writing

So You Need to Name a Fictional Character

One of the writing questions I get asked most often is “How do you come up with character names?”

Or “can I give two characters similar names?”

Or “I want to name my characters after the seven deadly sins/the four classical elements/models of Ford automobile, but I don’t want it to be obvious, what can I do?”

Or “I hate name generators but I can’t think of a name for this character, what can I do?”

If you’re at a loss what to name a character and you don’t want to use name generators, try this method instead.

First: List all your character’s major traits.

Start by listing your character’s most obvious traits. These can be physical traits, personality traits, quirks, preferences, whatever you like.

For example, the main character in a fantasy story might be:

  • female
  • redheaded
  • pale-skinned
  • a princess
  • lost/missing from her kingdom
  • cat lover
  • gets jealous easily
  • the eighth child in her family

The idea is to generate a list of starting points for exploring different name ideas. You can put pretty much anything on this list, as long as it describes the character in some way.

Decide how obvious you want to be.

Which traits, if any, do you want the reader to pick up on just from reading the character’s name? How obvious do you want the connection between that trait and the character to be?

If you’re writing an allegory – a story in which characters are basically ideas or traits in disguise, like Justice or Peace – you might want the names to be pretty clearly linked to character traits. Likewise, if you’re writing about a character with one particular trait that plays a huge role in the story, you might want to give them a fairly obvious name linked to that trait.

Some names that are just the names of traits characters might have:

  • Hope
  • Charity
  • Joy
  • Baby
  • Cash
  • Messiah

You can also use names with direct “trait” meanings, but in languages other than English. For example:

  • Esperanza (Hope, but in Spanish)
  • Jizen (Charity, but in Japanese
  • Joie (Joy, but in French)
  • Angelo (Angel, but in Esperanto)
  • Octavia (“eighth,” in Latin)

Try a baby name book or website.

If you want a name that means or evokes a certain trait, but isn’t just [Name of Trait], try baby name websites. Many allow you to search for names by meaning.

In the case of our red-headed cat-loving jealous princess, some name options might be:

  • Akane (meaning “red” in Japanese),
  • Alba or Blanche (meaning “white” in Latin or French, respectively)
  • Eadoin (meaning “jealousy” in Irish)
  • Latifah (meaning “kind” or “gentle” in Arabic).

For these, I used the name search tool at BabyNames.com. This tool also lets you search by nationality, by letter, and in other ways, so you can further narrow down your search.

Use a thesaurus.

For this one, you’ll need an actual print thesaurus. Not the ones that have been rearranged in alphabetical order. An actual copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus is ideal.

Contrary to popular belief, a thesaurus is not merely a book of synonyms and antonyms. A properly-organized thesaurus actually shows the relation of every word in English to every other word in English.

Why does that matter here?

The thesaurus is a great way to generate character names, because you can see which words and concepts are closely related to a word or concept you want to associate with that character.

Suppose, for example, that you want to emphasize not your princess’s red hair or love of cats, but the fact that she vanished early in life and has been missing – from the point of view of her parents, anyway – for years. Maybe you want to make it clear that this disappearance was the result of a prophecy or curse: something inherent to the princess and out of her control.

Roget’s International Thesaurus, Seventh Edition, has an entry for “missing person” (it’s 222.5, for the curious). Entry 222.5 reads “absentee, truant, no-show, missing person.”

You can certainly run these words through a baby name search, if you like. BabyNames.com, however, didn’t give me much to go on.

Entries 222.3 and 222.6, however, offer closely-related concepts to that of “missing person.” They include “absence,” “loss,” “death,” “vacation,” and “nobody.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. BabyNames.com gives a whole list of names meaning “loss,” including “Adsila,” “Calantha,” “Hana,” and “Zarah.” Searching for “death” turns up the Slavic name “Morana,” which also means “illness.” Our princess is probably not experiencing her life as much of a vacation, but “nobody” can be translated nicely with the Japanese name “Mumei,” which literally means “nameless.”

Borrow names from existing literary characters or authors.

Yet another way to emphasize a certain trait you want readers to associate with your character is to name that character after an existing well-known literary figure. For example, we might name our fictional princess:

  • Anne (after redheaded Anne of Green Gables, or Anne Frank, one of the youngest published authors in history)
  • Lillian (after Lillian Jackson Braun, author of a series of mysteries featuring cats)
  • Desdemona (a victim of jealousy in Shakespeare’s Othello)
  • Phronsie (after Phronsie Pepper, famous youngest Pepper sibling)
  • Alice (after Alice in Wonderland, who went missing down a rabbit hole)
  • Penelope (Odysseus’s wife, who sits around weaving for ten years after her husband gets extremely lost post-Trojan War)

Will your readers make the connection between the literary figure and your character? Maybe! Maybe not! For those that do, your story gains another dimension, and they get the fun of feeling like they decoded an in-joke.

If you go this route, avoid characters with very recently-made-popular invented names, like Katniss or Khaleesi. You may find yourself on the receiving end of a cease and desist order. At the very least, your readers might confuse your work with fanfiction, and find themselves unhappy when your “Katniss” doesn’t live in a dystopia or your “Khaleesi” has never even heard of dragons.

A Note On Characters With Similar Names

As a rule, I recommend avoiding giving any two characters similar names.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a What Not to Do example of a novel in many ways, but one thing Rand got right was to scrupulously avoid giving characters similar names. Rand went so far as to introduce every character (and there are dozens) by both their first and last names – and to give every one of them a different set of initials.

The result is that, even in a dizzyingly long tome with a weak plot, an implausible setting, and ridiculous characters, it’s remarkably easy to keep track of which character is which – even if you only see them once or twice. Nobody else has the same initials as any other character.

For instance, there may be more than one character whose first name starts with D, but the only one of those whose last name starts with T is Dagny Taggart. You don’t have to deal with Dagny Taggart and Dave Thomas and Doris Trumboldt and Donald Trump. So the reader can just register “DT” and know which character this is, and that a “DS” or “DA” will be someone else.

I recommend avoiding not only similar names, but also similar initials. There are exceptions to every rule, however.

If you’re going to use similar names, make sure there’s a plot-based reason the names are similar. For example, maybe the characters Alissa and Alicia are twins. Or Macduff and Macbeth are rival soccer team captains and the story is a rather obvious retelling of Macbeth but with soccer. Maybe Sydney is the new girl at school who had to deal with queen bees Cindy and Candy, and mixing them up is key to how Sydney defeats them.

If there’s no reason in the story itself that characters have to have similar names, change one of the names so your readers don’t get confused – especially if the similarly-named characters appear in a lot of scenes together, or if the story will make no sense if the reader mixes them up. “Wait, why is Alissa the one activating the giant laser? I thought Alicia was the mad scientist” is not a problem you want readers to have at the crucial moment in the story.

(“Alissa” is an English name meaning “of noble kin,” and is related to names like “Alice,” in case you’re wondering. Other options that also mean “noble” but won’t get her mixed up with Alicia include Brianna, Earleen, Heidi, Katrice, Nabila, and Trisha.)

When all else fails….

…just name the character after your crush. No one will notice.


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the creative process, writing

How Does an Author Begin Writing a Book?

“How does an author begin writing a book?” is another of the Most Frequently Asked Questions I (and a lot of published authors) face.

Every author comes at it a bit differently. Here’s how I do it.

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The One-Liner

I begin with a one-line concept. Most of these come to me years (or in a couple cases, decades) before I actually begin writing the book.

My current concept list for future novels in the Non-Compliant Space series, beyond the starting trilogy, looks like this:

  • what Molloy did next
  • time travel murder adventure
  • blockchain dystopia
  • the founding of Interstellar Science (Mai’s story)

(That last one is one of the concepts I’ve had in my head for literal decades; I started thinking about that one in 2001 or so.)

Character and Conflict

From the one-line concept, I decide who the main characters are, then start kicking around possible central conflicts.

For me, central conflicts always arise from who the main characters are. Whatever the plot ends up being in “what Molloy did next,” for example, is going to depend entirely on Captain Molloy’s attitude and behavior toward the central conflict. So we already know it’s going to be snarky and prone to flying off the handle for reasons no one talks about.

“Time travel murder adventure” already has a cast pre-determined by the first four books, and given who the cast is, I expect most of the plot in this one to be interpersonal shenanigans.

“Blockchain dystopia” has no characters at all so far, which means it’s fair game to fold into any of the other options so far. I can’t see Molloy caring at all about a blockchain-based dystopia, however, so it’s probably not going to feature as the central conflict in “what Molloy did next.”

Outlines and Suchlike Discontents

Once I have some idea who’s involved and how they’re going to react to the central conflict, I start outlining.

The first outline is usually a page long-ish paragraph summary of the main plot. If I manage to work up any sub-plots at this point, they get their own paragraph.

From here, I turn to the beat sheet method outlined in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! I write messy paragraph summaries as needed until I have some idea how the plot fits onto the beat sheet. This is the point at which sub-plots usually work themselves out for me; not only does the beat sheet explicitly leave space for them, but this is also where I see how they feed into the long decline from the Midpoint to the Dark Night and how they’re essential to the Finale.

Once I have characters, a plot, and a sense of the beats, I can start drafting.

More Scribbling

I typically start each beat with several paragraphs summarizing what happens in that beat. Each paragraph is a scene. If I need to extend this ahead two or three beats, I do.

Then I write the scenes. If I get stuck anywhere, I go back to freewriting paragraphs until I get unstuck.

I repeat this process until I’ve written all the scenes and put them in order. That’s the zero draft.

Almost a Book

Then I retype the entire zero draft into Word. That’s the first draft.

Then editing, a process that, like sausage-making, is best left undescribed.

At some point in this process, I may or may not put on pants. The pants-wearing phase is optional (at least until I have to talk to another human being in meatspace).

The process of finishing a book is somewhat different from the process of starting it. I’ve covered that in detail elsewhere on this blog, including this detailed three-part description of my actual writing process.

But that’s how I start.

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the creative process, writing

How I Became a Writer

In my Quora inbox there are, as we speak, no fewer than nine different answer requests for variations on the same question: “How did you become a writer?”

Gather round, and ye shall hear my tale.

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I Discover Chapter Books

About a month into kindergarten, in ye fabled year 1987, we went to the school library for the first time. We were read a story by one of the school librarians and then turned loose onto the two rows of children’s books at the front of the room.

I didn’t even make it to the shelves, however, before the school librarian stopped me. “Are you Danielle?”

I said I was.

“I want to show you something,” she said, and led me to one of the tall shelves full of “big kid books” that we’d passed on the way into the library. And that’s how I met Ramona Quimby.

Ramona the Pest was the first chapter book I ever read. It took me a little less than a week to read, on my own, in between kindergarten activities like playing with clay and trying to trace my name. And I was hooked.

I knew what books were long before that first library day. I’d grown up surrounded by them, and I was reading fluently when I started kindergarten. But something about Beverly Cleary’s work made me realize, at age five, that books didn’t appear out of thin air. They existed because somebody wrote them.

I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be a writer.

I Become a Master of Plot

Fast-forward to the spring of 1990. I’m now in second grade, where reading Beverly Cleary is pretty common (I’ve moved on to The Boxcar Children, Agatha Christie, and the Baby-sitters Club). My teacher announces that we’re all going to write our own stories.

Over the course of several weeks, we write stories, edit them, draw the accompanying pictures, and paste everything into those little blue booklets I wouldn’t see again until 2005, when I had to write law school exams in them.

My book was called The Violet That Played the Violin. That was also the entire plot.

That book was the moment that I realized that not only did books exist because people wrote them, but that I had now written a book. That meant I was a writer.

Writers Write

The Violet That Played the Violin had rocketed me to the pinnacle of writerdom. Suddenly, I was no longer a kid who wanted to be a writer; I was a writer.

And writers write. So I wrote.

I acquired the first of a truly staggering collection of blank books and wrote a short story, “The Cat Who Made a Quilt.” In the interests of full disclosure and also total self-embarrassment, here’s the full text:

Once upon a time in the old city of Swanland, which is now Paris, there was a cat. She loved to sew patchwork quilts. Almost everyone in Swanland had a quilt made by the cat.

Everyone except Old Barney, the bulldog.

The cat’s name was Kitten. Kitten said one say, “I want to make a special quilt, but I don’t have an idea.” So she set out to find an idea.

First she tried to think of an idea. All that popped into Kitten’s head were the ideas for her old quilts. So she asked her friends. They didn’t have any ideas either. So she went to the fabric store, where she usually got her patterns and fabric.

First she decided to make a quilt for Old Barney, to make him feel better. There was only one problem. Old Barney was her enemy, not her friend.

But she found a pattern. She found a pattern just right for a dog. It had dogs doing almost anything a dog can do outside.

Kitten sewed it together and then asked Anne, the prettiest poodle in town, to deliver it to Old Barney. Anne did, and Old Barney fell in love with her, and Kitten’s troubles were over.

So she went back to the pattern store, and got a new pattern. This one was beautiful. It had all sorts of different things on it. Kitten sewed it together and kept it in her family forever.

The End.

One can see the rapid evolution of my craft in this piece. It has a plot!

Starting at this point (May 1990), I was never without a working notebook again. Sometimes that notebook was the same notebook as the one I used for schoolwork, and sometimes it wasn’t. But I always, always had a notebook with me, and I got extremely itchy when I was separated from it.

And I wrote. Daily. Because writers write.

Stealth Writing and What I Learned from Fanfic

Nearly all of the “note taking” I did in high school was actually writing fan fiction. A friend and I had a joint X-Files fanfic that we’d pass back and forth between classes, each of us writing a paragraph or two instead of actually doing our schoolwork. I wrote the equivalent of two or three novels’ worth of fanfiction every year between tenth grade and the end of law school (ca. 1997-2007).

I had help from my dad as well. He and I wrote several stories and poems together when I was in elementary and middle school. There was Snow, the Christmas Horse, a novella about a poor family that sells its beloved horse and gets her back just in time for Christmas, and a 24-installment mystery in which the original American Girls (Kirsten, Samantha and Molly) search for a missing silver cup, which was probably the first piece of fan fiction I ever wrote.

Fan fiction was absolutely essential to my eventual career in which I actually write in exchange for actual cash moneys. Fan fiction taught me a lot about characterization, pacing and scene development. It also taught me why Shift+F7 is not your friend and why words ending in -ly will not in fact make your story better.

Where Ideas Come From

I honestly don’t remember having been troubled by “where ideas come from” when I was a kid. The point of being a writer was to write, not necessarily to have ideas for The Great American Novel or whatever.

So I didn’t always try to write fiction. Sometimes writing consisted of copying entire poems out of my dad’s Oxford anthologies. Sometimes it involved character assassinations of whichever classmate had treated me crappily that day. For two weeks in eighth grade, it consisted of trying to translate the US Constitution into ordinary middle-school English.

The point was to fill a notebook a month. I didn’t matter what I filled it with.

All that copying, translating and character assassination taught me a lot about writing, too. By copying, I started to see how other writers had constructed sentences and paragraphs. Character assassination taught me how to build characters convincingly, making their flaws and position within the story clear without sounding too melodramatic or unreliable as a narrator. Translation taught me how to state clearly what I meant.

By the time I left high school, the basic structure of my writing skills was already in place. My writing has improved dramatically during that time, but the fundamentals I fall back on today were all things I learned between the ages of seven and 17.

I learned them by writing. Because that’s what writers do.

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