A friend of mine came to me the other day and said, “I really enjoy writing fiction, but my only real problem has to do with character creation. How do you name characters? How do you make them unique, interesting, and memorable? How do you make the reader care?”
These are the questions I’m going to cover in this blog.
A name should be interesting and unique. This is especially true for main characters.
Example: Steven could become Stavane, or Stav for short)
Example: avoid using names like William and Winston together
Example: The name “Dumbledore” from Harry Potter sounds similar to “bumblebee”. J.K. Rowling chose the name because she imagined him the type of wizard to walk around humming to himself.
Example: Crato (2) would pair better with Hephaestus (3) than Jemma (2)
Example: Khalil from Recreance is Arabic for “Friend” – a translation that works phonetically and in character personality.
Exaggerate, Investigate, Twist
Whether your inspiration for characters comes from distant relatives, old friends, or just people you witnessed briefly in the grocery store, they often become more interesting with some personality exaggeration.
I was in the grocery store last week when I noticed a frail man approach the service desk. He purchased a scratch-and-win, and soon after began shouting and waving his arms in the air, gesticulating wildly. Wisps of white hair danced above his liver-spotted head as he shook his fist. The young clerk gasped, holding a hand over her mouth. She was frozen on the spot, too shocked to react. The man tried to climb up onto the counter, but an overweight security guard trundled over and grasped the assailant by the shoulders.
This story is an exaggeration. Yes, I was in the grocery store, and yes I saw a man buying a scratch-and-win, but I exaggerated his frustration, and the result.
Take your characters and exaggerate them a little – just not too much, or they’ll begin to resemble a caricature.
Ask your characters questions about their motivations, and don’t immediately accept the first answer you get.
Why was the old man so upset?
Maybe he’s someone’s grandfather with Alzheimer’s that slipped out and walked to the grocery store…or perhaps he spent his last dollar on the scratch-and-win, hoping desperately to win grocery money. The clerk handed him a losing game card, and he blamed her for the loss.
These answers are plausible, but they are also easy, and somewhat shallow. Let’s keep asking…
Perhaps the old man is not senile, and the young clerk swiped his winning scratch-and-win, assuming everyone would believe her over the crazy old man.
Okay, a little more interesting, now let’s twist it.
The cantankerous old man is not senile, nor did the clerk steal his scratch-and-win. The man became agitated once he recognized the clerk’s face. It belonged to the driver of a light blue Pontiac; the same light blue Pontiac that struck and killed his wife of sixty-two years. It had been less than three weeks since he watched helplessly as her blood spilled onto the gray cement sidewalk. The car sped off, and the police had little success finding the driver.
The twist is a fantastic way to add some depth and interesting backgrounds to your characters. As with the investigation, you should not immediately go with the first twist you think of. Come up with a few and pick the best one.
Character Traits (Pick 2)
There is a lot of information out there when it comes personality traits of your characters (see end of this post for some resources). One strategy for choosing character traits comes from looking at three main characteristics:
As you may have guessed from the title of this section, take two of these, and deprive your character of the third. Imperfection makes a character more interesting. It gives them depth, and gives you somewhere to go with their development. Is your character Likable and Competent? Then make them hopelessly unmotivated. Some of the most famous characters ever written possess these traits (looking at you, Bilbo).
**If you’d like to check out some resources around character development, I recommend Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Brandon Sanderson’s writer advice video series.