Naming Characters

First off… Happy Halloween!

But that also means tomorrow is November 1st. Nanowrimo begins!

I’ve dubbed the month of October Nanoplamo – National Novel Planning Month. For the entire month I haven’t written any new words on a story, I have only laid out scenes and built character profiles. But I came across a large obstacle in my plans; Naming Characters.

This issue was odd to me. In the past, I’ve had a pretty easy time naming characters. Baby name sites are really handy in this regard. I typically search the site by name meaning and then choose the name that feels right.

I started my naming tasks the same way with this book. But no matter how many various sites I visited, I just couldn’t find anything that felt right. My story this time is a fantasy novel, and the names just felt too plain. Which, I suppose since they exist to name a kid in our modern world is kind of the point. But that left my usual source out, so I went searching for another way.

A Google search produced a list of random fantasy naming engines. Most are pretty simple, you just choose a sex for the character and let it rip. But I was never satisfied with the names. Most just felt like hollow names formed from a random arrangement of vowels and consonants (which I think is exactly how they work).

Not good enough. I like my names to have meaning.

So I started looking at names of different angels and deities. Meh, been there, done that. Nothing jumped out at me.

Then I seized upon a new idea. I Googled Online Translator. Naturally, Google presented its own version at http://translate.google.com/. But this worked surprisingly well.

I entered in English an attribute that I associated strongly with the character. Then I translated it into the 63 different languages available.

Here’s the cool thing. While the translator shows you the word written in that language’s native alphabet, you can click on a symbol at the bottom right that will show it spelled out phonetically in a Latin alphabet. A lot of the translations even offer a button that you can hear the word pronounced.

I’ve managed to name most of my characters this way. What I like is that it is still “fantasy” sounding, but it has meaning in our modern world. And that meaning is tied directly to the characters themselves.

If you’re stuck for a unique sounding name, I recommend giving it a try!

The Process of Creation – First Came the Character

How do you start a work of fiction? What is the initial spark that lights the fire?

In these series of articles, I’m going to be looking at what starts the ball rolling. This isn’t about the first line or paragraph, this is about what made you want to start writing your story in the first place. Today’s focus is on Character.

The lady with the big gun is named Black Rock Shooter. She was first an illustration that was posted by Japanese illustrator Huke on his website and the illustrator website Pixiv on December 26, 2007. At that time, she was nothing more than an image of a character.

Soon after, Ryo of JPop group Supercell caught a glimpse of the character and was so inspired that he wrote a song about her. The band had Huke do drawings & animations for the music video.

The video was released on the web and garnered hundreds of thousands of views. It was so popular that soon a 50 minute anime was produced, which of course spawned countless figures, posters, etc.

So what’s the point?

The point here is that a story, and an entire marketing franchise, launched because of one thing; a cool looking character.

JK Rowling has often said that the character of Harry Potter just popped right into her head. The kind of boy he was, the scar, the boy he would become, all of it, BAM, into her head like a lightening shot.

In these cases, and many more like them, an author had a character in mind but no story to use that character in. The story was eventually born from poking and prodding the character to learn more about them.

Some writers compare this to an interview process. In fact, some literally have interview questions that they write and fill out by asking their character.

From the answers that they receive, the author begins to build a story. From the character they learn who their friends are, what kind of family they have, what scares them, what makes them happy. If the character has some sort of defining physical trait, the author probes deeper into it. Like, gee Harry, why do you have that scar?

Admittedly, I’ve never written anything this way. I’m more a concept person.

The potential for strengths I see in this are probably clear. First of all, most readers are hooked by a compelling and fully fleshed out character. That’s likely to happen when the whole story has been crafted around a character so compelling that the author had to write their tale.

Is there a downside? I can only think of one; a thin plot.

Reading the synopsis of the Black Rock Shooter anime, it’s pretty clear that either it was meant as a tease for future projects, or the story was only half conceived (when I’ve actually watched it, I’ll let you know my full opinion).

What it all boils down to is the author’s intent. Is the story beautiful & wonderful because of its character, or is there an amazing story that has an equally awesome character? I mean, would anyone argue that Harry Potter’s plot was thin and lacked intricacy?

In the case of Harry, I think what truly saved him wasn’t just the world he revealed to his author, but that it was populated with characters just as interesting and compelling as Harry himself. And that’s where careful steps need to be taken. A story usually involves several characters. If only one is formed in your head, there’s probably going to be issues.

What do you guys think? Are there liabilities to writing based on a character as opposed to writing based on a concept that you then populate with characters (that approach will be post 2)?

The Hero’s Journey or I Need A Stronger Main Character!

Luke Skywalker did it in Star Wars.  Simba did it in the Lion King.  Heck, even Frodo and Harry Potter were in on it.  What is it?  The Hero’s journey.

Joseph Campbell first published his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in 1949.  Campbell looked at a vast number of classic myths and fairy tales, and from those he found there was one grand schematic that applied to virtually all of them.  This schematic has since been referred to as The Hero’s Journey.  Campbell summarised the journey as;

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

In describing the “monomyth” Campbell lays out several stages.  Not many myths or stories contain all of the steps, but may skip some or focus exclusively on one.  Giving thought to multiple book stories, book one might focus on the first third, book two on the second, and book three on the final third.  The steps Campbell lays out are;

  • The hero starts in the ordinary world.
  • An event occurs that draws the hero into an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure).
  • Accepting the call to enter this world, the hero must face challenges (a road of trials).  The hero may face these trials alone or with help s/he has earned along the way.
  • If the hero survives, the hero might receive a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge.
  • The hero must then decide whether to return with the reward (the return to the ordinary world).  If the hero decides to return to the ordinary world, s/he will most likely encounter more trials on the way back.
  • If the hero succeeds in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).

For more in depth, you can visit this page for the Hero’s Journey Summary of Steps.

When we talk about a shared human experience, the Hero’s Journey is certainly present in all people.  Looking at the modern films that have found worldwide success, almost all of them follow this general schematic.  It is perhaps because we see this journey as a metaphor for our own lives.  After all, I think we all have moments in our lives where the world feels strange and alien.  How we cope with the trials life gives us lead to insight.  Our myths, books, movies, even video games, are the everyday struggle of people blown to fantastical proportions.

However, there is something pretty key about the Hero’s Journey.  Something so vital and instrumental that without it, your tale is certain to fail.  That is, naturally, the hero.  Without a hero there is no story.

This past weekend, I started reading two books on writing.  One was Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life and the other was Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life.  Both of these books emphasised the importance of creating in depth characters and allowing the plot to organically grow from them.  I’ve never been a fan of sitting down and filling out forms.  I suppose that’s why I’ve shied away from character sketches in the past.  Also, I’ve always been more of a concept person than a character writer.  Actually, I can’t think of a single time that I started a piece because of a character in my head.  This presents a problem when your story is following the Hero’s Journey.

So, something Elizabeth George suggested, which I think sounds fun and still allows me to flesh out my main character, is to free form write about the character.  Instead of a rigid set of questions regarding the character, you allow yourself to freely write about who they are, what their motivations are, etc.  Noah Lukeman’s suggestion is to think as different people.  In one sense of describing your character, imagine you have witnessed them do something and you need to describe every physical detail about them to the police.  Next, imagine you are their new family physician and you need to know everything about their medical background.  Now you’re their psychiatrist and so forth.  Both ideas work better for me than a strict form where you detail name, height, etc, etc.  I’m a creative person and these approaches speak to me more than a mathematical approach.

In order for the Hero’s Journey to be effective, you have to know your hero.  You have to know where your hero starts, what they want to accomplish, how they will respond to the adversities that come, and what personal insight they will come away with.  By establishing all elements of your character early on in the writing process, you stay true to that character throughout the story.  This means, your audience never questions why the character did this or that, they know because the ground rules exist and have been followed.  It also means that the character might guide decisions.  Having a character who is multi-dimensional, no maybe even real, means that when you get stuck in how to get out of something, you have someone to ask.  You just turn to your character and say “How are you going to deal with this?”  By knowing them, you might even be surprised by the answer.

Now, both George and Lukeman suggest doing this for all your characters.  I don’t know if I have the patience.  I understand that by doing this for more characters the possibility for deepening the relationship amongst the cast of the story grows.  It also means more ideas for subplots present themselves.  But the first time through, I think my main goal is to know my protagonist the best.  The story is largely told from his point of view (read that as almost entirely) and it is his journey.  I’m thinking for myself, I’m going to do this for my main character and see how the rest of my first draft goes.  Then, to take a break before editing, I’ll do more of these for some of my other characters and see how that aids in my second go through.  I might end up learning it makes more sense to do them all from the start.  I’ll let you know.