Tag Archives: Characters

Developing Your Setting Over Multiple Books

Guest Post by Gama Martinez

Gama Ray Martinez lives near Salt Lake City, Utah. He moved there solely because he likes mountains. He collects weapons in case he ever needs to supply a medieval battalion, and he greatly resents when work or other real life things get in the way of writing. AlysseReneePhotography-Gama-7 (1)He secretly hopes to one day slay a dragon in single combat and doesn’t believe in letting pesky things like reality get in the way of his dreams. Find him on Facebook.


Writers talk a lot about character development, about how main characters change over the course of a story or series, but there’s one thing that often gets left out of the discussion. How does the world change around them, or, since we are talking about the protagonist, how does the world change because of them?

The opening scene of book 3 of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher has Harry fighting off a ghost in the maternity ward of a hospital. To most people, he’s, at best, a fraud so when the police find him there in the middle of a wrecked room, he’s promptly arrested. This is only a minor part of the story. It’s completely dealt with by the end of chapter 2. In book 7, Harry needs to get information from an EMT. The EMT is initially reluctant, afraid that if he talks about seeing things like magic and monsters, people will think he’s crazy and he’ll lose his job. Then, he recognizes Harry as the one who was arrested years before. The following conversation ensues.

“You know that the year before, the SIDS rate there was the highest in the nation? They averaged one case every ten days. No one could explain it.”

“I didn’t know that,” I said.

“Since they arrested you there, they haven’t lost one,” he said.

The EMT isn’t quite willing to accept that Harry is a wizard, or that he fought off an insane ghost, but he accepts that Harry can do things most people can’t. He then proceeds to give Harry the information he’s looking for. It’s such a small thing to connect minor events five books apart, but it shows that the world around Harry Dresden is continually changing and growing.

Your story does not exist in a vacuum. Your characters are the center of the story. If you have a world-shaking story, their actions will ripple outward. How will they affect the accountant that works on Main Street or the blacksmith who has been working the forge all his life? How do others see the characters? Here is a snippet from the beginning of Darkmask, the forthcoming book 5 of my Pharim War. The protagonist, a fifteen-year-old boy named Jez, is inspecting his soldiers. One of the soldiers snickers at being led by a boy so young only to be disciplined by the captain of the squad, a man named Bezar who has a significant amount of hero worship for Jez. The captain then apologized for the soldier’s behavior.

Jez waved off the apology and tried not to let his unease at the captain’s reverence show. There were four types of soldiers in Jez’s army. Most simply followed orders. Some, like the man who had been caught snickering, didn’t take Jez seriously. Others had heard stories of what he had done and had flocked to Korand when they had heard that Jez was building his forces. Then, there were those like Bezar, who had seen.

In this case, the Jez’s actions in the previous four books have caused him to develop a certain reputation. In some cases, that reputation is exaggerated, but in some cases, it’s not. Different people react to that reputation in different ways, and when Jez is building an army, how people see him has a real tangible effect. Both those who think highly of him and those who see him as a fraud will be watching him closely. His successes and failures will affect how the see him, and those changes will ripple to the next book. I’m probably never going to write a book that focuses on Captain Bezar, but a few paragraphs later, I establish that he used to be a soldier in the capital city and that he saw Jez in action. This is more than just giving backstory. This is illustrating how the hero of my story has changed the world.

If the actions of your hero are to truly be meaningful, the must have an affect on the world around them. Don’t put your heroes in a bubble. Consider the consequences of their actions and integrate those consequences into future stories. When they are interacting with other people, as yourself if those interactions are affected by what the character has done in the past. Unless your character is world famous, most of the time, the answer will be now, but by occasionally making the answer yes, you can make your world seem more alive.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

Episode #66 – Characters in Horror with Michaelbrent Collings

Meet Michaelbrent Collings…
if you dare (bwahahaha!)

Michaelbrent Collings is an internationally bestselling novelist, a #1 bestseller in the U.S., and has been one of Amazon’s top selling horror writers for years. He is one of the most successful indie horror writers in the United States, as well as a produced screenwriter and member of the WGA, HWA, and several other writing groups with cool-sounding letters. He’s also a martial artist, and cooks awesome waffles (’cause he’s macho like that).

He published his first “paying” work – a short story for a local paper – at the age of 15. He won numerous awards and scholarships for creative writing while at college, and subsequently became the person who had more screenplays advance to quarterfinals and semifinals in the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition in a single year than anyone else in the history of the competition.

His first produced script, Barricade, was made into a movie starring Eric McCormack of TV’s Will & Grace and Perception, and was released in 2012. Michaelbrent also wrote the screenplay for Darkroom (2013), starring Kaylee DeFer (Gossip Girl, Red State) and Elisabeth Rohm (American Hustle, Law & Order, Heroes).

As a novelist, Michaelbrent has written enough bestsellers that listing them seems weird, especially since they’re already listed elsewhere on the website. In addition, he has also written dozens of non-fiction articles which have appeared in periodicals on several continents.

Michaelbrent is also a member of the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and the HWA (Horror Writers of America). In addition to selling, optioning, and doing rewrites on screenplays for major Hollywood production companies, he is currently developing several movies and television shows.

He hopes someday to develop superpowers, or, if that is out of the question, then at least to get a cool robot arm.

Michaelbrent has a wife and several kids, all of whom are much better looking than he is (though he admits that’s a low bar to set), and also cooler than he is.

Michaelbrent is a frequent guest speaker at genre and literary conventions, high schools, church groups, and anywhere else that wants to talk about writing. If you’re interested in having him speak to your group, please contact him via the contact form on the bottom of the page. Michaelbrent also has a Facebook page athttp://www.facebook.com/MichaelbrentCollings and can be followed on Twitter @mbcollings. Follow him and you will be kept safe when the Glorious Revolution begins!

Lastly, if you want to be kept abreast of Michaelbrent’s newest releases and special deals that no one else knows about, sign up for his mailing list… and keep on reading!

About James Duckett

James is a geeky, nerdy dude. He writes, sometimes. He blogs, sometimes. He's helpful to people, sometimes. He doesn't like to repeat himself, sometimes. He's funny... looking... always.

His hopes and aspirations of the future is to one day find a way that people will pay him while he sleeps. It is his dream job.

Use Settings to Challenge Characters

Last summer the Writer’s Dig (Writer’s Digest online, 7/21/15) ran a guest column by Kathleen Shoop which talked about ways to “Use Setting to Challenge Your Characters (& Make a Better Story). It happens that I am reworking an historical novel which I researched and wrote parts of (opening, a few chapters, a DREADFUL screenplay) some years ago. I’m hoping it’s finally time to finish the work. The story begins with the early Celtic tribes who rose against the Roman incursions (not to mention Vikings and other marauders) in the first Century, A.D.

So what do I know about the setting? This is 1st Century A.D. I’m talking about.

Shoop wisely noted that a romance, for instance, will be much different if set in today’s New York City, vs. 1905 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Attention to the differences in setting gives a means of character development which will ensure the author an original story, one that leaves readers “attached” to the characters long after the last page is turned. The key all in the infusion of details — meaningful and unexpected — that will help keep the reader turning those pages.

Shoop had several suggestions (each of which needs some explanation):

1. Inside Out

2. Dress Her Up and Make Her Run

3. A Good Night’s Rest

Details, explained:

1. Inside Out – who are your main characters on the inside? Whom do they “pretend” to be? If your Main Character (MC) tries to be something other than what s/he truly is, and that is made clear through the opening of your story, why the pretense? We may sense there is much more beyond the surface than s/he is showing. We may be puzzled by the way s/he acts, especially if we see some change or contradictions between what s/he says and what s/he does. What does s/he claim to dislike, yet allow to happen? Who IS this person? Really. And Deeply — inside. This is a good time to “play” with your reader’s early assumptions, give him/her a few surprises.

My Celtic heroine, a young girl only ten years old, has a twin of smaller build, and more timid demeanor. I could make them both a little reticent to begin with. Then, when my MC steps up to a challenge, she takes everyone (including the reader, I hope) by surprise. Now I have some serious purpose for this girl. What challenges will she accept? How will her demeanor change throughout the opening chapter or two? What about the sister, the twin? Is she also made of sterner stuff?

2. Dress Her Up and Make Her Run – “clothing and accouterments” take on the role of setting just as much as the countryside, the skyscrapers, cars in the street, hidden minuscule gardens in a city setting, etc. Clothing can reveal character traits, hamper (or help) the MC toward her goal. Clothing may impede a walk down the street, make noise in a quiet place, break down in some way: heels can break, straps break or tangle, reveal more than the MC wants during an altercation or accident, etc. Maybe you can choose clothing that is outlandish or which may fail her in a pivotal moment. Shoop suggests you “make the clothes matter in a way that helps change your characters in unique and unforgettable ways.”

My MC will be somewhat hampered on this step. It’s not as if she can step into the nearest boutique and buy something new to impress a handsome warrior. But she can do something different to it: wear a particular flower, tucked into her hair. Keep trinkets attached at the belt which no one else has. What are they? Where did she get them? Why are they always with her? and so on.

3. A Good Night’s Rest – authors put their characters into particular settings to accomplish specific tasks in the story. These places can “confirm their personalities, or challenge them to evolve.” How and where will your characters find respite? Where s/he sleeps “will help to illustrate how s/he has been shaped, destroyed . . . or possibly reborn.” Does your character prefer to sleep in a sheltered place: room, home, lean-to? Or is s/he more comfortable out of doors, where s/he is possibly more free and in control of his/her own destiny? What if that place of respite takes on a dramatic change? How will s/he cope with the change? Is it for the better or worse?

My MC comes from a family of note within one part of their clan, but they are not wealthy. And they are on the move. They will help build the typical Celtic shelter, but it will be a “permanent” building (permanent enough that they are still finding evidences of these circular “huts” in the British Isles). She will be at home in the outdoors, waking or sleeping. But when she marries a man who will become a noted warrior and leader of his Tribe, how will she cotton to being indoors so often, adjust to spending more time indoors than out, maintaining the home and “servants,” constantly having to prepare for guests — welcome or un?

Shoop’s last word of advice: “Play with your manuscript Analyze how you are using [these] aspects of setting to challenge and change your characters. You will love the results as you watch your words come alive on the page, surprising you at every turn.”

Just the thoughts which have come into my head while writing this piece have warped away from some of the things I’ve thought before. Hope it opens your eyes as well, to wider horizons and ways to use these kinds of details to rope your reader into your story and make him/her want to stay!

“Loss”

I don’t really think my father ever understood me very well. He was an outdoorsy type, and a business man. He kept himself busy, in spare moments, making, designing, or inventing things. He invented what the family always called his “Gold Machine”. He took his schematic, with all its specifications, to a machinist shop in Hawaii, where we were living at the time, and asked them to manufacture the prototype, which they did. This was some time before I’d turned ten. For the rest of his life, he traveled ‑‑‑ for business ‑‑‑ all around the western states, and sometimes even farther. He would stop by a river and take a sand sample from the banks, have it assayed to determine possible gold content, etc. He never was able to get a patent, as the Patent Office claimed that every part of his machine was already covered, piece by piece, by other patents. Nothing “original” here (but nothing copied either), it’s just that he put all the parts together for a different purpose. It became his life‑long hobby.

He was my pal, my dad, my protector and the family jokester. He loved me. And I loved him back. But I don’t think he really “got” me.

Meanwhile, my mother liked fashion. Movies. Movie stars. She should have become a buyer for a store: she had impeccable taste in what would suit this woman or that and was never wrong to my recollection. Relatives in California kept credit cards active in Utah for stores like the old ZCMI, so that she could buy clothes for my three female cousins and have them sent to Berkeley. She loved musicals (on film, though occasionally managed to go to a live production with me or my younger brother).

When I was in grad school, in the theater department, and had already taught English, speech, drama and debate in high schools for several years, I got the lead at my college in a main stage production of “The Little Foxes.” (See the old Bette Davis movie if you’re curious.). Somehow, she managed to cajole my father into bringing her to Provo for my opening night of a two‑week run.

The only reason they could come that night was because, ill as she was, they were waiting for a “bed” to open up at the hospital, which it did the next day. She died in that hospital, at age 63, after five weeks of every system in her body trying to shut down.

I was divorced by then, from a 6‑year, uncomfortable marriage. No children. I finally remarried a couple of years later, the same year my brother got married for the first and only time. But I never got over the fact that my mother ‑‑‑ a woman meant to “mother” and nurture ‑‑‑ never got to see either of my children, nor any of my brother’s six, nor any of our combined 20‑something grandchildren, or of my four‑or‑so (or so‑far) great‑grands. What a loss for them. What a loss for all of us.

And now, this week, my husband of not‑quite‑four years and I have lost HIS lovely and loving mother in Alabama. That lovely 88‑year‑old “Honey,” nurturer, model, stalwart is gone from our lives. Which brought all the above to my mind again.

What has your MC lost? Parents? Siblings? Dear friends? An important job? A limb or two?

Which of his or her losses hurt the most? Hurt for the longest time? Have NEVER been overcome?

How can that part of that‑which‑is‑humanity be expressed in your book? As a memory? As an ache? As a gut‑wrenching loss which can never be fully overcome? As a block to his her progress? As the ONE hurdle he or she MUST overcome?

How can you show your reader the REAL character of your MC? What can take the reader’s breath away with it’s beauty, or simplicity, or pathos, or humanity?

Milestones or Stumbling Blocks?

I hit a wonderful Milestone a couple of weeks ago: it was time for my one‑year “annual” mammogram. Before that, I’d been having one every six months, and before that even a little more frequently, once I finished my life‑time’s second bout with doing radiation for cancer. How lucky was I? That was my second time going through cancer and radiation, as I’d had my first bout with it 27 or 28 years before.

There were a lot of Milestones along both the ways:

In the first instance:

My two children were still living at home. As a family we tried not to make a big deal out of it.

My husband was very supportive, taking me to appointments, talking me through all the steps.

Neighbors helped to carry the burden of caring, talking, making sure I was “OK”.

I loved my hospital’s radiologist, a young woman who has in the last throes of her internship, and graduated at the same time as I “graduated” from my radiation treatment.

Before, during and after discovering cancer, I frequently got called back in for “do‑overs” on my mammograms. Scary. But something that was handled quickly, easily, over and over.

In the second instance:

I had been single again for 14 years, and then my ex‑‑, with whom I was still good friends, died in the last of those 14 years.

At the end of those 14 years, I remarried and, again, had a VERY supportive husband, who sat in the waiting room on his birthday, and the date of our then six‑month marriage, while I had a biopsy. He did not “allow” me to go to appointments, testing, etc., by myself . . . and generally took me out to a favorite luncheon spot on the way home.

I told my husband I’d beaten it before, and I could do it again.

My children were in relationships and/or homes of their own, but were also supportive.

I went to a different hospital this time, but was DELIGHTED to find my now much “seasoned” radiologist would be the one I’d had the first time.

Now:

I finally had reached the step of waiting a WHOLE YEAR before getting another mammo.

Then they called me back in. Again.

I told my husband that I’d beaten it once, I’d beaten it twice. I was just going to have to do it all over again. Again.

A biopsy was scheduled for this week.

As we pulled into the garage, after the mammo, after our favorite luncheon spot, my phone rang. A dear friend was in tears. She’d just gotten called back in for a “do‑over” from HER mammo, knew I’d been through it before, and needed to talk. We talked for quite a while, and I told her if I could do it, SHE could do it!

She and her husband came to visit and I shared what I could of “HOW TO” get through this.

We discovered that she and I are BOTH set for biopsies this week, the same day, the same place. We’re all going to my/our favorite place for breakfast afterwards.

What does this do for you, my writer friends?

FEMALE: get your MAMMOGRAMS when you’re supposed to! No putting it off allowed ! ! !

MALE: take your WIFE/SIGNIFICANT OTHER and be there for her ! ! ! (It wouldn’t hurt to take her out for breakfast or lunch afterward either.)

WRITERS, ALL:

Make a list of the toughest things YOU’VE had to endure.

Make a list of strategies you tried to help you get to the “other side” of whatever was going on.

Put some of your TOUGHEST fights into one of your books. HELP your MC get through it. Or let him/her flounder trying. You want a happy ending? A realistic ending? A crowning‑glory ending? How realistic is THAT one?

Does your MC get to and surpass all her Milestones?

Does he sink or swim? Does he fail?

Why? or Why not? What can your MC do which would empower him/her AND your readers?

What’s with all the vitriol on the perceived “eve” of the national elections?

In December of 2012, I posted most of what lies below as a “Monday Moans” contribution to our writers’ group blog. Monday was a day for us to vent about all things writing. Or just plain “all things.” Everybody needs an occasional place to vent, I assume.

In this, I was consumed by the vitriol among voters, candidates, and various people in “authority,” following the national elections. The frightening part of this is that the vitriol has done nothing to calm; in fact, it’s worse now than in 2012. And we’re months and months away from the elections.

I wrote, “Still??? And ‘states’ want to secede? To what purpose? How would secessionists work that out, creating new government entities, etc.? And now we’re faced with the ‘Fiscal Cliff,’ [sound familiar?] and arguing about whether to ‘let’ the economy go off in the ditch? [Now, 2015, we have a Congress/Senate and more which think that’s the road to “getting” their way.]

It all brought to mind the Rodney King quote, which I repeated, about “‘Can’t we all just get along?’ [If you’ve forgotten who he was, look him up online.]

“The elections were over; the President was who he was [and still IS who he was]. “Ditto the Senators, Representatives, Mayors, School Board members, Dog Catchers, etc., both nationally and state‑by‑state. Can’t they just do their jobs?” [Now we have certain minor officials in some states going to jail over whether or not they should do what is required of their job.]

“If we could all extend common courtesy to our fellow beings, don’t you think we have sense enough to figure out a way to take care of our neighbors? Extend a helping hand within each of the cities in which we live? Think Big, by helping to solve problems which may affect our individual, but united, states? Let our leaders know what we need from them, what we want, and how we intend to help our nation climb out from under financial and social problems which plague us all?”

As writers and THINKERS, which we are, is there some way for us to contribute to calm, cohesiveness, camaraderie, civil argumentation and discourse? Can we include scenes of such behavior in our books, under the guide of kind, careful, thinking and moral characters who may encourage like thinking in our readers? Yes, even if they’re ONLY children?

“Let’s remember, this is the United States of America, and we’ve been that sovereign nation for more years than you, I or anyone else I know has lived on this earth, so can’t we all just . . . get along?”

For Cryin’ Out Loud!

Ever have one of those days when you find reasons to cry? All. Day. Long. I had one of those Saturday. At 4 a.m., I woke up thinking about being at the hospital the night my father died. My mother, who’d passed when I was only 27, died at the age of 63. A year‑plus later, my father remarried a woman who was the last of five sisters — the only one who’d never married. They had many happy years together, did quite a bit of traveling both with his work and after he’d retired. He’d always done a fair amount of physical work and was in good shape, but, eventually, the years caught up to him.

The family gathered at the hospital. His ragged breath betrayed his condition, every one sounding like his last. He was obviously stressed and pain‑ridden. One nephew sobbed the whole time — the rest of us only marginally better. My stepmother took it especially hard: now she was facing being “alone” again. She grasped his hands, calling out his name through her tears. I couldn’t stand the stress his mind and body were experiencing and finally took her shoulder and said, “You have to let him go. He’ll stay here as long as you need him, but it’s time. You have to let him go.” Heartbroken at my own words to her, words to my father, she finally let go, we all finally let go. Within a shuddering breath or two, he was gone.

That was years and years ago. I was not dreaming. But I lived that heart‑wrenching night again Saturday morning. I woke my husband.

“What? What’s wrong?” and I told him about my father’s last night, which I’d never before done.

That afternoon, we joined neighbors in our 50’s‑plus neighborhood to watch a musical: the old “King and I” with Yul Brynner. Herb and I had just seen a live performance of the show at the Legacy Theater in Centerville at the end of June. And I’ve never been able to get through any performance of that show without boo‑hooing all the way through about the “two young lovers,” the King, dying at the end; his too‑young son, perhaps not ready to pick up the burden and become king, so I was ready to do some more sobbing, thinking MAYBE I’d make it through this time without . . .

Then, as the group of us sat ready to begin the film, we heard about one of our neighbors: she’d just been awakened from a late nap by a neighbor, his wife . . . and the police. You may have seen the news: a 41‑year‑old man, walking his dog a couple of blocks from our West Valley complex was hit by a speeding driver — both man and dog killed instantly. This was our neighbor’s son, who lived with and cared for his ailing mother. Moreover, years ago, she’d endured losing her husband, a policeman, at the hands of a criminal.

More crying ensued. And more, again, during and after the film.

How much can one person endure? How does your main character recuperate from the blows dealt by life? What makes him or her cry? What makes him/her angry? Give up? Persist anyway? What does the stress do to your MC? What mistakes does s/he make under stress? What decisions must be made? What if some of them are the wrong decision?

We all live with stress. How do your characters react? How do they overcome? Or live with the consequences?

When Books (or Characters) Don’t Listen to You as the Writer

The first time I had a book character disobey me, I was in complete shock. I’d heard about it from other writers, but hadn’t experienced it myself. When I told one of my non-writing friends that it had happened, she was pretty sure I was crazy.

Whether you outline or discovery write, you know that sometimes your story will spin in a different direction than what you’d planned. Outliners will then have to redo their outline to fit it in, and discovery writers? They just go along for the ride.

Back to my first experience. My main character’s brother, Adam, was supposed to be a minor character. Someone who was only mentioned in passing.

And then he laughed at me. “No, sorry. I have to do this. For my sister.”

I stared in shock at the words in front of me as I saw him dart out of the room and try to save the day. I watched him get taken and move the story forward in a way that my main character couldn’t have. The story was so much stronger because of it. Then together, they were able to save the day, and the story wrapped up perfectly. Well, maybe not perfectly because another two books came after that.

There are times when you can reign in your story and tell them to behave, but before you do, weigh the consequences. Will the story suffer if you go a new direction? Will it be stronger? What are you going to have to change after this? Is it worth it?

One great indicator is how the story reacts. If you’re suddenly at a standstill and you can’t go any further, chances are you need to go back and fix a spot. Maybe that sudden inspiration wasn’t what the story needed. And sometimes the different direction is exactly what the plot needed to drive it forward.

I was done with a series last year. My character had saved the day and everything was exactly how I wanted it. Except … my story had other ideas. One day in the middle of church, a whole new plot came to mind and screamed at me to write it.

So I did. Except that I got to the ending and sat there staring at it. Nothing worked. The ending I had planned out didn’t solve anything, and in fact, made it too similar to the ending of the third book. I took a step back and talked to a few friends before suddenly realizing that this wasn’t the end. It had to go a different direction or I would have broken promises I made in the book. After I made that decision, the story flowed perfectly, and I was able to finish it later that day.

And now I have another book to write. But you know what? That’s okay, because I know that going off the beaten path will make this story stronger.

So what’s the craziest thing your characters ever made you write?

Wait! That’s not their name!

My wife is an avid reader. When I say avid, I mean that this woman goes through at least 3-4 books a week. She reads pretty much any genre out there as long as it’s fairly clean. The one thing that I like being married to an avid reader is hearing her many pet peeves about authors. Why? Because hearing those pet peeves, helps me avoid them. I am going to touch on the one pet peeve that was driving my wife nuts a few weeks ago. It came to the surface because it wasn’t just one author that was having these issues. It was about 4! Her pet peeve: messy character naming.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I am just going to come out and say that I too have had a problem with this before. Luckily for me, it was caught by both my wife and editor before I sent the book to anyone else. I had named one of my side characters Greg in previous chapters and then named him Henry in another. In my case, I actually wrote a whole scene in the wrong name and then jumped back to the original name I had before. Crazy messy, I know. It’s not that I set out on trying to confuse my readers I just got mixed up. It happens to the best of us. But what can we do to avoid messy character naming?

One thing that I do now is create a character list of all the characters I have in a book. When you get into a series, that list can get HUGE. That is why it is so-o-o important to keep track of these things in the beginning. I think it is important to list not only their FULL names (you never know if it will come up—I also include nicknames) but also their appearance and traits. This is what my character lists generally look like:

Main Characters:

  • Parker Ryan Bennett: Age 14. Brown hair. Chocolate brown eyes. Gamer. Afraid of being tagged a loser at school. Has a hard time standing up for what he believes in because he’s concerned by the thoughts of others. Lives with his single mom: Elizabeth Bennett.
  • Kaelyn (Kae) Marie Clarke: Age 14. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Dreamer. She’s been tagged a loser at school. She is into art. She knows who she is and isn’t afraid of being herself. She is an orphan living with her Aunt Zelda.
  • Gladamyr: Age unknown. A dreamling: more specifically a reformed nightmare. He is a dream keeper. He is haunted by his past crimes against children and longs to be human.

Side Characters:

  • Dr. Gregory (Greg, Doc) Gates: Age 39. Brown hair. Green eyes. Child Psychologist. He is a down to earth guy who likes to have fun and play games. He is Parker’s father like figure.
  • Zelda (Zelly) Creighton: Age 35. Red curly hair. Blue eyes. Self-Proclaimed Psychic. She is very eccentric and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-girl. She is Kaelyn’s aunt and guardian.

As your story grows, so will your list. Just remember to update it. I not only have a list for main characters and side characters but those that crop up here and there. I have a list of names the kids use while they are in school. I do this so when I need to name the kid that Jane thinks is cute in chapter two, I use the same name later on. As my wife would say, “it’s frustrating and confusing if you don’t get it right.”

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Another tip: double check! As you go through your own personal edits make sure the names are correct. Compare it to your list and see if they match. If they don’t, fix them. Then make sure your beta readers or proof readers are double checking for you too. Because I know this has happened to me before, you bet my wife looks for it. In fact I did a messy character naming in my recent book and named a side character another name. Lucky for me, my wife grabbed it. I don’t know where that name even came from (it wasn’t on my list) but I made the mistake. I had named Rachel, Nichole. I not only named her Nichole but I spelled it two different ways: Nicole, and Nichole. So double check your spellings too.  It’s always good for others to catch your mistakes before many people do.

If you decide that you want to do a name change mid-writing, make sure you change the name in ALL your documents. If you name your main character Ronald and want to switch it to Neville, make sure you do a name search in your document as well as your character sheet. Also search for any nicknames associated with that character’s name. We don’t want Neville’s friends calling him Ron.

I hope this pet peeve have given you a lot to think about. Happy Writing!

Mikey Brooks

About Mikey Brooks

Mikey Brooks is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is an award-winning author of the middle-grade fantasy adventure series The Dream Keeper Chronicles. His other middle-grade books include: The Gates of Atlantis: Battle for Acropolis and The Stone of Valhalla. His picture books include the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures, Trouble with Bernie, and Bean’s Dragons. Mikey has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works fulltime as a freelance illustrator, cover designer, and author. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his three daughters and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. As a member of the Emblazoners, he is one of many authors devoted to ‘writing stories on the hearts of children’ (emblazoners.com). You can find more about him and his books at: www.insidemikeysworld.com.

Chastise and Challenge Your Characters

I just finished a book that drove me BONKERS!! Here’s the premise: a character decides to go on a The Hobbit-like adventure and joins a party to do so.  Despite his complete inexperience with treasure-hunting and monster killing, he is instantly loved by everybody he is traveling with. When trouble would raise its ugly little head, our hero would either accidentally solve the problem, or fall into a trance where something (not fully explained) would fix it for him.

book-textbookThe guy never really had a desire for anything, so he just kind of floated around like a leaf in the wind as nothing but good fortune came his direction. He didn’t complain often, but when he did it usually involved him getting so much treasure he didn’t know what to do with it all.

Boring.

I’m not going to name the book or the author, but I won’t be picking up another one of this author’s books. In fact, in the end, I was upset because I had actually spent good money on this book!

Let’s talk about another author: Michaelbrent Collings. Now, this guy michaelbrentknows how to torture his characters! In The Colony, his zombie apocalypse series, the main character can tell on page one that something in the world is wrong. Very wrong. I think by page three he was already running for his life. I’m about to start the third book in the series, and it would be very difficult for me to come up with ways Michaelbrent has NOT terrorized his main character, or any character in the book, yet.

I also just finished another of his books, The Loon, which starts off with some guy living the perfect life. By the end of the first chapter, his life is far, far, FAR from perfect. Things got bad, and with every turning page it only got worse. One scene literally made me CRINGE in fear.

I get it, being mean to your characters is hard. It makes me feel like a sadistic jerk. The irony is that writers are the most compassionate people on earth. Nobody likes taking somebody they love and making them go through the ringer.

Regardless, you’ve got to torture your characters and give them seemingly insurmountable problems anyway. When it comes to writing, this is a literal case where nice guys finish last (in book sales).

If Frodo was asked to destroy the One Ring, and all he had to do was hop on the back of an eagle and drop it in a volcano, would anybody read it? Heck no! Well, Tolkein’s Mom might have… out of obligation.

What if Harry Potter was raised by a loving and supportive aunt (or better yet, his own parents) only to trot off to Hogwarts where he was admired by all and a few magic words would finish off Voldemort forever. Would you have read that book?

rudyAnd let me bring up one of my favorite movies, based on a true story: Rudy. Rudy Ruettiger had one goal, to play college football for Notre Dame. He had to overcome obstacle after obstacle to achieve his goal, from getting into the right college in the first place, affording it, making grades, touching the field, dealing with negative influences from his own family, being taken seriously by his teammates, and even being allowed to even dress for one game. Not shown in the movie is the fact that he did all this with dyslexia. SPOILER ALERT!! He played college football for two plays. On defense. He didn’t even end up touching the ball, but he was heralded a hero and he has inspired countless others to reach for their dreams. Decades later, Rudy is still a wonderful story, but if he had the physic to play in the first place and waltzed onto the field with a  full scholarship, nobody would remember him now.

So, challenge your characters. Torture them if you (can) have to. Why?

Make us care about and relate to your characters.

We all have problems, some greater than others. Reading is often a nice escape from our own problems to experience other people’s pains. In a way, it reminds us that ours might not be as bad as it could be. I’ve always said that if everybody threw their problems in a pile to be distributed, you’d probably look at the choices and want your problems back. So when your characters suffers, we understand. It makes them more alive. It makes them more likable. It makes us care about them. When they are in pain, the readers are in pain. When they achieve a success, the readers share in the enjoyment. As readers, when a character we care about succeeds in overcoming amazing challenges, we literally feel the triumph alongside them.

Regarding the book I mentioned at the start of this article, if the main character had died halfway through the book, I probably would howled in laughter! Unfortunately, the twerp lived, and I think a sequel is in the works.

But with Frodo and Sam, did we not all hang on the edge of our seats as they “simply” walked into Mordor? With Harry Potter, did we not relate to him being bullied at school, struggle with certain teachers, fight to make and keep friends, and make tough decisions when deciding between right and wrong? And he did this while forming an army and taking down the bad guy (oh, spoiler alert there too, sorry).

And Rudy? I’ll admit, I can’t make it through that movie without cryingtearing up. I feel completely emotionally invested into that story, and Rudy is the one doing all the hard work. If you haven’t seen it, go pick up a copy and thank me later.

Create a character arc

Like I said earlier, the “hero” of that book didn’t change. The protagonist was the same guy on page one that he was on the last page, except he had picked up a few facts about his genealogical lineage. True character stories have characters who change from the beginning to the end.

Frodo changed so much that he no longer felt like he belonged in his beloved Shire he worked so hard to save. Harry Potter went from a pitiful, unloved orphan boy with no prospects to becoming a powerful auror with a loving family of his own. Rudy achieved his dream and is now a public speaker, helping others achieve theirs.

Make the book more interesting

Characters make great books, but so do great plots. By raising the stakes, it not only helps your characters grow, but it helps move the story. I didn’t mind the protagonist from the unnamed book above being a leaf in the wind, being pushed around by circumstance, but what would have really made the story great was if he stopped being the leaf…and became the wind. If he actually did things to make a difference.

Frodo was supposed to take the ring to Rivendell, and spent the first hobbits-hiding-from-nazgulhalf of Fellowship doing nothing but running for his life. Heck, he had to be carried into Rivendell. However, in Rivendell, he stepped forward to be the one to take the ring to Mount Doom. While the first few books of Harry Potter were fun, the plot really picked up for me in the fourth and fifth books when Harry decided to start taking his magical studies more seriously in The Goblet of Fire and when he formed Dumbledore’s Army in Order of the Phoenix. As Harry got more on the offensive, I got more engrossed and intrigued by the series.

Tip on how to do it: Try/Fail Cycle

When writing, make sure it takes a few tries to solve a problem. Three is the preferred number of tries… any less, and the problem doesn’t seem difficult. You can have more, but it might make the story drag on a bit. It’s best to have them solve the problem in three tries and then move on to another problem.

Oh, and each time, make the problem worse! Keep amping it up!

Frodo thought he was bringing the ring to Rivendell. Oops, now he’s frodosamgollum3taking it to Mount Doom, and he gets a fellowship to take him there. Oops again, somebody on the team turns on him and he decides to do it alone. Ah, easy sailing now, especially since he has a helper and finds a guide to take him there. No, no, no… not quite. The guide tries to turn him into spider-food, and his helper seems a little too eager, to the point that Frodo thinks he is just trying to get the ring all to himself. He finally reaches his destination, only to be overcome by the power of the ring and abandoning his quest. Can it get worse? Oh yes, the guide is back and ready to do anything to claim the ring for himself.

Next time you watch a show or a movie, or read a book, look for this. You’ll notice that they often run into problems and it takes at least three times to get it right, and after each failed attempt, new information is learned, e.g., oh, there’s a large three-headed dog guarding the entryway to a certain character’s goal, and the stakes get raised, e.g., the professor our character is trying to outmaneuver seems to have a head start.

Now, go ahead and sit down with your book, and if your character isn’t suffering, take away their true love, throw them into the pit of despair, and suck their entire life away with a water-powered machine. You’re characters—and your readers—will thank you later.

Sidenote: The obstacle mentioned in the previous paragraph MIGHT have already been used.

Princess Bride 5

About James Duckett

James is a geeky, nerdy dude. He writes, sometimes. He blogs, sometimes. He's helpful to people, sometimes. He doesn't like to repeat himself, sometimes. He's funny... looking... always.

His hopes and aspirations of the future is to one day find a way that people will pay him while he sleeps. It is his dream job.