I’m working on a new series proposal and I thought you might be interested in how I populate this world.
First, I think of all the regular characters who will live and breathe there, noting everything I know about them on their character sheet: age, marital status, kids, where they live, how they dress, how they speak, their personal motto, what they’re good/bad at … whatever jumps into my head.
Then I imagine what they look like and go on the hunt for a photo, almost always using a celebrity or person I know. In this series I have Sigourney Weaver, a young Meg Ryan, Dom Delouise, Frida Kahlo, some writer pals of mine, an artist I know, JK Simmons, and Helena Bonham Carter’s hair.
When interviewers ask me that standard question of who would I want to be in the movie version of my book, I always laugh because it’s already cast!
It’s a lot of fun to fill out my character sheets. Like the ultimate Barbie Extravaganza. They do and say and wear exactly what I tell them, just like when I played Barbies.
One of the character’s mottos is, “Speak loudly and carry a soft stick.” He’s a cop.
Another is, “What’s one more gonna hurt?” This from a man who has fostered and adopted so many kids he’s lost count.
And my sleuth? “Let’s just try.”
“Helena Bonham Carter” believes, “I’m not upset about my divorce. I’m upset that I’m not a widow.” Think that might get her in some trouble?
Then I spend some time on a juicy secret for each of them because everyone has secrets, large and small. The fun thing about these secrets is they may come out or they may not. But if they do, you can be darn sure it’ll be at the worst possible time.
The last thing I do are the names. I pull out my file of obituary listings and my big “Character Naming Sourcebook.”
The Sourcebook is an index to a ton of ethnic names, along with what some of them mean. Like, I could have a character who is wise or wealthy or pure and the book will give me a list of all the names with those meanings. It may never be apparent to the reader, but if it is, then we have an inside joke.
I remember when the Harry Potter books came out and people found out so many of the names had Latin roots that literally defined those characters. If you knew Latin, you had the inside scoop.
My obituary file is absolutely indispensible to me. The Sunday paper publishes the most. There’s a list at the beginning with just the names, which I clip after reading the display articles. I love reading the stories of these lives, which, of course, is another great way to find characters. Some are absolutely marvelous and it’s a shame their obit will be the only story written about them. These lists include many fabulous names. I mix and match first and last names and can always find a memorable one that speaks to the character but isn’t outlandish. Sometimes I’ll start with a perfect name and draw a character around that, but that’s pretty rare for me.
Choosing names is the most time consuming part for me because I try to make them match the traits I’ve just laid out for them, which, of course, never happens in the real world. When my kids were born, I had no idea who they might turn out to be. We had hopes, of course, but if everyone did that, every kid in America would be called Healthy, Wealthy, or Wise. But when I come at it from the other direction, I can give my readers a hint and/or reminder of who these characters are.
I have an older Vietnamese man, for instance. I gave him a traditional Vietnamese surname, but I toyed with the idea of giving him an über-patriotic first name, because he loves America so much. But I decided against calling him “Abraham Lincoln Pham” or “Benjamin Franklin Nguyen” because I think it would confuse readers when people called him Abe or Ben. Different in a movie, of course, but on the page it could be kinda confusing. So, because he’s adopted all those kids, he’s just going to be “Pops,” I think.
Names can change, but that’s hard for me. I’ve used placeholder names for characters in the past, but they become so real to me that it’s virtually impossible for me to think of them as anyone else. Because of this I’ve learned that even minor characters need some thought put into their names before I can ever write a word.
So that’s a little snapshot of my process of building character. They say adversity or playing sports or surviving middle school builds character, but writers know how it’s really done.
Do you like it or is it annoying when authors make the name match the character traits? Like “Stretch” for a tall guy. Do you even realize you’re being manipulated that way? Which are the great character names, people you can’t imagine being named anything else? Writers, how do you come up with your character names?