What’s In A Name? Characters in Fiction

Welcome to Part 4 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Writers on Writing: What’s in a Name? Characters in fiction were S.K. Dunstall as moderator, Mandy Hager, Mimi Mondal, and Zaza Koshkadze.

When I read the panel description, I knew I had to watch.

Charles Dickens was a master at choosing precisely the right names for his characters. Just hearing the sounds makes them come to life: Samuel Pickwick, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and more! Like Victorian England, speculative fiction seems to be a mecca for interesting characters doing strange and wonderful things. But do the people in our stories measure up to the Victorians’ most fascinating characters? From choosing names to sketching patterns of behavior, quirks, and a host of other personality traits, what does it take to create a well-rounded character in today’s genre literature? Are names and naming conventions as important as they once were?

The Importance Of Names

Names have meanings — intentionally or not. The culture (or lack of culture) that they derive from, the length, the consonant to vowel ratio, the often gendered endings, all of these things add nuance and depth to a name, before you even hit behindthename.com to get the etymological meanings intrinsic in the words.

While not all writers bake meaning into the names of their characters, they’re often selected to convey an aspect of the character’s personality. Plus, for those writers who do want to convey meaning, there are a multitude of ways to imbue their characters.

For some writers, the name inspires the whole story, while other writers struggle until publication time to find the right name for the character. And, of course, other writers who pick a name from their heads and move on. There is no right way to write.

Things To Consider When Selecting A Name

Do your research, there are a lot of things that go into a name, that may not be readily apparent when lost to the mists of time or across a cultural divide. These are things to consider both about the character you’re naming and the name you are considering using.

  • Culture of origin
  • Social class associated with its use (in whichever time period)
  • Character’s age (Doris, Karen, Melissa, Arya all suggest a particular generation in the United States)
  • Part of the country (if in the real world)
  • The meaning of the name
  • The rhythm and mouth-feel of the name, the full name, and any nicknames
  • How similar or dissimilar in spelling the characters in your story are
    • If you have to start with the same sound/letters, try to have drastically different lengths

NOTE: Baby Name sites are often inaccurate with their definitions, but once it’s on the internet, it gets requoted without sources

Creating Names

Things to be wary of when creating names that don’t already exist:

  1. Google them, make sure they aren’t a word in another language
  2. If you’re going for alien by adding Xs and Ys and such… that’s not so alien in some cultures. Remember that what you find alien, may not universally be so.
  3. If you’re modifying a name from another culture, run it past a couple people from that culture to make sure it’s not an offensive or socially mismatched looking name
  4. Readers usually prefer something they can pronounce

Using Real People’s Names

You can get into some very deep legal trouble if someone realizes that the character with their name was based on them — and they don’t like the characterization. There are some protections, but most authors try to avoid the whole issue.

  1. Send them a copy before you publish and make sure they sign off on the way you use their name
  2. Have them as a flattering cameo (very few people object to pleasant, minor depictions)
  3. Change a letter or three, to give yourself a level of deniability, or some other riff off of their name.
  4. If you’re picking names from a culture not your own:
    • check with someone from that cultural background, to make sure you’re not inadvertently using the name of an infamous criminal, or their version of “Charlie Brown”
    • pick something pronounceable in the language you expect to be published in (unless the name challenge is part of the story or you have another good reason)
    • One place to find names is from a newspaper from the culture you want your name from, don’t use headliners, and don’t mix first and last names, if you’re unfamiliar with naming conventions. Otherwise, you may get names from two opposing genders, factions, or worse.
  5. Even if you’re not writing in a different culture, watching T.V. and movie credits can be a great place to find naming inspirations

Do you struggle with naming characters?

Where do you get your naming inspirations?

And for you, which comes first? The names or the story?

Author Spotlight: Barna Donovan

  • Professor of Communication and Media Studies and author of thrillers with science fiction and paranormal elements

Readers! Let’s give a good, hearty welcome to Barna Donovan!

Barna William Donovan is a graduate of the film school of the University of Miami and he earned his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Before turning to fiction, Donovan wrote three nonfiction books on the topics of film, fandom, and popular culture: The Asian Influence on Hollywood Action Films, Blood, Guns and Testosterone: Action Films, Audiences and a Thirst for Violence, and Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious.

In 2018, his debut novel, Confirmation: Investigations of the Unexplained was published, called “A captivating examination of humanity’s fear of the unknown, with hints of sci-fi and fantasy,” by Kirkus Reviews.

Barna, thanks for agreeing to be here today. Most interviews start off with bios and such, and while I’ll get to that as always, let’s start with the important stuff!

If you could have any pet (real/fantasy/no-allergies/no worries about feeding it) what would it be?

I think I would like to have the super-smart golden retriever, Einstein, from Dean Koontz’s Watchers.

If I could choose several – can I do that? Can I have more than one? – and since my dream house would be somewhere in the desert Southwest, then the property would also be patrolled underground by a giant Arakkis sandworm from Dune. Or maybe a couple of graboids from the Tremors films.

But if you want a pet to keep an eye on threats from above, nothing beats a dragon. Especially if it talks in Sean Connery’s voice like the dragon in Dragonheart.

Puppies are popular for a reason, but I see no reason not to pick several. A dune worm is a very unexpected choice! But, we all know we want a dragon.

What do you write?

I’m usually drawn to telling stories where the world we know gets disrupted by the appearance of something unexplained, where something from the realms of science fiction or the supernatural suddenly leaves characters grappling with a new reality. 

I guess suddenly grappling with a new reality is the new reality of 2020. 

I set both of my novels in very real worlds that are disrupted by something otherworldly. In Confirmation, the cast of a cheesy paranormal reality show – imagine one of the ghost-hunting shows that have taken over the Travel Channel – gets to document a global unexplained event and its societal ripple effects. In The Cedar Valley Covenant, no place is as serene and normal as a small Southern Illinois town. That is until something from an alternate realm shows up and takes pleasure in instigating paranoia and discord.

After years of analyzing films and entertainment made by other people, I realized that I needed a new challenge of getting my fiction published.

It’s always fun to look for a new mountain to climb. But I always used to love telling stories, going way back to the time in junior high when I started writing fan-fiction based on the 1980s miniseries V for an English class. An invasion by reptilian aliens set off some kind of a storytelling urge in me that still hasn’t left.

I can only imagine that years of film and entertainment analysis set you up to know a lot about pacing, scale, and self-analysis into exactly what you like to see in your own works. What a great background for becoming a novelist!

What do you like to read?

I like various genres, from science fiction to horror, thrillers, mysteries, and action/adventure stories. 

I especially like a novel that is able to balance intense, dire, apocalyptic scenarios with a sense of humor, with an appreciation for the absurdity of the world. Stephen King can do a fantastic job of this, but Dean Koontz has taken the blending of humor and horror to another level. In fact, I’m planning on setting up a bookcase where I will keep all of my Koontz novels in a sort of a shrine. I will come and worship it regularly and offer it sacrifices.

I’m also a fan of big genre mashup novels. I love Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series that combines vampires, the Cold War spy thriller, alternate dimensions, and big, colorful alien world-building.
Some of my other favorites are the Dune series, anything Michael Crichton wrote, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s work, and Richard Laymon’s quirky horror to name a few.

An excellent selection that suggests to me that your stories are likely packed with adventure and horrific mystery.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that doesn’t work for you.

You don’t have to outline.

I know a lot of writers like to start writing and seeing where the story goes on its own and “where the characters want to go,” but that doesn’t work for me.

Even before I sit down to write, I think about where the story eventually ends up, what I want to say with the story, what messages I will try and convey, what the characters will accomplish and learn along the way.

So when I sit down with pen and paper I will first need to outline the story. I want to get the main plot points down, the major incidents that will propel the plot forward, the main obstacles the characters will have to deal with.

I guess it’s kind of like a filmmaker needing to storyboard a film before shooting it. I like to get my thoughts in order, the big picture all decided upon before I actually start to write. I remember reading once that before shooting “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock storyboarded everything with obsessive, meticulous detail. Afterward he said something to the effect that “the film is done, now all I have to do is shoot it.” I feel like I need to be that meticulous with the big picture, the outline of the story before I start to write.

Now sure, sometimes scenes might change along the way, but the end result of the story will stick pretty close to the original outline. Even the characters might once in a while think of going somewhere they shouldn’t, kind of like wayward children. But father always knows best.

I’ve always suspected that mysteries and suspense would require more outlining than I do. While I’m not a plotter like you are, I do like a very high-level outline. It’s easier for me to write when I have an idea of where I’m going and what might happen on my way. Plus? Despite not being a script writer, I do like to use beat-sheets.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that they can pry out of your cold, dead hands.

Keep punching, but keep learning

As the philosopher Rocky Balboa said, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Well, even life won’t hit as hard as a literary agent or an acquisitions editor who thinks you’re very talented but they’re “just not falling in love with your story.” Those who want to be published will get hit hard. They’ll get a hit a lot. The process is one of constant judgement and rejection over and over again, so it requires tenacity, a thick skin, and a pretty muscular ego not to give up.

However, a smart writer should also look close enough at the rejections to see if any common themes emerge. If you have agent after agent or editor after editor telling you the same reason for the rejections, then it behooves you to listen and learn from the feedback.

I completely agree. Being a writer requires tenacity and a strong sense of ego– a belief in your own writing. But, it also requires the ability to take criticism and grow.


Shameless Self-Promotion time!

Confirmation: Investigations of the Unexplained

THE EVIDENCE OF ANOTHER WORLD IS HERE… 

In Mount Shasta City, California. In New Jersey. In San Diego. Then in Scotland, in Italy, and Cairo. In dozens of locations around the world, 20-ton granite globes suddenly appear. They usually turn up overnight, sometimes in remote locations and other times in the middle of cities in places no one could have put them without detection. For the first time, the world is witnessing a truly unexplainable phenomenon. 

AND THE THREAT IS REAL… 

As Rick Ballantine and Cornelia Oxenburg, cast members of the low-rent supernatural reality show “Confirmation: Investigations of the Unexplained,” quickly realize, the globes’ greatest effect is the way they make people speculate about their origins and purpose. Some think the globes are placed by aliens. Others think it’s all a hoax. Many more fear sinister government conspiracies behind it all. But each of these points of view believes they’re absolutely right…and others who disagree are dead wrong…and dangerous…and must be dealt with by any means necessary! Before the true, incredible origin of the globes is finally revealed, the “Confirmation” cast comes to see the extremes people are capable of when their beliefs are challenged and threatened…even in their own group.

The Cedar Valley Covenant

A TOWN OF BRILLIANT MINDS…

Jessica Lafayette, best-selling relationship author and soon-to-be radio personality, had a near-perfect life. But she dreamed of reconnecting with her estranged father. Then an accident along a dark stretch of highway shattered everything. Instead of making peace, Jessica comes to attend a funeral in the idyllic Southern Illinois college-town of Cedar Valley.

A PACT WITH A MIND-BENDING EVIL…

After claiming her father’s ashes from the local funeral home, Jessica begins to suspect the unthinkable. The urn she had been given does not contain ashes, and the remains of the dead might be used in the savage rites of an otherworldly power that has taken control of the town.

Pursued by a murderer in thrall to the evil controlling the town, Jessica finds herself involved with an esteemed scientist and shadowed by an enigmatic outsider, all the while struggling to understand the corruption haunting this town. From eminent thinkers to a rising political power broker, Cedar Valley’s best and brightest should have the resources to fight back. Except somehow, some of them have chosen to collude with an Apocalyptic force that will soon alter the course of all life on Earth. With no way out, Jessica must find a way to fight back and uncover the devastating secret of…The Cedar Valley Covenant.


Check Barna Donovan out across the web!

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Instagram

World-Building: Economics

Welcome to Part 3 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Future Economics were Jesper Stage, Karl Schroeder, and Katherine Quevedo. While panel descriptions are always an idea of what the panel might be, and not a promise of what it will contain, they’re always a lovely teaser. For ‘Future Economics’, the description was as follows:

Will we ever fully disentangle from the physical? Blockchains, cryptocurrency, differently organic sentience. Will economic concepts of supply, demand, money, resources hold up? Evolve? Or be completely different?  And what might they look like?

Economics is usually seen as a dry topic, full of game theory and calculated systems.

But economic systems do not exist in a vacuum. Here are:

5 Things To Consider When Designing Future (or Fantastical) Economic Systems

  1. Remember when looking at the model, that you must consider the humanity of the situation if you want both more nuanced and more accurate predictions
  2. Most of the labor in this world is not done for money — most labor is caretaking, and is usually done by women
  3. When IP (Intellectual property) is owned by a corporation, it is typically very secure. What about the people who create that IP?
    • Computer translation gets better by analysing translated works that are online, but what about the people who are doing the translations? Where is their compensation for training the automation that will eventually leave them jobless.
    • If Corporations are legally considered people and have a right to free speech, does that make them somehow potentially immortal beings?
  4. Where do the arts get their funding?
    • In this day and age, many get their funding through Patreon or similar entities — and projects get their funding based on popularity — both of the idea and the creator. This leads to success for those who are already successful and oftentimes nothing for those who have not yet had the opportunity for success.
  5. What are the roles for AI (artificial intelligence) and computers in the future?
    • Consider AIs representing natural resources like rivers/mountains/etc, programed to act in the resource’s best interests
    • What if google or facebook or what have you granted you a sort of ‘universal income’ for use of your picture and your data in their algorithms?
      • If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a ‘universal income’, in this day and age where more and more things are becoming automated, more and more jobs are almost more like ‘make-work’ than needed to sustain humanity or civilization. In such a world, it has been suggested that humanity itself makes one worthy of rent and food, with work something done because of a desire to do the job, a wish for purpose, or done for extra luxuries.

A world fantastic doesn’t have to be built on the economic principles that we live with today. Exploring the alternatives, and finding our way to the extrapolations of what that means for humanity can help create a world of nuance, with a core of truth holding it together.


What real world influences do you bring to world-building economics? What theories do you like to explore in your writing?

You Don’t Have To Write Alone: NaNoWriMo, PitchWars, AuthorTube, and More

I first started writing because I wanted to tell a story.

Wait. That’s wrong.

I first started writing because I wanted to read a story that didn’t exist, except in pieces in my head.

The only way for me to find out who exactly these characters were, what exactly happened to them, and WHY — was to write it until the story rang true.

I know that’s not how writing works for everyone. However. With my conceptual imagination? That’s still how it works for me.

But when I started writing, I was writing alone.

The stereotype of the writer is the heavy drinking — or maybe tea-drinking loner with dozens of cats for company. With a feel that truly great art — great writing — only comes from pain.

Well? I know that it depends on what you like to write, and what you like to read, and what brought you to where you are today. However, that stereotypical writer life doesn’t sound very healthy to me.

Be you an introvert, an extrovert, or something in-between, most of us thrive in supportive environments, that push us to achieve something greater.

In this day and age of the internet, supportive writing communities can be found everywhere.

NaNoWriMo

Maybe you like the challenge of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month, where you pledge to write 50,000 words in one month. But, NaNoWriMo is more than just a website account where you update your daily word count. NaNoWriMo has forums, twitter hashtags, and facebook groups. Plus? They support local writing groups with liaisons running in-person (and, in these days, virtual) meetups and write-ins and overnighters.

You can be active year round, or only touch a pen during November and you’re still just as valid a member of the community. You can be a 15 year champion (hitting the word count goal every year), or average 500 words every November and you still count.

Twitter

Maybe twitter is your jam. Sharing your updates on the #5amWritersClub, joining the different hashtag chats and sharing writing memes and progress posts.

You might be the type of writer who joins those twitter pitch contests: #pitMad, #sffPit, #dvPit, where you tweet a short pitch for your polished manuscript and hope a literary agent from a respectable agency likes your tweet. If so, it’s an invitation to query, where you typically get moved to the top of their inbox.

Instagram

For the low-key writer who loves a good aesthetic, #authorsOfInstagram may be for you. Cover reveals, office set ups, and quotes from favorite books abound for authors on Instagram. While less centralized than other social medias, it’s a great place to connect one-on-one.

Facebook

If you’re a facebook user, there are groups for all sorts of genre writers and all ranges. There are professional groups and critique circle groups. There’s the Sub-It-Club and the Insecure Writers Group. I personally run several support groups for PitchWarrior hopefuls, and admin a few others.

Social Media In General

Social media, in general, is a good way to connect. Reddit, tumblr, MeWe, or wherever you hang out, is likely to have a group or ten for writers. Take a look.

PitchWars

Speaking of PitchWars — for those of you who don’t know, PitchWars is an online mentorship opportunity, where you query mentors like you would an agent. If you are accepted, you work with them to revise your full manuscript, and at the end, all of the re-worked manuscripts are showcased, with reputable agents invited to visit and make offers. Some books get into bidding wars, and some still don’t find an agent, but in either case, you get a more-polished manuscript.

While I’ve never been a mentee, I’ve found plenty of critique partners and supportive friends from the community — it’s full of writers with finished and polished manuscripts, ready to query — exactly the same stage of writing career that I’m at.

PitchWars is very active on twitter, it has its own forums, not to mention, of course, the facebook support groups.

Local Writing Groups

Outside of your local NaNoWriMo group, many cities and regions have their own writing groups — some are critique circles, some are open mic nights, some are support groups, some are accountability groups, and some are all-of-the above. Know what sort of group you’d prefer, hit the internet, and see what you can find!

Discord Groups

My local NaNoWriMo group has its own group on discord servers, with easy-add-in sprint bots, and rooms to discuss plot issues.

My local writing groups and the cons I’ve worked? They also have their own discord servers. These are just chat rooms where you can share images, files, and more.

An Archive Of Their Own, Wattpad, and more

Some writing communities form around the works themselves. On AO3, Wattpad, and more, writers share their works (often in chapter style increments), get feedback, and often learn to improve their writing.

It’s not unheard of for major successes to end up getting traditional publishing deals (but it’s not an avenue for success I would recommend, because the odds are not with you.

Conventions and Book Fairs

Then, there are your conventions and book fairs. Some are focused on professional development, some on the joy of reading, some celebrate certain genres. While you can get a lot of of them, it typically takes about 3 visits to a particular event to really get comfortable and familiar with an event. After that? Networking becomes easier.

There’s no right way to attend a convention, but a few of the methods are:

  • hanging out at the bar to network (colloquially called “BarCon”)
  • attending workshops and panels, either casually, or hitting 30 panels in 3 days, and filling a notebook with tips
  • wandering around, absorbing the sights and talking to whomever you meet. Collecting all the freebies and giveaways
  • strategically attending panels or pitch-sessions and actively trying to network — approaching it like a professional development conference
  • working the convention
    • Do you want to run lights? Register people? Help with the website? Are you an EMT and want to help with First aid? Do you want to run the disability services so that everyone can have the right accommodations? Maybe you want to help with programming — making sure there are events you want to see or be a liaison for the speakers? There are jobs, big and small, for almost anyone.

AuthorTube

Some of us writers love to talk about what we do, we like to write with friends anywhere, and don’t mind (or want to become comfortable with) video taping ourselves and putting it out there. Authortube is a youtube hashtag community, by authors, for authors.

The authortube community hosts live-streamed write ins, workshops, writing vlogs, progress posts, and just about anything you can think of that’s writing related. A fair number are self-published. While a few #authorTubers are here for the drama — sharing ‘did you hear what just happened’ reaction videos, we also have book-bloggers, talking about what they read and liked — or hated, journalers, and more. Most of us are there for the community.


While many people keep crashing into the toxic side of the internet, I usually only hear about most drama second-hand. Instead, I just keep making new friends who share my passion.

The writing community takes as many forms as there are writers. If you are out there, if you are writing alone, without support, without a network, you don’t have to go it alone.

If you want a connection: no matter the format, no matter the scale, there is a writers community out there for you.

And if there isn’t?

Build it and they will come.


Is there a community you’ve found that I’ve left off?

Do you have a community you’d like to talk about!

Please share in the comments below.

P.S. Check out this week’s podcast! [Season 1] Episode 8: Writing Fight Scenes That Work

P.P.S Plus! There’s a bonus episode this week, because we’re in the middle of the PitchWars annual mentor bloghop: [Season 1] Bonus Episode 1: A Message To My Fellow PitchWars Hopefuls

Accessible Magic

Welcome to Part 2 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were Petrea Mitchell as moderator, Andi C. Buchanan, and Taiyo Fujii.

How does a person with a speech impediment handle magical incantations? Dyslexic sorcery: scrambling runes a hazard? Is the autism spectrum an advantage if spellcasting requires visualizing complex shapes? Let’s mash mastery of magic and differently abled people together and see what we get.

In a lot of fantasy and science-fiction, they wave their hands and make magic or tech the “solution” to all disabilities. Let’s explore ways to use magic for accessibility and ways differently abled people could be better integrated into these stories.

Things That Are Usually Ignored

There are tons of ways accessibility could be impacted by magic or science. Here are a few:

  • potion allergy
  • inability to focus (ADHD), making magic either a challenge, or so hard that you need to veg for a day or two afterwards.
  • for intuitive magic, what about people who struggle with things that others claim are ‘intuitive’, like people with autism

Bad Tropes

There are tons of ways that people get disability in stories wrong. Tropes that are overdone and trite, and minimize the very real impact and communities that form around a shared bond.

  • Magic compensates for the disability… by erasing it. — i.e. Daredevil. The blind superhero with the superpower of… sight.
    • Note: there’s a different, and healthier vibe if the character purposely sacrifices an ability in order to get something else, like Odin and his eye. Assuming that the sacrifice doesn’t malign people who naturally have that disability.
  • No medical consent — they fix everything the way they believe your body ‘should’ work, without telling you about risks or giving you options
  • Having unhealthy work-arounds for a disability
  • The person who sacrificed themselves for the group — was dying anyway
  • The disability is fixed instantly with magic
    • Can be mitigated by showing the learning stage, the strength building, etc

Remember, when things are designed to be more accessible, they’re often more accessible for everyone, not just the group that the design was focused on. For example, curb cuts, where the sidewalk smoothly thins to meet the level of the road, make things easier for strollers (and bikes), not just wheelchair users.

Underutilized Tropes

Adding the concept of accessibility to your stories isn’t just a list of “things to avoid” and “wouldn’t it be nice”. Here are some ways you might explore different types of abilities.

  • Using magic/science as an adaptive technique, rather than a cure-all
  • Having something that isn’t a disability in this world be one in the story
    • Tone-deaf — if magic is music based
    • Color-blindness — if colors of things is important
    • Morning person — in a world that operates at night
  • Having the ability CAUSE a disability
    • In ‘My Hero Academia’, one of the characters is stronger than his bones can withstand… so he has to modify his fighting style
  • Having accessibility tools give more powers
    • Adaptive arms or an exoskeleton that makes magics possible that weren’t before – because of more digits or hands, etc.
  • For people who are more math focused, and less able to ‘visualize magic’, like so many do — More mathlike magic — working more like a computer program, with ‘if this, then that’ sort of branches

Adding people with different types of abilities and making things accessible to more people is a great way to populate your fictional world look more like the real world, and show ways we could do better.

Suggested Reading

The best way to learn about how differently abled people interact with the world is to read the books they populate. It’s also a great idea to read stories by writers with disabilities — even when that’s not the focus — because getting to know other perspectives is a great way to improve your world-building, your characterizations, plus broaden your own horizons.

“Away With The Wolves” by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine)

The Outside – by Ada Hoffmann

The Disabled People Destroy Fantasy edition of Uncanny Magazine

The Country Of The Blind – by HG Wells

Geometries of Belonging – By R.B. Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Mooncakes – by Suzanne Walker  (Author), Wendy Xu (Illustrator)

First Dates by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers (Translunar Travelers Lounge)


Do you have any thoughts on things I missed? Any pet peeves you’d like to add? Please do so!

Please let me know if you have any story suggestions.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips and writerly musings.