[A note to my subscribers: this post was originally published in October, but wordpress hiccuped and the post was down within the day. Some of you will remember it and some of you will not. I just now made this re-post.]
Usually, fantasy and science fiction names come easily to me. But for some reason my current WIP does not want anything in it named. I was having a headache of a time, so I decided to do a little research. Maybe you aren’t having as bad a time as I was – you just need a fantasy character named, without the writer’s-naming-block. Well, you’re in luck. Fantasy name generators are a half-penny a dozen on the internet. Just google search, pull up a site, press “generate” until you find something you don’t hate, and presto, fantasy name. Go on. What are you standing around for?
Still here? Good. That means you understand enough to know no generator can possibly supply a quality name, specific and tailored and an enrichment to the rest of your fantasy world. You know a generator can not supply originality or the specific need of your story. Yay!
- Quick: What NOT to Do
I found this humorous piece while researching. In short, it gives a good run-down of how not to make a fantasy name. Since humor does every so much better a job at explaining things (especially why things are wrong), I’ll just link. How Not to Make a Fantasy Name. It’s a quick read.
- Methods of Creation
I found many authors sharing their method of playing with words and sounds in order to come up with something they liked. I suppose this is what I always did before; it just came naturally to throw together sounds. Lots of writers look through baby name sites and then manipulate a name they like. One author said she would take a word, and then change it one letter at a time until she had what she wanted. At first glance just playing with sounds doesn’t sound like a good method, but don’t dismiss it too soon. This mainly relies on your ability to decide on a name that “feels right.” Which comes to my next topic. . .
- Connotations of Sounds
What makes a name “feel right”? It’s not psychic. It’s not random. Sounds have connotations around them. Yes, this is scientific. Think about softer sounds versus harder sounds. S and L versus the hard G and K, for example. When a word, especially a name, sounds like what it means, that’s perfect. So play with sounds. . . but know what you’re doing when you play with them. If you have the time – and I highly recommend you make quite a bit of time if you don’t have it – explore the site at http://www.trismegistos.com/MagicalLetterPage/, which deals extensively with this subject.
- Fitting in the Language
Names are part of a language. Names from the same country are going to come from the same language. Grithinlot and Tien are different fundamentally because they do not sound like they come from the same language. Brandon Sanderson, an author of fantasy, detailed the way he came up with different languages in one of his novels, and I highly recommend the source – anything I say would probably be repeating him. http://www.brandonsanderson.com/book/Elantris/page/35/Creating-the-Languages-of-Elantris. Why do you need to think about an entire language when all you want are character names? Well, what else will you need to be naming? Cities? Animals? Foods? Maybe you need a magical phrase. All words are part of a language, and you can’t ignore that while worldbuilding.
As mentioned earlier, many writers have their own methods for giving their fantasy characters names. What is your method? What is one fantasy name you particularly like? What is your favorite fantasy name that you created?
What is a Mary Sue?
There are several definitions of a Mary Sue. Usually a character that makes people say, “Mary Sue!” has some combination of the follow characterizations:
- A Character Based Off Yourself
Named after you, working at the job you wish you had, possessing all your good qualities, dressing, thinking, and acting like you, this is the beginner’s Mary Sue. When I first started writing as a teen all my protagonists were copies – maybe idealized copies, but still copies – of me. Trust me, this is a bad idea. You will get too attached to your character, not allow them to grow and 3D-ize naturally, and will squish the story to fit the character, instead of the other way around.
- A Perfect, Unbeatable, Fantastic Character
She is gorgeous. She will whip anyone in a fight. She can not lose. She gets all the guys she wants. If she’s got a fault it something like “a little clumsy when not on the battlefield.” She’s a Mary Sue. These are the characters that annoy people. Unfortunately, these Sues also tend to masquerade as Really Cool characters. And it’s really temping to make your favorite character Really Cool.
- A Character With Cliche Qualities, Backstory, or Plot Points
She was abandoned by her parents, has strange eyes that see into your soul, and will die in her lovers arms to be brought back to life at the Crucial Moment. If you’re wondering how you could possibly write a character this terrible. . . well, maybe not that terrible. But letting “little” cliche attributes pile up is easier than you think, especially if you are not well-versed in cliches.
Despite the female name, Mary Sues do not have to be girls. Guys can have the qualities too. Now, whether you call a male Mary Sue a Gary Stu or Murray Sue or Marty Stew is subject to some debate. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will only use “she” in this post. Substitute “he/she/it” in your mind.
A Little History
Originally, Mary Sues referred to original fanfiction characters. Even more originally, it referred to original Star Trek fanfiction characters. A short story mocking the abundance of young, perfect, attention-stealing insert characters coined the term. It is viewable here: http://www.fortunecity.com/rivendell/dark/1000/marysue.htm The term “Mary Sue” has lost a lot of its meaning in fanfiction due to general overuse and definition fuzziness, but plain fiction writers have happily adopted the term.
How can I tell if one of my characters is a Mary Sue?
Well, the easy way is to try a Mary Sue test on the character. Now, in no way is a simple yes/no test perfect, but I’ve found such tests very useful. I’ve compiled links to the tests I’ve found most useful. They are intended for straight fiction characters (many tests you find will be intended for fanficiton characters).
- The Original Mary Sue Test for Fiction Characters
[Note: the original original Mary Sue test which the above test was based off of was for fanfiction characters.]
- The Exhaustive, Recommended Test [Slight language and references to sexuality. For a PG to PG-13 audience.]
[Note: on the same site is a Mary Sue test for created races.]
- A Shorter Test
[Note: the “summary” after the test is humorously unreliable, but all the points are something to think about.]
Oh dear. How do I fix my Mary Sue?
Fixing Mary Sues isn’t too hard, as long as you’re not too attached. What exactly you need to do to fix your Mary Sue depends on what is wrong. But first, let me define “fixing.” I do not mean going, “OK, maybe I can cut that out,” and de-checking boxes on a Mary Sue test until you are down to a reasonable score. I mean taking a grand look at your character, picking up the worst problems one at a time, and figuring out what should be there instead.
- Copy of You
So, she’s actually you, huh? Here’s a quick tip: change her (or his) name. I mentioned above that all my first protagonists were coppies of me. Well, one of those protagonists has since been rewritten (along with her accompanying story line) into someone else entirely who can carry a novel on her shoulders. The first step was to change her name. Then figure out how much of your storyline was pandering to the fact she’s you – and cut it. Leave her alone for a few months. Come back and figure out who she really is.
Backstory is perhaps the easiest to fix, and it’s even easier to fix if you’ve yet to start writing (this is why you test for Mary Sues in the development stage). Just. . . change their personal story. If you’ve already begun writing, you may need to add or delete scenes, but trust me, it’s for the better of your novel. This only gets tricky if you have a bad backstory giving a character their motive or something for integral to the story. In this case it’s back to the drawing board: your character is underdeveloped. Decide what is really causing Mary Sue to act.
- Character Traits
Ditch the purple eyes and raven hair and the out-of-time-and-place clothing. Make sure she has a real character flaw – or three or five. Realize she is not going to stay calm and collected no matter what, and certainly not when everyone else is panicking. Take a look at your character arc: how has she changed by The End? Or did you make her perfect at the beginning and leave no room for development?
- Cliche Development
If you just realized that Mary Sue easily switches from being an apothecary to leading the rebel army, if Mary Sue never gets honestly beaten or makes a mistake (without a reasonable excuse), if Mary Sue develops amnesia, and becomes royalty. . . hopefully you’re only outlining. 🙂 Take bad plot points out and figure out a better way to get from the A before the point and the B after the point. Add good plot points (your character receiving the consequences for being a smart alec, for example). Think carefully about realism, since many Mary Sue plot point borderline the fantastic.
If you find that a character is just too deep a Mary Sue to keep alive and just can’t make it in your story, that’s OK. Sometimes its easier to start over from the beginning rather than try to revise the unrevisable. Just last year I scrapped a complete draft and started over from the beginning. It was that bad.
Things To Remember So You Don’t Huff And Ignore Everything I Just Said:
~Those tests are for symptom of the disease. Not every point is to be avoided like a hurricane; Mary Sue characteristics – when used with restraint – can be done well. See below.
~Yes, it is possible for you to see Mary Sue qualities in a character from your favorite or a classic book. If you are a really, really good writer, you can pull off a great story with a Mary Sue. And I mean J. K. Rowling good (try doing a Mary Sue test for Harry Potter).
~Every writer has made a Mary Sue in their day. You will too at some point. You are not J. K. Rowling. If you think you are, there’s a name for that psychiatric condition.
This is the first post in a serious on characters. You see, in my planning for NaNoWriMo, I’m fleshing out my main and supporting characters. So it’s all in self-interest. May you never write another Mary Sue again! (I wish the same for myself.)
Characters are the first thing that pull us in to a novel. We can like and feel attached to characters with tiny roles or to characters who are villains. It all depends on how well they are developed. This is my monster post on how to create characters for a novel. First, a little terminology:
The novel is about the main character, focusing on them, telling their story. The main characters play the largest role, and are usually the good guys.
Not all novels have sub-main characters. In fact, I think I coined this term on my own. I got tired of being unable to identify my characters who were not the main characters, but were in almost every scene. Hence the term sub-main characters. They’re somewhere in between main and secondary character status.
Characters with smaller roles are secondary characters. Their roles can range from one or three scenes to being part of every major event. How big their roles is affects how much development they have. They may or may not be named or described or have their own history and relationships.
Characters who’s only purpose is too supply setting and background. Then man sitting by the window when the main characters walk into a restaurant. The minion guards. They have no names, and only have token lines, if any lines at all.
Main and sub-main characters need full profiles. Secondary actors with reoccurring roles may need full profiles as well. But secondary characters who are only in one or three scenes do not need full profiles (or may not need profiles at all, if they are minor enough not to be named), and background characters do not need profiles, period.
I don’t really need to talk about how important a name is, do I? The real question is: how do I pick names for my characters? I could write an entire post on naming, but I’ll try to keep this short.
Sometimes, when you already know the appearance of a character, you can say “He looks like a Caleb,” or “She reminds me of my friend Hannah.” This is an easy way to go. There is also the ever-classic naming characters for the people who inspired them.
A common method is to search baby-naming sites for meanings that are relevant to your characters. Many people do not know the meanings to names, but that doesn’t stop this from being an easy method. Plus, anyone who does know the meaning to the names you choose will be pleased to see the connection.
If you need wild, exotic, or futuristic names, just play with letters. You can pick regular names and play switcheroo or replacement with the syllables or letters. I like to look at the keyboard and pick out letters that I have yet to use and slam them together. Warning: This method results in names such as Xetessa and Jandice.
How does the culture of your world affect characters’ names? Are people given many titles? Do names change throughout life? Is the culture stiff and logical, giving their children one-syllable names? (I swear, I wasn’t thinking about the Vulcans when I typed that.) Is the culture peaceful, and the names soft? Or is the culture war-like, and names filled with hard k’s and g’s? Giving a culture unique naming patterns is actually very crucial to world building. Not only do name patterns give incite in to a culture, but they identify a character’s nationality.
But before you name your main characters Lacy, Lucy, and Lucian, (and plot many long and deep conversations between the three), a word of advice: make all your names unique from one another. How many times have two similar names having a conversation or a fight confounded you? Pay attention to the beginning letters, the ending syllables, the number of syllables. Vary them all. I was once told to never give two characters in the same novel names that start with the same letter. This is obviously a fanatical position, but it does fix the problem. Of course, if you want to give two characters similar names for plot purposes, go ahead and ignore everything I just said.
~The first step in creating a character profile: write down their name!
The appearance of characters affects readers’ (or audiences’, if you’re talking about cinema) perception of them. If a man is dark and squints his eyes, we think of him differently than of a young girl with blond curls. In fact, we may think of the fat girl with blond curls differently than of the fit girl with blond curls.
Some aspects of a character’s looks may have a story behind them: the character dies their hair a wild color because they are rebellious, or the character has a scar from a near-death accident. Characters’ looks can affect the way they act as well. Maybe a character is self-conscious about their height and wears high heels. Similarly, characters’ acts can affect the way they look. Maybe a character is very outgoing and open, consequently wearing their hair free.
Carriage, if you think about it, is an important part of a character’s appearance, and may even tell something about their history. Are they proud, and carry themselves well, or are they quiet, and walk around closed toward everyone else?
Do not forget clothing when describing a character. Clothes tell so much about us; our status, our attitude, what we like, how we think of ourselves, etc. It is no different for your characters. The clothes a character wears can easily affect scenes or actions. A character stuck in the latest fad will not be prepared if they suddenly have to hike their way through a forest.
~Create a picture of your main characters. You can use any medium you like; tangible paper and pencil, or something on the computer. If you want to dress your character, http://www.mvm.com/cs/ had a vast selection of (modern) garb you can place on a 3D model.
~Create “Appearance” sections for your characters’ profiles and list their height, weight, and eye, hair, and skin tone. Also include how they carry themselves, their common apparel, and any unusual or identifying markings.
Family, friends, and mentors may or may not play a role in your novel (and if they do, they have their own family, friends, and mentors). But they have all affected the character in question. Maybe your character has a strong sense of justice instilled in him from his father. Maybe your character is a loner because they never really had friends and have become accustomed to this. Maybe what starts the whole plot brewing is the death of your character’s beloved mentor. There are so many ways other characters can affect a character! Chances are, so or most of your plot is hinged on one character’s relationship to another.
~Draw family trees for your main characters.
~Create “Relationships” sections for your characters’ profiles, and list how your characters are related to each other.
All characters have history, whether relevant to the main plot or not. Where they lived, who they knew, and what they did can all be very useful – or it can come back to haunt them.
History can also be an extremely useful plot device. We all know what it’s like to write ourselves into a corner. None of the options are realistic. To get the plot moving you need John to refuse the merchant’s help, but why would he does such a thing? Answer: He was once cheated by a merchant. Suddenly, you have a new subplot.
~Create a mini-timeline of your main character’s lives, but only if their history is going to have a significant affect on the novel.
~Create “History” sections for your characters’ profiles. List where they lived (and thus area they are familiar with), who they know (and thus who is already their friend or enemy), and what they’ve done (skill they learned that could be useful, or crimes that can get them hunted).
You probably already know at least part of the personalities of your character. You know how they are on the outside. But what happens inside? Are they internal or external? Are they a daredevil or cautious? What is the breaking point for your character? What causes them the most joy? Do they act the same alone as when with someone? What are their habits? And for each of these answers, why? Is it just their personality, or did external circumstances cause this? Many sites have very handy lists of questions to answer for your characters.
~Fill out a personality test from the point of view of your main character. You’ll be spending a lot of time inside your main character’s head, so you’ll want to know them the best.
~Create “Personality” sections for your characters’ profiles. List at least three (for a minor character) to ten or more (for a major character) adjectives or phrases to describe them, the answers to the questions above, and any other aspects of their personality.
Voice is how a character says something, how big a vocabulary they have, what their speech quirks are. Voice is affected by personality, culture, education, and upbringing. An energetic character will not give every statement a full sentence. A college graduate will not speak the same way as a country boy.
~Create “Voice” sections for your characters’ profiles. Write a paragraph on the way they speak and refer to it when you are editing dialogue.
Purpose and Uniqueness
The ever-important purpose. If you don’t have separate purposes worked out for each of your characters, you will eventually have to combine one or more. I can tell you, that is not fun.
So how do you make sure none of your characters are going to need to be combined? Well, pull out your outline. Next to each event, write down what part each character plays in it. Characters who do not have part in enough events for their rank either need to have their roles increased, or their rank decreased. Character’s whose roles could be filled by other characters need to be deleted.
Look at your character personalities and history. Do each of your characters have unique personalities and stories, or is Mary to much like Sue? Don’t let any of your characters be copies of each other, even if one is a woman with black hair and the other is a little blond boy. If you are having trouble making two characters unique, consider allowing one of them to have their roles replaced by other characters.
~Create “Role” sections for your characters’ profiles. List their main scenes and general effect on the plot.
This is perhaps the most important aspect of a main, sub-main, or major secondary character. He must have an arc. He must change over the course of the novel. He must learn something, he must decide something, he must become something, otherwise there is no point in reading about him. His arc may be part of the plot: he is afraid to take people in to his care at the beginning of the novel and must overcome this by the end. Or the plot may be all adventure, and the character arcs are not obvious.
Think about what you’ve decided so far for your characters. Their personality, the way they respond. Look at your plot. See how they would each react to the events and the obstacles in their way. No one (and definitely no characters) could go through a good plot without being affected.
~Create “Arc” sections for your main characters’ profiles. List how they are in the beginning of the novel, how they are at the end of the novel, and what happens in between to change that.
And that was my monster post to make up for missing Sunday’s post. Do you have anything to add? How do you create characters?