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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Character, not Caricature - Part 1

One of the hardest jobs for a writer is creating believable, memorable characters.

Disagree? Quick - how many characters can you name from recent books you've read, versus how many plots you remember? I'll bet that plots win out.

For my part, the author who created the best characters was Nevil Shute. His plots tended to be quite simple, almost hackneyed at times, but the stories were lifted into grace by characters whose company you enjoyed - for their own sake.

On the other side, Arthur C. Clarke wrote wonderfully vivid SciFi, creating worlds that were achingly appealing, but his characters were flat - mere porters for his delightful scenery.

So...how's it done? There's no formula, and you do need a touch of magic in your craft to give flesh and blood to mere words. But there are some basic tools and rules that will, I hope, help you inhabit your written world with real people.

Here, in order of development, are six pegs you can use to lay out your characters.
1 - Naming your 'children'
2 - First Impressions
3 - Backstory
4 - The Things They Say
5 - The Things They Do
6 - The Way They Interact

Today we'll talk about names.

What's in a name? Quite a bit, because of the cultural preconceptions we carry. The name your character has can identify social class, geographical origin, ethnicity, and attitude to life, for starters. Or it can be a random name, with no significance at all. Your choice!

For example, Cedric Walker-ffolkes would, on first glance, be a part of the English upper crust, while Billy Joe Trask probably lives in a trailer in a humid southern forest. Eddie Williams is pretty laid back, while Edward Williams is a bit starchy.

Peter Williams is American or English. Pieter Willems is Dutch; Piet Willems is likely from South Africa.

The use of common surnames can be a useful tool, as well. "Joe Smith" is such a bland name as to be almost invisible...but is that a disguise for an illicit adventurer? On the other hand, Cholmondely Smith is up-front intriguing, but not very anonymous.

In Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny", one of the main characters (neither hero nor villain) is Phillip Francis Queeg. The surname has a disagreeable sound to it, and I suspect that was the idea. When Queeg is introduced, he's nice but a bit odd. later in the book you'll hate him, and by the end, a grudigng respect will have grown. But Wouk uses the name to set a distance of affection between you and that character, and over 600 pages bridges that gap with respect.

One device of which I'd steer clear is the temptation to give characters cutely symbolic names. For example, a few years back a recurring character in a series of mysteries was named Quillman...and yes, he was a writer. For me, and for a number of people with whom I spoke, that was a deal-killer. It was a cloying attempt to either be cute, or to keep me reminded of what this chap did for a living. I needed neither, and could not finish one book in the series.

What about you? Do you have a method in naming characters, and are there any characters whose names you particularly remember?

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