience holds a tight reign over his actions.

Like most Knights of Superius, Horcalus is extremely patriotic, but Horcalus does his best to accept people of every nation. Like many humans, he has his misgivings about the other races, but he is never less than polite to the occasional half-elf or gnome who crosses his path. He distrusts magic-users, but his greatest prejudice is against people who foment disorder and take advantage of their fellow man.

Horcalus is a stalwart optimist. He became a Knight to help make the world a better place. So long as he is fighting for the side of peace and justice, Horcalus enjoys life. Conversely, when he becomes a member of the Renegades, the disgraced Knight finds life nearly unbearable.

Horcalus serves Pintor the Warriorlord by adhering to the virtues outlined in the Knighthood’s code of conduct. He knows several prayers by rote. More often than not, when he prays, he is asking for guidance or forgiveness. Horcalus also honors the other Gods of Good, though he doesn’t really address these other deities by name.

While Horcalus did have a childhood sweetheart, he won’t fall in love until many years after the Renegade War. Horcalus thinks love is important, and he wants a wife and family, but the quest for a soulmate is far more difficult than anything the Knighthood has ever asked of him. He always figured the gods would provide him with a capable woman when and if they see fit. Horcalus wants children too—particularly a son to follow in his footsteps as a Knight of Superius.

Horcalus made many friends while in the Knighthood. His best friend and mentor is Chester Ragellan. He develops relationships with Klye Tristan, Arthur Bismarc, and Lilac Zephyr during the Renegade War.

More details about the release of Capricon and Beyond as well as other exciting news for The Renegade Chronicles will be released soon. Until then, may the Warriorlord watch over you!

It’s here! Download Capricon and Beyond: The Renegade Chronicles Compendium for FREE.


Filed under Writing

And we shall call him…George

King George V

King George V (1865–1936) — Attribution: Luke Fildes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An avid collector of names, I recently found myself interested, for once, in news about England’s royal family.

When hours and then days passed before the name of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s newborn son was announced, I couldn’t help but think about how much pressure must go into naming the future King of England—and speculate that the chosen appellation was bound to be impressive.


Earlier today, official sources reported that the noble infant’s name is George Alexander Louis.  But you can call him His Royal Highness Prince George Cambridge.  For now.  Eventually, he’ll be King George.

Now where have I heard that name before?

Well, for starters Great Britain has churned out six King Georges going back as far as 18th century.  Worldwide, there have been at least twenty-nine King Georges, including a dozen from Georgia (go figure).  With the U.K.’s recent royal birth, we’ll likely see an even thirty in the years to come.

In hindsight, it was foolish of me to expect anything except a conservative and traditional name for the future monarch.  I can’t pretend to know the vetting process for princely names, but something tells me the Queen Mother would have vetoed “Prince Xander” or (gasp!) “Prince Gunner.”

Besides, the top boys’ names—particularly, the top ten—announced annually tend to be pretty predictable and old-fashioned.  Odds are we were going to see a John or James or George being carried out of that London hospital for his first press appearance.

Despite my disappointment in the common first name, I can’t criticize the royal family for their choice.  Picking a name for any baby can be a daunting task.  So many connotations.  So many possible consequences.

Related post: Choosing the perfect name for your baby (or villain)

Anyway, George Alexander Louis is better than what USA TODAY’s Royal Name Generator was coming up with: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2013/07/12/royal-name-generator/2512673/.  (For the record, my initials somehow yielded “Prince Jeremiah Von Frankenstein.”)

Any dabbler in sword-and-sorcery fantasy has faced the challenge of naming a king or two.  Back when I was world-building for my Renegade Chronicles novels, I delved deep into the histories of various countries and came up with a score of sovereigns (and even one pirate king).  And while the more “modern” monarchs bore respectable names like Eliot and Edward, there were some doozies from farther back, such as:

  • Zebulon, the Emperor of Nebronem
  • Qart’kahn, Chieftain of Clan Qaarm
  • Prince Moorach of the Oaken Kingdom
  • Memndrake Superior (aka The Gambler King)
  • King Fauntio Feldagne V

Far be it for me to disparage other namers of kings.

Nevertheless, the concept of royalty is one of few medieval traditions that have survived to present day—outside of conventions we writers preserve in fairy stories and other fantastic tales.  One could have hoped for a name with a little more…well…whimsy.

Then again, saddling a character (however, well-developed) with the baggage of an unusual name is one thing; doing the same to a living soul is something else.  To christen an actual baby with an alliterative nightmare like Fauntio Feldagne V is akin to child abuse.

Related post: How to make a person


Filed under Writing

When it comes to dialogue, don’t trust the word on the street

One of my earliest college writing assignments involved a little espionage.

Having spent plenty of time playacting the part of spy in my youth and, in later years, transplanting such imaginative adventures to written page, I eagerly embraced the challenge my professor put forth.

A mysterious-looking man in a trench coat and fedora...the Dialogue SpyMy mission: to choose a random conversation between two people, eavesdrop and write down every word.

Later that day, I lingered in a classroom building’s lounge where fellow students were wont to while away time between classes, catching up on reading assignments, cramming before quizzes, or just chatting with classmates.

Today, I couldn’t tell you much about my marks other than the fact that they were young women.  I recall even less about subject of their conversation.  Their gossip meant very little to me because I knew nothing about them or the people they discussed.  Nevertheless, I surreptitiously jotted down every word.

Every false start.  Every verbal crutch.  Every grammatical violation.

When reviewing my transcripts later, I came to a few conclusions. For one thing, most people are far from eloquent.  When engaged in casual conversation, we interrupt one another.  We even interrupt ourselves.  Occasionally, we use the wrong words.  And if counted how many “ums,” “ahs,” and “actuallys” sprinkled throughout our speech, we’d be amazed.

In other words, if a writer were to accurately capture human communication and translate it to the written word, he/she would end up with a string of fragments and incomplete thoughts through which a reader would inevitably struggle.  Most of the time, the result would be an incoherent mess.

Which, of course, was the point of my top-secret assignment.

This lesson was reinforced in later years when I worked as a reporter.  Oh sure, some people are capable of providing the perfect quote, a sequence of phrases that succinctly sums up their perspective on a given topic.  But most of us use far more words than we need to.  We ramble.  We utter copious pronouns because, in the context of an interview, the reporter understands what is meant by “he,” “she,” and “it.”

Yet when the reporter goes back to his/her desk to rearrange the interviewee’s answers and evaluate which quote belongs where in the article, it becomes obvious that there is often a chasm between what people mean to say and what they actually say.  It’s truly a treasure when a reporter gets that perfect, impactful quote.  More often than not, however, the phrases and clauses between quotation marks remain rough-edged, unrefined.

When I made the switch from journalism to public relations, writing press releases allowed me to do something I never dared to do as a reporter: I reworked spokespeople’s quotes.  Quite often, I was encouraged to create such quotes from scratch and later run them past my “sources,” who might add a thought here or make a word swap there.  But the finished result was almost always a clear, coherent (if, at times, clearly artificial) collection of clauses that efficiently and effectively communicated the point.

Unlike how people actually speak…

In fiction, nothing takes a reader out of story quicker than stilted, sterile, and/or sloppy dialogue.  The good news is that you have full control over the words that come out of your characters’ mouths.  Here are some tips for how to handle the infuriating idiosyncrasies of human speech and deliver effective dialogue:

1. Shorten, streamline, then slash some more

Even though people in real life prattle on and on, a writer must be mindful of his or her “word economy.”  That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be reduced to a simple, subject-predicate construction, but short and snappy does wonders for pacing.  A reader’s attention has to be earned, and once you lost it, you might not reclaim it.

Consider each situation.  If two characters are passing each other in the hall at work, they wouldn’t likely engage in a twenty-minute conversation.  But if they’re unwinding at the local waterhole after hours—while imbibed a few alcoholic beverages—then a few run-on sentences might be just what the doctor ordered.

A common error I’ve encountered in rough drafts are conversations that simply go on too long.  Not only do the characters say in three sentences what they could have said in one, but also the subject itself circles back on itself again and again.  The chances of this happening increase dramatically if these artificial people are having an argument.  Real-life bickering is repetitive, but no reader wants to endure page after page of repetitive back-and-forth.

When in doubt, err on the side of fewer words.

2. Intersperse action

Dialogue can be like swarm of locusts, hungrily devouring a scene or even an entire chapter.  That might not be the worst thing in the world, just as long as it doesn’t leave the rest of the narrative desolate and devoid of life.

When a writer really gets into a verbal exchange between two (or more) captivating characters, it’s easy to lose track of everything else.  However, if the result is several consecutive pages of pure quotations, you end up with what I like to call Voices in a Vacuum.

Readers want to experience the story through as many senses as possible.  If a long conversation is needed, remember to plant some action in between speech tags so that the reader has something to” look at.”  And don’t forget the setting.  Where are these people?  Have they really been sitting perfectly still on a couch this whole time?  Is the rest of reality on pause while they bear their souls to one another?  Not likely.

Unadulterated dialogue appeals to just one of the five senses: hearing.  And when we speak in real life, our mannerisms convey meaning as well.  Indeed, body language often says more than our mouths!

Sometimes it can be difficult to silence loquacious characters, but unless their words are moving the story forward in a significant way, get ready to press the backspace key.

3. Replace action

Bad dialogue bogs down the pace; good dialogue encourages momentum.

In an effort to smooth out transitions between straightforward action and dialogue (because dialogue actually is a kind of action), it can be helpful to replace an ordinary description of motion with a voiced reference to an action.

Take this (admittedly ridiculous) excerpt for example:

Professor Improbable laughed wildly.  “With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”

He turned to his slump-shouldered assistant, Rogi, and asked, “Bring me the thermal calibrator at once.”

Rogi reached for one of the many tools scattered on the table and handed a gadget to the scientist, who curtly informed him that he asked for a thermal calibrator, not an infrared coupler.

Rogi tried again and, luckily, got it right.

“Thank you, Rogi.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

Here’s an alternate approach:

 “Mwahahaha!  With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”  Professor Improbable turned to his slump-shouldered assistant.  “Rogi, bring me the thermal calibrator at once.  No, no, no!  That’s the infrared coupler.  Ah, yes, that’s the one.  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

The action is implied in the dialogue, and Professor Improbable—whom we suspect always monopolizes the conversation—can recap his master plan without needless interruptions.  Just make sure you don’t waste the reader’s time by having the dialogue and the narration convey redundant information.

4. Develop voice

Dialogue is perhaps the most intuitive element through which one can execute characterization.  A person’s vocabulary and delivery say an awful lot about him or her.  Casual chats, heart-to-hearts, quarrels, exchanges with random strangers—all of these present opportunities to add dimension to a character.

The goal is to give each character an individual voice, a strong voice that will inform the reader who is speaking even before they get to speech tag (e.g., “said Professor Improbable”).  Consider your character’s culture, education level, disposition, etc. when determining which words ought to come out of his or her mouth.

Just don’t get carried away.  Even if Rogi ends up having a speech impediment, a reader isn’t going to w-w-w-w-want to h-h-h-h-h-have t-t-t-t-t-t-to n-n-n-n-n-n-n-navigate a-a-a-around too m-m-m-m-m-many v-v-v-v-v-v-v-visual h-h-h-h-h-hurdles.  The same goes for representing accents.  Put in an affectation here and a native word there.  Please don’t pump each paragraph full of apostrophes to imply clipped sounds or otherwise butcher perfectly good words.  Subtlety is key.

Dialogue should round out your characters, but rarely can talk-heavy scenes exist solely for character development.  Every word needs to move the story forward, including quotes.

5. Read it out loud

The best way to gauge whether your dialogue rings true is to read it out loud.  Better yet, have someone else read it to you.  Listen for tongue-twisting syntax and garbled semantics.  Listen for flow.  Are the transitions logical?

Listen for sentences that are just too tidy.  Unless your protagonist is a grammar teacher, he or she is going to end a sentence with a preposition now and then.  For that matter, the rules of proper grammar don’t apply within quotation marks.  Awkward, unconventional sentence structure in dialogue won’t reflect poorly on you as a writer (if the rest of your sentences are grammatically sound), though it will send a message about the character in question.

Every good spy knows the best lies contain at least an ounce of truth.  The trick with dialogue, as with any aspect of fiction, is making something artificial come off as natural.  To become adept at writing dialogue, listen to how the people around you really talk and then make it better.

But not too perfect.


Filed under Writing

Don’t let minor characters usurp your MS

At a recent Allied Authors of Wisconsin meeting, I was thrilled to receive unanimously positive feedback on a particular character in the chapter I read.

The only problem is all that praise went to a pretty minor character.

Who appears in just one scene in the entire novel.

He doesn’t even have a name.

In other circumstances, the characterization I conveyed through slang-sprinkled dialogue, eclectic surroundings, and a coffee mug bearing an exquisitely coarse quotation would have been a successful foray in introducing a notable newcomer to the story.  However, because this anonymous Irish store clerk makes such a powerful impression and arguably robs the point-of-view character of the focus he deserves, I must reevaluate my approach.

This isn’t the first time I invented a person when little more than an extra body would have sufficed.  In the second book of The Renegade Chronicles, I needed someone to deliver news to a protagonist.  Enter Baxter Lawler, an irreverent knight of the realm who’s more likely to wield a tankard of ale than a broadsword on any given day.  I had so much fun with Baxter that his walk-on part evolved into a sort of subplot.

Generally, it’s a good thing when a character casts a shadow—when he or she breaks free from the shackles of two measly dimensions—but if a relatively insignificant character steals the spotlight from a leading man or lady, then a writer risks misdirecting the reader’s attention.

So what to do with my all-too-charming employee of Jimmy’s Secondhand Treasures?

The easy answer is to diminish some of the details surrounding him and/or reducing the size of the scene in which he appears.  In other words, I must make him less interesting.  That would demote him to a more utilitarian role and reduce the chance of setting him up as a red herring for the reader.

Or if I think this guy has the potential, I can bring him back for subsequent scenes and perhaps even make him an integral component of the plot.  Why, if I thought this pawn shop employee had real star quality, he might even get his own novel.  Or here’s an even more extreme case: Bean, a background character in Orson Scott Card’s award-winning Ender’s Game, got his own spinoff series, which, I would argue, is even better than the books that focused on Ender’s life.

Sadly, the nameless Irishman will not likely reappear in The Soul Sleep Cycle, but it’s never a bad idea to have an attention-hungry character in one’s back pocket for future projects.  He might even get a name if Jimmy’s Secondhand Treasures becomes a pivotal place in some novel down the road.

Then again, it’s not always a good thing for a would-be nobody to get noticed by the author.  Just ask Sir Lawler, who instead of happily disappearing into oblivion after providing a little exposition, ultimately spent a couple of chapters getting tortured by goblins before losing his mind and then his life.

Bottom line: If a character deserves the reader’s attention, develop away!  But if he or she is the equivalent of a movie extra, it’s kinder to keep him or her out of the true stars’ way.


Filed under Writing

How to make a person

The problem with stories is they require people.

I’m not talking about author and reader—though they, as well as their relationship, are fraught with challenges too—but rather the individuals that populate the story itself.

Some might call these people “characters.”  But a writer doesn’t really want to invent characters any more than he/she wants to come up with a plot.  Sure, we typically end up with those things, sometimes, just sometimes, we transcend.

When a reader flips through pages made of paper or pixels, the last thing an author wants is the audience to see a story as a series of fictional events.  The goal of any storyteller is to weave a spell of deception so powerful that it all seems real at the time.

We aim for an obliteration of disbelief, though if we’re lucky, we invoke a suspension of the same.

If a writer can trick a reader into wondering what a character will do next or, better yet, what he/she would do in an unrelated situation, the writer is that much closer to success.  Because if a reader cares about a character as if he/she were a real person, the reader is more likely to care about the story they’re a part of.

So what’s the difference between characters and people?

Characters have motives.  People have psychology.

Characters follow a story arc.  People exhibit behavior that moves them in a number of different—and often conflicting—directions at once.

Characters have unique voices.  People adopt different voices in various situations.

Those contrasts only begin to hint at why it’s so very difficult to create a person entirely out of words.  Some might argue that it’s impossible, maybe even misguided.  After all, art is meant to imitate life, not become identical to it.  Anyway, as previously stated, the best we writers can do is pick and choose pieces of reality, incorporate them into the folks who inhabit our fiction.

However, just because it’s difficult, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make every attempt to eschew the temptation to spew out two-dimensional puppets, rough archetypes, and (especially) lazy stereotypes and, instead, aspire to come as close as humanly possible to creating humans.

And how do you get to know a real person?  By asking questions—lots of ’em.  While working on my first novel, a creative writing professor provided me with a handout that contained a ton of questions.  I can’t recall the source, and I’ve made my own additions over the years, so I believe I’m safe with sharing them in this not-for-profit venue.  The questions have served me well when creating main characters, though I wouldn’t recommend taking the time to answer them all for minor players (unless, like me, you have a penchant for the planning process).

Interview question for your person-in-progress

  • What does this character look like?  What color eyes and hair does he/she have?  What are his/her height and weight?  What color his his/her skin?  What is his/her race?  Is there anything unusual or unique about his/her appearance (e.g., tattoos, piercings, etc.)?
  • What style of clothes does he/she wear?  Would anyone notice him/her in a crowd?  Why or why not?
  • How does he/she present him/herself?  Does he/she carry him/herself proudly?  Does he/she appear ashamed, shy, or aloof?  Does he/she have any idiosyncrasies or habits—good or bad?  Does he/she chew gum, smoke cigarettes, or have a twitch?
  • Does he/she speak in a particular way?  Does he/she sound educated, snobby, or dull?  Does he/she use slang or the proper dialect?  Is he/she sarcastic or have a particular way of telling a story?  Does he/she have a favorite tagline?  Is he/she always using clichés?
  • What was this person’s childhood like?  Did he/she have any brothers or sisters?  Two parents, one, or none?  Where did he/she live?  Was he/she constantly moving as a child?  What was he/she like as a child?  Was he/she hyperactive or timid?  Does he/she remember his/her childhood fondly?  Are there any memories in particular that stand out?
  • What does this character do for fun?  Does he/she watch or compete in sports?  Hunt, play cards, or play video games?  Is there something he/she collects?  If anything, what does he/she read?  The newspaper?  Mystery novels?  Can he/she read at all?  What types of music does he/she listen to?  What movies does he/she enjoy?  Does he/she have a sense of humor?  What does he/she find funny or not funny?  Is he/she someone you would hang out with in your free time?
  • How does this person feel about lying?  Does he/she lie when it suits his/her purpose?  Is he/she a pathological liar or blatantly, painfully truthful?  Would he/she cheat or steal?  What, if anything, would prompt him/her to kill?
  • How does he/she view his/her vices?  Does he/she see them as sins?  Is gossiping a sin?  How about promiscuous sex?  Is he/she cowardly, only concerned with Number One?  Constantly complaining, prejudiced, racist, or greedy?  Does he/she have any secrets?
  • Is this character an optimist, a pessimist, or something in between?  Does he/she believe in fate or free will?  How does he/she feel about life?  Does he/she love it?  Hate it?  Is he/she merely going through the motions?  What does he/she want out of life?  What is important to him/her?  What are his/her goals?  Money?  Power?  Success?  Fame?
  • Is he/she spiritual or religious?  How does he/she feel about others’ beliefs?  Is he/she tolerant and/or open to new ideas, or is he/she steadfast in his/her ways?  Has he/she ever been in love?  What does love mean to him/her?  How important is it?  How does he/she feel about sex?  Is it important?  Are his/her sexual habits normal or deviant?
  • How does he/she feel about children?  Does he/she love them, feel uneasy around them?  Does he/she want to have children of his/her own?  What might he/she sacrifice for his/her children?
  • What is a typical day like for this person?  Are his/her days full of surprises, or is he/she on a set schedule?  Is he/she comfortable with routine, or is his/her life too stressful?  What does he/she do for a living?  Who are his/her friends?  Does he/she have many, only a few, none?  Who does he/she hate?  Does he/she have any enemies?
  • Is he/she married or single?  Is he/she a loner by choice or desperately looking for someone?  Does he/she have any kids?  How often does he/she see them?  Where does he/she work?  Where does he/she go for fun?  How does he/she interact with strangers?  Or does he/she stay within his own clique?  What would a random person think if he or she saw your character walking down the street?

I’m sure there are shortcuts out there—streamlined lists or other getting-to-know-you exercises—but the more questions you can answer, the better you will know the people of the page.  At the very least, pull open Facebook and see what kind of profile information a real person is apt to display about him or herself.

Since real people tend to censor, exaggerate, and so forth when engaging in social media, maybe it is a good idea to fill in categories like “politics,” “religion,” and “education” as an additional exercise.  After all, just because you know the deep, dark secrets of your fictional folks, that doesn’t mean they would share them with the world.  What kind of Facebook profile would they set up?

That’s the problem with people: so many layers.  And only you can decide how much—or how little—to reveal to the reader.  But before you can make those decisions, you have to get up close and personal with your characters.

The bad news is the stork isn’t going to drop a fully developed character in your lap.  The good news, however, is that if you make the time, your people are always available for a lengthy interview.


Filed under Writing

Choosing the perfect name for your baby (or villain)

Sorry, Team Edward.  Looks like Jacob wins this round. 

The Social Security Administration recently released the top baby names for 2011, and Jacob took first place for most popular boy’s name for the thirteen year in a row.  As for girl’s names, Sophia stole the top spot from two-year champion Isabella (not to be confused with Bella). 

I know this because I can’t not click on an article about baby names.

Before you chalk my compulsion up to an overzealous paternal instinct, let it be known that my preoccupation with appellations took root long before I had any notions of becoming a father.  In fact, I probably spent as much (if not more) time paging through baby name books back when I was in high school than when my wife and I were expecting either of our children.

Undoubtedly, my interest in names was born from a need for names.  I was creating an entire world, after all, and when detailing a timeline that spans many, many centuries while at the same time juggling dozens of storylines taking place in the present, a guy requires character names.

550 of them, to be exact.

While drafting character profiles wherein family members’ names are noted; history files that list the lineage of monarchs, heroes of yore and other movers and shakers of yesteryear; and short pieces of fiction that need a chambermaid here and a barkeep there, it can be bothersome to step away from the work in progress to search for an appropriate moniker.

So I created the Namepool, which in its current incarnation contains 308 names.  Need a name for that knight who probably won’t survive the first big battle scene?  Sir Erasmus Fenwick is at your service.  A black-hearted wizardess to throw some spells at your protagonist?  Lilah Davelle will make him wish he hadn’t wandered down that dark alley.

Even after I transitioned from sword-and-sorcery fantasy to speculative fiction set in modern-day Earth, I found it useful to maintain my Namepool.  After eliminating the more archaic/medieval-sounding names, I ended up with a streamlined list of ninety names.

The funny thing is some of the names already cast the faint shadow of a character waiting to come into being, such as Sunny (short for Persephone), who may or may not get infused with nanotech-based AI sent from the future, and Mr. Nightingale, who decidedly does not have good bedside manner.

A character’s name can serve as an element of characterization in of itself.  Go ahead and add some ethnic flavor.  Give an old-fashioned character a name from a long-gone era.  Or, better yet, reverse expectations by giving him/her a very contemporary name that defies his/her personality.  Sneak in a literary reference.  Foreshadow his/her fate by selecting a name with a meaningful origin.

(Nota bene: The Social Security Administration’s website is great for researching which names were popular in a given year, if you’re a stickler for realism.)

Of course, my obsession with names manifested when it came time to name my daughter and son.  While planning for “Number Two,” my wife and I came up with our own list of favorites independently (my list had forty boy’s names and twenty-four girl’s names).  We cross-referenced our lists to see if there were any overlaps and then ranked the combined list, winnowing it down to a shared top ten. 

Then the negotiations and campaigning began—which was probably for the best, judging by how “creative” some of my character names end up being.  Consider the following doozies from my Renegade Chronicles days:

  • Solophat Emorgus
  • Alabalyn Thoranon
  • Zorroaster Legireac
  • Drivbethelle Bleu
  • Fortunatus Miloásterôn
  • Saerylton Crystalus

When I look back at some of the “candidates” I thought of for my own kids, I can’t help but cringe.  (Orion?  Really?)  But that’s the beauty of inventing new people for the page versus the real world: You can bless or curse a character without feeling too guilty about it.  And if Ebenezer Skelton doesn’t like it, well, I blame his fictional parents.

Names are powerful.  They can elicit emotions, often unintentionally.  Don’t believe me?  Try reading through the birth announcements in the newspaper without drawing any conclusions about ethnicity, socio-economical situation, and likely future profession.  Then realize that, if you’re an author, your readers are going to do the same thing with the handful of syllables you toss onto the page.

Of course, you’re pretty safe with naming your werewolf Jacob.  Those traditional boy’s names never go out of style.  And worry not, fans of Twilight’s melodramatic vampire: At least Edward clocked in at number 148.

And I’m pretty sure that little girl named Cullen at my niece’s soccer game wasn’t just a coincidence.


Filed under Writing