Naming Characters

Suzanne Johnson posted today on Roni Loren's writing blog, Fiction Groupie1.

Suzanne is discussing picking names for your characters. This is a topic relevant to EVERYONE and a particular challenge to fantasy authors who so often create cultures from the ground up and can't name their protagonist Joe despite how awesome people named Joe are.


Despite tradition, I am not writing this to disagree with Suzanne. I agree with most everything she says2. No, I am writing this because I DO agree with (most of) her and there is a process I use for naming conventions that I thought I would share. I also have a warning, and we're going to start with that first.

We're in a current Live imitating Art imitating Life loop. We're moving away from the more classic Judeo-Christian names. Unfortunately the rediscovery of some Old World classics that were smothered by Biblical names has reintroduced some names that were lame even back then. So if you're naming your daughter Madison, KNOCK IT OFF! It means "Son of Maud" so think on that a little before you try to preemptively make your kid cool with an uncommon name.

Okay, now to the positivity. Names are a big deal. They can really draw a reader into your character, establish him/her in the same was as pages of prose, and add a degree of atmosphere to your setting. This last bit is what I find most important about names. They establish setting. I don't just pick names that sound cool. I pick names that communicate culture. You won't find a hodgepodge of names in my books, cherry picked from any resource that I find supder-kewl-dude-omg unless the country is a melting pot, a la the US. Instead, I will choose a regional theme and apply it to the entire setting. I find Behind the Name3 incredibly helpful in this regard.

So for example, I chose Scandinavia to be the cultural influence for the kingdom of Reliarach (in my novel, THE TRIAD SOCIETY and its sequels). Most names come from Sweden, but I'll look in Norway, Finland, and Denmark too. So lower class people and a number of places I took from Germany, and for the rural folks that migrated to the city looking for work, I used Polish and Russian names. Not casting aspersions on the Polish or Russian readers out there, just wanted something similar but clearly distinct to my originating Swedish names.

I also like using those names because they're foreign to US readers to make them sound fantastical, but still rooted in something recognizable so they don't struggled to identify them. Fantasy authors frequently violate this rule. They make names so complex and unpronounceable that the first thing the reader does is come up with a nickname. They read the first one or two syllables and skip the rest. You're wasting your time and theirs making the super big Bobomastidonaramanustra. They call him Bob from there on out.

So go! Be more consistent in your naming conventions. Remember, that you lay the first blocks of your setting with the name you pick.

And stop trying to make your kids cool with their names. You don't have to name them all Joe, but it works for boys and girls and peopled named Joe are awesome. Remember that.

1 If you are blogging and include a ton of links like I just did, be sure to add a "target" to your html code. A target dictates where a link opens. In this case we want links to open in a new tab/page so that the user can continue to read our blog without having to navigate back and forth. To accomplish this, we do the following: [a href="URL address" target="_blank">URL name[/a]. Replace [ ] with < > and you're good to go.

2 Despite its numerous Hs, Cthulhu is not hard to pronounce. It's also a dangerous point to make as taking such an iconic figure from fantasy/horror will bait the nerds to argue your nominal point rather than focusing on the larger point being made. And come on, Cthulhu? Really? Out of all the fantasy names out there, that's the one you pick as being hard to pronounce?

3 While I rarely use it, there's also a Behind the Name for surnames!

Ooo New Name

I don't spend a lot of time on series names. Sometimes I see people get so consumed with the idea and scope of their trilogy/series that they don't actually focus on the novel in front of them and actually write the damn thing. They're too busy thinking theirs will be the next Wheel of Time or something. But, when I have time to think on it, I'll come up with a name for no other reason than to have a folder to keep all my files in.

For THE TRIAD SOCIETY and its two sequels (THE RED SOCK SOCIETY and THE HOOK AND HAMMER SOCIETY), I had been calling the trilogy "The Reliarachic Societies." Reliarach is the kingdom these books take place in and having the adjectival be "Reliarachic" seemed appropriately difficult, much like the kingdom itself. But even I'm having trouble pronouncing it and was thinking of changing it to Reliarish or something like that.

Then I'm rereading THE TRIAD SOCIETY (damn that's a fine story) and I read a line that I wrote, "If this keeps up, they'll call us the Reliarich Society" and the lightbulb turned on bright and blinding. Well, duh. Society should be singular! Reliarach Society! That's perfect!

I like when I have a name that fits. It's like a warm blanket on a cool autumn evening.

Wind Sprints

I wrote the first draft of THE TRIAD SOCIETY. I didn't like it. It wasn't bad necessarily. It just wasn't the story I set out to write. The story I had planned was this huge intricate intrigue that spanned the politics of the university, the city, the kingdom! And in the end, a meeting made at the beginning of the book would afford the hero an opportunity to make his case and win the day.

In the first draft, he fills out the paperwork for the meeting and then it's never mentioned again. The story took a MASSIVE left turn and finished in half the word count I originally expected. After what I felt was the success of WANTED: CHOSEN ONE, NOW HIRING (in terms of story even though I never landed an agent), finishing THE TRIAD SOCIETY with such a mediocre offering really brought me down.

So, I broke my routine. Normally, when I finish a manuscript first draft, I will take a few weeks off and read a book or three. Then I'll go back and revise. This time, I read a couple books, but then I started work on JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. I usually start a new manuscript while the previous ms is with beta readers. I'll then stop and revise for the third draft. This means I'm only about 12,000 words into a manuscript.

Instead, I wrote 32,000 words before even starting on the second draft. What happened, though, was THE TRIAD SOCIETY went from mediocre to solid. I still like WANTED's story more, but Liz tells me that she likes TTS better. After struggling to find my rhythm and pacing, I wrote another 25,000 words on JH before revising TTS again.

So now we're done with TTS and it's ready to go to agents in its awesome state. The longer break, I think, saved an average manuscript from remaining average. HOWEVER, it's also affected the newer manuscript in a negative fashion. It's hard to bounce between voices, especially when one is a bureaucratic fantasy and the other is an anarchic sci-fi. It's even harder to do it twice!

If writing is sunshine, revising is sunshine bent through a magnifying glass that burns the ant in the driveway. It's a complete immersion in a manuscript where you question every word choice, sentence structure, and plot point. You can't just revise an entire manuscript and then go back to another manuscript that's 2/3 finished. At least, I can't.

So once again, I find myself without momentum on JH. Maybe I really should stop and try something else for awhile. In addition to breaking the rules, it feels shitting to stop working on a manuscript that is 30,000 words from the end. What I really need is a jumpstart. I'm not having trouble writing JH. I know what comes next. But the motivation is gone. I feel like I should still be working on TTS or even (in total violation of the rules), it's sequel THE RED SOCK SOCIETY.

That is when I thought of a new exercise. Wind sprints. Run, stop, run, stop. Get your heartbeat up before basketball practice where you'll have to run up and down the court and Joe is a chubby little kid and sucks at running, so he needs all the warmup he can get.

I have a number of stories on deck: THE SEVENTH SACRIFICE, WHAT'S BEHIND THE CROOKED DOOR?, THE RED SOCK SOCIETY, and THE HOUSE ON SANDWICH NOTCH LANE. Plenty of things to dabble in. And dabbling is exactly what we're going to do. I'm going to write the first chapter on all or some of these but not commit to writing any of them. Basically, I'm doing writing wind sprints. I need to get my writing heart rate up so finishing JH doesn't seem so laborious. And, it lets me create some new things with new voices and just revel in creativity for creativity's sake.

Two posts following this one will have chapter 1 of 7Sac and CROOKED. I may post more later if the need arises or I may hop back into JH and finish that thing off.

Fried Ocher

I was talking to Elizabeth Poole yesterday who had been absent for a week because she thought she deserved to vacation in another state rather than hang out and talk to me over IM. Silly girl. Anyway, she asked me for an update on JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. I didn't have much to report. I had invoked and then rescinded rule 2a. I had decided to embrace the crapitude. There were certain things I was stuck on. I felt that Jehovah accepted the Hanged Man's orders too early. That I hadn't properly established what a great threat the HM was or why Jay would fold so quickly. I still had (and still do) have issues with the climax and how I use elements I really enjoy (like Jesus Street) that currently just seem to be there for set dressing.

But mostly, every time I thought on JH, I would immediately think of THE TRIAD SOCIETY. I've never received beta feedback only on a partial before. I'm in third-draft mode trying to work on a first-draft story, and that's difficult. VERY difficult. What's worse, I'm not just thinking of TTS. I'm thinking of THE RED SOCK SOCIETY and the whole Reliarachic1 Societies trilogy.

There is another rule I did not include in my list of ten because it only applies while I'm not published. Rule NP1 is don't work on sequels. What's the point of writing TRSS if TTS never publishes? You can't have an Empire Strikes Back without Star Wars2. I think this is good advice even though there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of authors selling their series in multi-book deals3. I don't care. I have plenty of other stories I want to tell, so what's the rush to dive into a series? It's why I'm focusing on individual novels rather than my ginormous series of trilogies, The Third World4. There's a catch, of course. When I finish one manuscript, I usually have a few false starts before I find another to work. When I finished WANTED, I had a few false starts before finally starting on TTS, which some might think is a sequel. It's set in the same setting, but on the opposite side of the sea. You can read one without the other, so I don't consider that a sequel. TRSS most definitely is a sequel. It worries me that I keep gravitating back to this world. I have other stories I want to tell, dammit!

ANYWAY, so last night I'm reading SHARDS OF HONOR, the first half of the omnibus CORDELIA'S HONOR by Lois McMaster Bujold, my favorite author. I read CORDELIA'S HONOR once a year, not intentionally. I just get in the mood for that story again. Specifically SHARDS OF HONOR, which is my favorite of the entire Vorkosigan Adventures series. There is a scene where Cordelia is returning to Beta Colony, a desert planet, and a cloud is described as ocher. I'm horrible at non-standard colors and even though the context tells me what the color is, I want to know the actual definition. Easier than you might think when one reads on an e-reader. It includes a dictionary. Aside from not having to lug around paper books, having a dictionary on hand is my second-favorite feature. I read the definition of ocher and it's like a stick of dynamite set next to the crack in my creative dam.

There are mistakes in JH. I rushed Jehovah agreeing to work for the Hanged Man. The climax needs some work. But who gives a shit? First draft. Embrace the crapitude. You know what the next 30,000 words are supposed to be so what are you waiting for?

It was the end of the NaNo'd chapter. It was too sucky. It was so sucky as to only reinforce my poor opinion of NaNo. It needs to be fixed.

The entire setting is in a refugee ghetto called the Nation. 53 blocks representing the 53 states of the United States of America when that nation collapsed and refugees were ferried to Africa when the waters were rising. The city is built beneath a giant platform city, one so large as to block out the sun. Instead, there is a giant array with lightbulbs to make it bright as day. The move in stages, increments of 30 minutes. First and second position, the first hour of day, are considered dawn. Jehovah arrives at the DMZ at dawn and I NaNo'd the scene.

Ocher is the key. Dawn shouldn't go to full brightness. It should be at half-power. There would be a dull yellow pall over everything. Ocher. Capital Center at Philadelphia Park shouldn't be a big crater. The crater should be on the inside. From Lazarus Street, he should see the front of the Offices of he Judiciary and walk around to the Offices of Refugees Advocate Authority when he sees that a big fucking bomb went off right in the middle of it all. It was all backward. It was too short. And it was the wrong color.

I revised the end of the NaNo'd chapter into non-NaNo being. I'm about to finish that one and start the next chapter fresh, to which I expect to successfully write the next 30,000 words without stressing on the final gun battle between the Kansas City Park Family and the deputies or of how I can tie Jesus Street back into things, because I honestly don't know if I can.

For now though... #amwriting. Bam said the lady.

1 I originally chose the word Reliarachic while writing WANTED as a means of showing just how overly-complicated that society was. Its own adjective was hard to say. Now that I have a novel set there, though, I'm thinking I might need to change it to something like Reliarish or something similar.

2 You thought to yourself "You mean 'A New Hope'" and you are wrong. There are only three Star Wars movies and they were named Star Wars, SW: Empire Strikes Back, and SW: Return of the Jedi. This whole renaming and numbering thing is crap, made only more crap by the absolutely horrendous prequels that would have existed if Lucas had ever been dumb enough to make them. Thankfully for all of us, he left the original trilogy untouched and unchanged5.

3 Pat Rothfuss sold his books as a trilogy, having written all three over the course of ten years. Given that original effort, he's still spent almost half that time over rewriting the second in the series because the original offering was so bad (per his own description).

4 Seeing what happened with the Wheel of Time and how long it takes Martin to produce another Ice and Fire book, The Third World is a setting explored in trilogies. There is a trilogy of stories with a meta-arc, and each trilogy's meta-arc combines to build an epic arc. That way if I ever die, at least the trilogies are complete. You can imagine why I'm not rushing to write something of such tremendous scope considering I haven't even been published yet.

5 Han shot first.

Ponderings and Plannings

A side note: I dislike "a novel" being included on a book cover unless the book's title is "a novel." I think it sounds pretentious. In fact, I think it's intentionally pretentious to appeal to that category's audience. I will, at some point, write a story and title it A NOVEL. Fuck your pretension.

So, with the first draft of THE TRIAD SOCIETY complete, I've been pondering the next story in the trilogy, THE RED SOCK SOCIETY. I had a little bit of trouble at the end of TTS because an event I had planned for the main character felt extremely forced. It may get cut out in revision. But if that happens, the event for that same character in TRSS can't happen. One is predicated on the other.

Then I began wondering what story I would tell about him at all. There wasn't a lot there. The character I really wanted to focus on was the unrealized character from TTS, Princess Klara. Until THE TRIAD SOCIETY, I have always included a strong woman in my stories. Never a main character. Not yet (and no, that's not intentional. I write the stories that want to be written. A CIRCLE OF CRIMSON STONE, another ms of mine, has a female main character so just chill on your assumptions).

You see that? Right there? Defensiveness. That makes me nervous. Do I think the story would be better with Klara as the main character because TSS was so short on a worthwhile female? (Sadly, it became a damsel in distress story. My apologies for that.) I don't think so. I think the story will be better this way. But it's a lingering doubt. And doubt can cause problems. It makes you question. It makes you second guess.


Crap. That was all leading up to a situation I wanted to write down about something that would happen to Klara in TRSS, but now I've forgotten it. We really need to create a means to record our dreams. I'm losing quality stuff here! I will revise this section if it comes back to me at some point throughout the day.

Poop. :(