I have always been a planner. And I’m not usually over the top–although I can be–but some amount of planning goes into every one of my stories. It’s usually just a rudimentary outline (see 7-point story structure) and a rough idea of setting, conflict, and characters. Most of the time, that’s enough to keep me on track.
However, as I’ve been diving into Book 2 of my series with ACHILLEA, I’m trying to crack down on a lot of what I know my weaknesses are. Chronology and seasons, how much time does my book actually cover, little hints and breadcrumbs, military details, where I put Rauden’s scars, etc. As my books have evolved, I’ve added a lot of minor characters and I have apparently drifted slightly from where my main characters were. For example, I looked back over my notes on Lyda, Sielle, and Naniha, a group of three friends and Achillea’s first recruits. In my mind now, they’re older than I originally intended. Fun thought experiment, I asked my friends at the Dead Pete Society how old they thought my characters were, and I got a range of reactions:
Kathi said 17-20. Jori said 16-18. Frankie said 20-26. I had them written down as 18-22, and in my mind, they’d become somewhere between 20-24.
Then I asked who they thought was oldest, and who was youngest.
Kathi and Jori agreed Naniha was the oldest, Lyda the youngest. Frankie thought Naniha was the youngest, and Lyda the oldest. Originally, Lyda was the youngest, but now my brain thinks she is the oldest. I find it interesting…Kathi and Jori have a closer handle on where I originally placed my characters, but Frankie seems to share my now-brain.
I clearly had some work to do.
I have character sheets for all of my characters in Scrivener, but as each of my books has its own file, this became a bit of a pain. And yeah, I know I can export/import from one book to another, but even that became a pain as I added and subtracted characters because I had to make sure it was consistent across all of my books.
And since I plan to take the series into at least seven books with a set of spin-offs, I knew I had to be more organized this time. You can’t just race off into the sunset and chase a series without being completely, one hundred percent in control of your setting and your characters. If people fall in love with my series as I hope they will, they’re going to catch on. I need to know this world and these people better than anyone.
So I made another book. A physical one. I have a weakness for office supplies, and that most certainly includes blank journals and notebooks. So I repurposed a journal that my friend got me for Christmas into a character reference. Every character gets a page, even if I only put them in the book to kill them off later. If I need to, I’ll start another journal, but so far this one has everyone in it with about half the pages to spare.
I gave each character the following details:
- Name, with pronunciation and applicable nicknames
- Age at the founding of Vaethrre (my city), including birthday (because I might need that) based on what I think their astrological symbol is. (Okay, look…I don’t REALLY ascribe to this belief…but there are people who read this that might). For example, Lyda sounds like a Virgo, so I put her birthday in that range. This will help me keep their ages straight as the books progress, provided I can keep my damned timeline straight (this is the challenge).
- The top of each page has their D&D alignment (Lyda is Lawful Good), their Meyers-Briggs personality type indicator (Lyda is an INFP), and who I think would be a good actor/actress for them (right now Lyda is marked as Natalie Dormer…her inability to properly smile because she always smirks is a shoe in, and Natalie looks badass with short hair)
- Physical appearance, especially important if someone changes theirs later (like Heike does, or when Lyda gets new tattoos).
- Personality; this is their concrete personality, what is less likely to change. PTSD or character shifts are added in later to the Notes section. Sielle hates apologies and refuses to apologize herself. This won’t change. But her extreme bitterness to the point of potential self-destruction is an added change and will go into the Notes section. That’s something that may eventually be undone. I haven’t decided that yet. For her to suddenly appreciate apologies would be out-of-character, however.
- Family connections
- Motivations; What are they trying to achieve? Everyone is motivated by something, even if their ultimate goal is just to be left alone.
- Conflicts; what adverse forces are working against the character? Lyda takes issue with cruelty, and she steps in when she believes those around her are acting unfair or vindictive.
- Love interest(s), including whether or not they have an ‘aya’, the equivalent of a True Love in my stories (in ACHILLEA, ‘true love’ is a very real thing. Kind of.).
- Their opinion of the Warden (more or less ‘God’), if they have one.
- Secrets; Lyda is a very private person and she keeps a lot of her own desires to herself.
- Fears; Myen is afraid of heights and horses
- Dislikes; Heike hates cheese
- Likes; Kirae has a fondness for conversation and company
- Weaponry; Heike has 54 different bladed weapons. At some point, I intend to list them all, but I don’t want to accidentally end up with 58 in case anyone is counting.
- Notes; I left a big blank space here for most of the characters depending on how long I intend to keep them around. Myen and Heike get several pages each, but cameo characters like Carme (who works at the hospital) only get a page.
Then I put a Table of Contents at the front, and voila! I’m good to go! Now I can use this handy dandy notebook for all of my books. And hopefully, I’ll never get lost again!
S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print) and short fantasy A SHINY FOR TRICK (forever free for your entertainment!).
Check out the #WriteTip category for more writing advice and tools from Frankie and Sam!
This is a rehashing of a question I answered on my Wiselike FAQ. I was asked how I come up with the names of my characters, and I think it’s an important question. After all, you want your story to be memorable, and you want the name of your character to carry with it all of the personality of the person to which it is attached.
I’ve always loved naming characters. And while I’d love to tell you that it’s as simple as finding sounds that you like (sometimes it is), the subject is a lot more complicated than it seems at first blush.
Firstly, there are a few things to consider. Most importantly, the work you need the name FOR. So for example, if you’re writing a story set in Victorian England, you’re going to need proper English names, such as William and Elizabeth.
(I write Fantasy most of the time, so all I need to do is pick a name I like.)
Onto the nitty gritty!
- Does your story have different cultures?
A good thing to remember! Different cultures might have different nomenclature styling. To use the Victorian England example above, consider what would happen if you dropped a person from another culture into that story. Perhaps a Spaniard? A Spaniard is unlikely to have the same kind of name.
The same thing goes if you’re writing a fantasy but your characters are from different parts of the map.
If you’re going to set rules to how you name a character, make sure you follow your own rules. Gaelic names often have a “Y” that sounds like an “I” such as in the name Eowyn (AY-oh-win). Don’t pronounce them differently out of the same culture by changing the rules for no reason, like pronouncing this one AY-oh-wine.
- Associations with Sound
When I’m making up a name, I like the sounds to create an association with the character. I might choose a name with softer syllables if the character I’m naming is proper and feminine. I might choose one that sounds a bit more harsh if I’m selecting a warrior name. Like in my book Achillea, we have Myen (MEE-ehn) and Heike (HI-keh). Myen is a softer word to say. It’s no coincidence; she’s a silk-wearing lady who doesn’t get her hands dirty. Heike, on the other hand, is stabby-stabby and abrasive.
Maybe the contrast might actually suit your needs, though. For example, if your character is like my Heike (that is to say, volatile, violent, and with a penchant for snark), it might be amusing to give her a girly name. I don’t recommend it, though. She’s scary when she’s angry.
- Name Generators
There are a lot of good name generators out there. I prefer Behind the Name . It allows you to select different dialects to pull names FROM, which is useful if you’re copying a pattern (maybe one of your cultures reminds you of ze Germans). But if you select these boxes and click ‘Generate!’ it randomly pops out a name.
I typically don’t outright COPY a name. Usually I find one that sounds similar to how I wanted the name to sound in the first place, and then tweak it however it strikes me at the time.
I used the name generator for Heike, actually. Heike is of German/Dutch origin and is the feminine form of Henry, or something like that.
- Underusing a Letter
This is going to sound silly, but I often start with a letter that I don’t feel like has gotten enough attention. “I want this one to start with an ‘N’,” for example. And then I play with syllables from there.
- Don’t piss off your readers
MOST readers dislike names that are hard to pronounce. It is also worth mentioning that at least some of your readers are going to mispronounce the name you intended. Maybe people call Heike “Haykee” or “Hake” or “Hike.” I can’t control this. So the harder you make your name, the more you’re going to experience that. Don’t be offended–or add a glossary (though a lot of people won’t read that, either).
Side note: I love glossaries. It’s important to me to experience a tale the way an author intended, right down to how the character’s name is supposed to sound.
- Don’t make it too hard on yourself.
As the writer, you’re going to have to type out the name you choose more times than you’ll want to count. If you make a character’s name 25 characters long, you’re going to hate your character before too long.
- Say them out loud.
Sometimes a name looks better on paper than it sounds leaving your lips. I’ve run into this a few times. I love saying Heike and Lyda and Myen. I don’t love saying Eadric. In fact, I stopped liking saying Eadric so much that I gave him a nickname: Eddy. And he, consequently, hates his nickname and will tell you so, as a reflection of me thinking it’s a cheesy nickname as well. But it’s much easier for me to refer to him affectionately as Eddy even if his formal name is Eadric.
NOTE: It’s also REALLY funny to write interactions where his name becomes a topic of conversation. Heike loves to piss him off, and that’s always amusing.
Since we’re on that topic, consider using a nickname.
DON’T overuse nicknames. Nicknames are special things, so not EVERYONE is going to have a nickname. It should be noted, however, that some rare characters prefer to give everyone a nickname against his or her will. See above: Eddy.
Nicknames are usually shortened versions of the original name, however, that’s not always the case. Maggie is often a nickname for Margaret, for example. My characters sometimes have WTF nicknames. Tahrindale becomes Torin, for example.
The end goal of writing a book is that you hope it becomes a bestseller. The most important piece of the puzzle is being memorable. When I choose a name, I’m trying to brand myself. I think to myself that someday everyone is going to be talking about this. When you hear this name, I want you to ONLY think of the character that I created, and NO ONE ELSE.-
Most everyone knows Sherlock, Katniss, Black Widow, Matilda, and Don Juan are. Do you know exactly who I am talking about when I say “Sarah”? Nope. You want to be famous. You need to be the one that sticks out.
If you’re like me at all you have 500+ Facebook friends, many of which are from other countries. What are their names? Also look at LAST names. There aren’t rules to naming a character (unless they’re self-imposed). Then, follow the other 10 things above that I listed until you butcher it into something you can use.
Characters I’ve named and where their names came from:
- Heike: German diminutive feminine version of Henry
- Myen: Completely made it up.
- Bergeron (Berge): The last name of a person who played Knighthood on FB
- Zanje: A butchered form of Sanja, another person who played Knighthood.
- Dashe: A butchered form of the character his personality was based upon
- Wex: A character based on my roommate, who works as a courier at our job. The vehicles are fueled with “Wex” cards from Enterprise.
- Ashes: A dig at my husband who is currently upset at a coworker for having won a rare drop on World of Warcraft that he doesn’t yet own called Ashes of Alar.
I think that mostly covers it. The Tl;dr version of this is that I play around with the letters, the sounds, and the syllables until I find one that I think fits the character in need of a name.
S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS.