Sunday, May 25, 2014

Character Names - what to consider when naming your characters

Why can’t I call my hero Cecil?

And other naming considerations

Names create impressions. Make sure character’s name gives the impression you want. A rose by any other name may still be a rose, but characters are not roses.

Age Appropriate

  • Cecil or Ronald, or Homer might be the hero’s grandfather, his geeky or goofy next-door neighbor or his dog, but never the hero.
  • River or Colt or Brock would be out of place in an historical novel.
  • A Scottish hero probably wouldn’t be named Boris or Jose.
  • Consider your character birth year and check on-line lists of favorite names by year.


Connotation is tricky. Cultural, social, historical and personal factors create different connotations. For me the following connotations apply. Consider the big picture. What will you reader expect for a hero called Harry?
  • Cecil has two soft C’s, is an old name and has been associated with sissies in the past.
  • Kirk and Logan and Parker, with hard consonants, are connected to film heroes, actors and policemen and sound strong.
  • Julian, Jean-Paul and Dominic have a foreign hint for some and a taste of the familiar for others.
  • Dexter, Sheldon, and Gibbs are now linked to their TV characters, each having distinct characteristics.
  • Names of famously wicked men can deter readers. Hitler put an unpopular spin on Adolf. Ted put a taint on the last name Bundy.

Be Practical

You will be typing this character’s name several hundred times. Make it easy on yourself.
  • Travis may work but Travis’s becomes awkward not only in typing but also in sound for the reader.
  • Mackenzie is acceptable as a first name, but unless you plan to shorten it to Mac most of the time, you might reconsider.

Vary the Ethnic Origin

North America, and many other countries, are a mix of uncountable names from a plethora of backgrounds. Too many Bill's and Ed's or Juan's and Carlos limit your story. Consider using a variety. 
  • Ethnic names can enhance your setting and book's culture. Consult your favorite baby name book for ethnic associations.
  • History influences names in an area. What nationalities settled the community in your book?

Consider the Cast Call

Clarity is affected by characters’ names. If you don't want to send your reader flipping back through pages to figure who is who, differentiate the character names.
  • Avoid multiple names starting with the same consonant or ending in rhyming sounds.
Sam, Sally, Susan, Sharon and Sean or Mary, Terri, Kerry and Larry cause confusion.
  • A hero Carter and an antagonist Cary will be difficult to keep straight.
  • If you have five witnesses with matchy-poo names, make changes--unless you are deliberately confusing your detective (and reader).

 Generational, social, cultural and media connotations come into play when naming your characters. Be aware of what your character’s name says about them. Use names as characterization tags. Have fun. 

What is your favorite character name?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014



Be Bold

Not every problem can be resolved in a ten minute writing exercise. However, they surprisingly yield what you need. Be bold when thinking of ideas.
  • Give characters obsessions and then thwart them
  • Add character odd hobbies, collections
  • Throw in violence or loss or passion 
  • Introduce a crazy aunt

Pretzel It

Mix it up and change the sequence of events or do the opposite of what you think should happen.

For example, if the story originally called for the hero to arrive in time to help the heroine, give him car trouble so he doesn’t arrive. Now the danger to the heroine is intensified thus following Donald Maass’s “make it worse” credo. Once she in in an even worse position, challenge her to get out of it alone.

Fake It

If you are missing critical information and that information is not available in any form to the public, get as close as you can and make up the rest. Sharon Wildwood recommends focusing on the drama, the character’s thoughts and actions and the scene comes alive. If the factual data is sketchy, it’s not noticed.

Reset the Gate

In our heads there is a Reticular Activating Gate Filter. It’s the filter allowing only information pertinent to us into our conscious thought. It keeps us from going insane with overload. It’s the reason you don’t see red cars everywhere until you own one. Buying that red car reset your RAGF.

  • Talk to your brain. 
  • Tell it you need new options, new ideas, crazy and exciting solutions. 

Walk(or nap, or wash dishes...) and give the Gate time to swing open and let in new information.

Give Your Brain New Playing Fields

  • Read how-to articles, browse blogs on plotting or positive thinking or any writing topic.
  • Go online. Check for famous love stories or 10 most famous crimes, or the worst accidents ever.
  • Dial into YOUtube and look for for reunions stories, unbelievable stories.
  • Ask "Where else might I find ideas or prompts." And then do it.

Take all information. 
Collect it and put your own twist on it to build your unique story.The good news is that all plot solving methods notify the Gate that you need information to solve your problem. A reticular activating gate open (RAGO) is a tool that yields surprisingly abundant results.

Give yourself ample choices.
Make a long list of possible and impossible ideas. The 7th Solution concept is that the first six things you think of are probably clich├ęd, lame or not appropriate. Dig deep. Go for the gold.

What tools, tricks or methods do you use to enhance you plot building process? 

Sunday, May 18, 2014



Problems in writing pop up frequently and involve everything from general plot issues to misbehaving or lackluster characters to missing pieces of crucial information. When we’re stuck, it’s handy to have a process to un-stick us. Getting enough ideas to choose the best one, is the goal. We need to get to the 7th solution.

There are key concepts involved:

  1. problem solving steps
  2. brainstorming basics
  3. seeking help
  4. brainstorming focus and freewriting

1) Problem Solving Concepts

The basic problem solving method devised at Harvard circa 1972 is the foundation for most of the models since. It’s logical:
  • define the problem specifically
  • brainstorm a list of ideas for solutions
  • walk away and come back later to evaluate the list
  • design or choose a solution to implement from the list

2) Brainstorming with green light thinking

  • lock up your inner critic
  • record all ideas whether or not they are complete, silly, improbably or possible
  • write quickly without worrying about structure or grammar
  • try a mind map

NOTE: The free flow process may feel awkward initially. It might be because your inner critic is still yelling at you from lock up. More likely it’s a matter of practice. You don’t get to be a star tennis player the first time you hold a racket, but with practice you get better. Freewriting/brainstorming is a skill. Keep at it.

3) Seeking help

Two heads are better than one and research says three to five heads are even better. But apparently three, four or five are equally good. Invite two friends and initiate a roaring brainstorm session to maximize your ideas.

4) Freewriting - brainstorming on the page. 

Freewriting can be general, a completion of the starter: I want to write a story about.... Or it may be applied to more focused issues. If using it for a narrower issue, be sure to use stage one of the problem solving model. Write down a specific problem

Here are two sample exercises suggested by romance authors from the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association.

Lorraine Paton (Contemporary Romance Author) suggests you start your list:
“Next, Suzie could do....”
Perhaps the response will be “no she’d never do that.” Record it and move on to another idea. Work it out on the page. Keep going until you hit the idea that feels right.

Suzanne Stengl (Sweet Romance Author) interviews her character “on the page.”
Ask the character what they want to do, or will do, or what happened next. Again, keep writing until you get that “let’s go” feeling. Your gut will tell you if you are on the right track.

Remember, the chances are the first three to six ideas you come up with will be ordinary even boring. But that 7th idea – it’s gold. Hang on to it. Learn to exercise your brainstorming muscle. It is one of the most valuable tools in a writer’s toolkit.

What writing tools do you use when plotting or shaking-up your story?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Backstory Part 2 - Using Flashbacks and more

How to use backstory... 

As discussed in the last blog, backstory is essential to the author but only parts of it are relevant to the story and important for the reader. Here are a few ways to weave backstory into your novel without overwhelming the reader and bringing your pace to a screeching halt.

Use an internal thought clue.

Why did I allow Karen to boss me around? She is not my step-mom, and I’m not a kid.

Use a comment by another character.

“Oh, her step mother was a witch, almost six feet tall and a control freak.”

Use a BRIEF flashback. 

The well done flashback starts with a current day action, is brief, triggered by one of the senses, and ends with a return to current day action. Use past pluperfect to signal the start and end of the flashback and use simple past tense in between.

Entrance action – Jane turns and runs into Karen.
Emotional trigger - Smells the floral perfume.
Flashback - Remembers the last time she smelled that scent and the emotion involved.
Exit action- Jane blinks and steps back.

  • Jane turned and found herself eye to chest with KarenKaren’s perfume, floral, unsuitable to a business woman’s demeanour, swirled around Jane. Her step mother had been wearing floral perfume the last time saw her. Jane brought her hand to her face, covering the sting of her mother’s slap. “Brainless little twit,” her step-mother said, “who do you think you are?” The words had hurt more than the slap. They still hurt. Jane blinked, stepped back, and looked up at Karen’s face. “What do you want?”

Use Conversation

Incorporate information into a conversation, but be sure it is relevant to current plot or character development. Beware of characters discussing details they both already know. That's a conversation sure to stop story action. The conversation method works well if a character AND THE READER don't already know the information but need to know for the story to continue.

Backstory is a meal best served in small portions.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

BACKSTORY - the foundation of your novel

Backstory, Part One - Do's and Don'ts.

Writers DO need to know the backstory. Backstory is what happened to your characters before Page 1. Characters, like real people, are the result of what has gone before. As the author, you need to know their triumphs, their failures, their goals and their families. Skipping that knowledge as a writer, isn't a good plan.

Readers DON'T need the full backstory, especially in the beginning. Throughout the novel they  will see the results of history in the actions, beliefs and choices of the characters. Parts of the backstory may then be revealed on a strictly ‘need-to-know’ basis.

All too often beginning writers fill the first few scenes or chapters with all that happens leading up to the book, or they put in an incident from the past explaining things. These DO need to be written but DO NOT need to be in the book in the beginning, if at all.

Have you ever met someone new who jumped right in and started telling you about their miserable childhood, their terrible home life, their nasty school experiences and—about this point you leave to refill your glass and you never go back.

In real life, histories are not shared in a first meeting. So why would we share everything when we meet a character for the first time?

We may know people for years and still not tell them all our stories. They learn who we are though our current actions. For books, the rule is the same: do not dump everything that explains your character into the first chapter. It’s too much, too soon and leaves nothing for the reader to discover.

Start the story by grounding the reader in the character’s present day. As you proceed, give your readers credit for the ability to read between the lines.

Jan Heroine, normally assertive and in control, becomes tongue tied around a tall, authoritative woman. The reader now wonders why, may suspect a negative history with female authority figure and continues reading to find out. Even when the answer is revealed, Ms. Reader doesn’t necessarily need all of the nitty-gritty details.

Use the show and tell method to build to a minor reveal. Show three occurrences of the behavior spaced throughout the story. Let the events unfold without explanation until an explanation is imperative. In the end, make a brief reference explaining why the character has that behavior.

Revelations can come in various ways. You can plant clues or explain succinctly all at once. But beware the dreaded information dump. If Tom stops to tell Mary that Sue grew up poor—yadda yadda for two pages - his reveal will dump your reader out of the story.

Keep the reveal simple and relevant to the action.

Writers – know your backstory. Use it to add texture and reality to your story. Remember the ‘rest of the story’ isn't always necessary. When bits are needed, weave them in to enhance, not stop, the flow of action.

Part Two - Revealing Backstory - Flashbacks and more...Coming soon.