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Building Your Character — Literally!

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.

Pretty sure.

Maybe.

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?

36 thoughts on “Building Your Character — Literally!

    • I’m glad you find it fascinating! I’m never quite sure if people will find me quite as interesting as I find myself. ;-D

      I don’t know where I found that book. I’m sure it was recommended to me forever ago. I can’t remember NOT having it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wonderful post, Becky. I love the time you take to build your characters. And I’m interested in that naming resource book. I like it when names “fit” the characters in a subtle way. For one thing, I think it helps the reader remember them. Not that the names actually describe the character but point that way–like a wealthy society woman having a name like Margaret Butterfield-White.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Funny you should say that, Connie. In FICTION CAN BE MURDER, one of the ladies in Charlee’s critique group is Cordelia Hollister-Fiske. She writes the filthiest erotica imaginable, but she wears pearls and keeps her pinky up when drinking tea!

      Liked by 5 people

  2. What they’re good/bad at. I like that. Good thing to consider related to your characters. I’m going to add that question to things I should consider. Thanks, Becky.

    Liked by 5 people

    • That’s a new one I added just recently, Grace. I figured if I knew what they were good at I could use that to add a skillset to the investigation (or crime), and what they were bad at would come in handy for twists, black moments, and cliffhangers.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. There’s a book? I had no idea! I used to watch early morning news in the background while I wrote. The weather person was named Tracy Sinclair. When writing my first book, I was stuck for a name of a character. I looked up and there was Tracy. Voila! my character was named Tracy. Later, I looked up as I was stewing on a last name for my sidekick. There was Tracy. Voila! His last name is Sinclair. When I’m stuck for a name, I sometimes troll through my ancestry.com family tree. Half my family is Irish. The other half, hillbilly. Great names.

    Liked by 4 people

    • There’s a book for EVERYTHING, Keenan! And names everywhere just for the grabbing. I can’t imagine writing with the TV on. I need it quiet, not even any music. Of course, I do like to hear Nala snoring in the other room …

      Liked by 5 people

  4. Neat post!
    Also consider the age of your character. In the U.S., you can check the Social Security database by putting in “top baby names 1920” or whatever, and it takes you to: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/names1920s.html . So of COURSE you can name your 20-year-old character Mildred if you want to, but be prepared to have a good story behind that!
    Then there’s the “Baby Name Voyager” http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager#prefix=&sw=both&exact=false
    where you can put in any first name and see how its usage has risen & fallen over the years. When I’m editing historical fiction, I always check to see whether the names fit the era.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Good idea! In the back of the book there’s that section “Top Ten US Names by Year” that goes from 1880-2003, but the census records would have all kinds of ethnic names. I don’t think I’ve ever used one of the “popular” names from the book because they’re not very interesting. (Sorry to all my kids and anyone else on the lists!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Obituaries are good in that respect, too. They can give you a multi-generational time capsule of names in our country. Like: the deceased is Dorothy, her parents were Elmer and Pearl, her kids are Linda and Steve; grandkids are Heather, Jordan and Megan, and grandkids are Zane, Maddyson, Brayden and Kadence. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • I would think Becky is pretty common, but I only heard of one in elementary school (my friend’s cousin), and didn’t meet one until high school. It does make me laugh to think about all those Grandma Brittneys and Grandpa Jaxsons coming up soon.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post, Becky! Love your character mottos, and I like “Pops — hope the name sticks! I usually figure out character names up front, but in my current WIP I was still calling the victim DG (Dead Guy) half-way through. Like Marla said, search-and-replace is my friend. 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

    • That’s how my outline is when I’m trying to plot it out but I don’t know who anyone is yet. But then I move on to the synopsis with real names and I don’t take the time to go back to the outline and change them. If I ever have to go back and look something up in the original outline, I get so confused and give myself a dope-slap. And then I do it again in the next book. Sigh.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for sharing your creating process, Becky! When stuck on naming a character, I search for baby names online but I love your book resource since it appears much more comprehensive… another book I need to add to my shelves 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Great post, Becky! I usually name characters pretty early, but sometimes change them because I realize that I’ve accidentally alliterated. (I’ll have five character names that start with “M,” for example.)

    The most hilarious name change was in Protocol when I used find and replace (not very well) to change Don to Dan. Unfortunately, I then had a manuscript filled with “dan’t” and “Ding Dangs.” LOL!

    Liked by 5 people

    • That’s hilarious! My fave find-and-replace fiasco was when I was changing the name of one of the conference rooms in FOUL PLAY ON WORDS from “Cascade” to “Multnomah” and someone’s hair multnomahed down her back.

      I forgot to mention that I also keep a page with two columns from A-Z, where I write all the names I’ve chosen. Again, I learned this the hard way!

      Liked by 4 people

  8. Great post, Becky! Love your specific choices. I want that naming book! I go online for mine, especially the Cajun names. And I keep an alphabet on my notes doc so I can cross off first letters when I use them. That way I don’t end up with nine characters whose first names begin with the letter “C.” It’s also why one of my characters is named Xander. (X marks the unused letter of the alphabet!)

    Liked by 5 people

  9. I’ve also been a big fan of making characters’ names fit their personalities. But I also have a terrible habit of using names of people I know—which means I have to be careful to go back and change them! One of my favorite characters in my Ladies Smythe & Westin series is named Mary Lee Messenger—my mom’s college roomie. (She’d be 100 this year.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve never used a name of someone I know, but I use their photos all the time. The one time I did use a placeholder name it was my Aunt Lu because that’s also who I was envisioning. I always meant to change it, but she stayed. And in my Mystery Writer’s series, Charlee’s upstairs neighbors (and Peter O’Drool’s owners) are very thinly disguised people I know, and of course I sent them a copy of the book, which was fun!

      Liked by 1 person

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