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?

Choosing Your Perspective

Welcome to Part 10 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

The panel description was as follows: What options does a writer have in choosing the point of view for their narrative? What kinds of stories are best suited by first-, third-, and even second-person narration? What are some ways that you can combine them, and when should you?

The panelists were: Ada Palmer (as moderator), Meriah Crawford, Jo Walton, and L. Marie Wood.

All stories have a voice and a point-of-view — or POV.

Voice

Voice sets the tone and the attitude, often alluding to a certain social class, a time period, and location.

While describing a room or a fight scene, some writers are lyrical and highly descriptive, while others are short and terse. In this bit of the narration, that’s neither character thoughts, nor dialogue, the level of voice can vary tremendously. Some are neutral, but descriptive, some are judgemental, and some are mocking. Descriptors and creative analogies can go a long way toward creating completely different tones.

Point of View

For the point-of-view, you can have first person — “I ate the cookies”, second-person — “you ate the cookies”, or third person — “She ate the cookies.”

The point-of-view character is who the story’s narrative is following. Plenty of writers switch between characters. It is up to the writer to decide how far into the character’s thoughts they wish to delve.

First Person

First person point of view is intimate, but that doesn’t require the writer to delve into the characters minds, they can choose to simply share the character’s actions and sensory inputs. It’s often used in YA, memoirs, literary fiction, and romances.

Second Person

Second person point-of-view is often seen as gimmicky. If the ‘you’ in the story reacts in a way unnatural to you, it can easily throw ‘you’, as the reader, out of the story. Now, news stories and discussions of trauma are often told this way, and it often feels natural to many people when writing reflective pieces.

Plus, of course, you’ll find second person used in those choose your own adventure stories and games.

In a mix of first and second person point of view are stories told to a specific person, “oh, daughter, when I was your age” or “dear reader, you may think… .” The panelists decided we’d call these “addressee second person.”

Third Person

Third person point-of-view has a huge amount of variety and thus is often the default POV. You can be as intimate and as zoomed in as first person, or you can have an omnipotent narrator, who knows all — past, present, and future. If you play video games, it’s the difference from a view right behind the character you’re controlling/following the plot of, and looking at the full map as everything plays out.

Warnings

Cultural norms change. Twist reveals of “he was secretly gay” or “the main character was a woman” aren’t so surprising or novel.

Head-hopping or switching POV characters mid-chapter is challenging to do smoothly.

Ways To Use Points of View In Your Story

As with switching between point-of-view characters, some writers switch between points-of-view entirely, such as using first person with a main character and third person with a secondary character. Often used in thrillers, to hide the identity of the killer. Switching between POVs can also make a section stand out, so if you want to switch tones, that can help. To either make it more intimate, or to back up a little, so the reader can rest and absorb before the plot picks back up again.

While the story is carrying us along, there’s always the choice to create an unreliable narrator in any voice. There’s a huge difference, though, between a character who doesn’t know the truth, and one who is lying to the audience. If you want an unreliable narrator, it’s best to have a good reason.

On the flip side, you can always have the narration, or use a secondary point-of-view character give the readers information that the main point-of-view character doesn’t know.

Some good examples of this are: Haircut by Ring Lardner Jr., Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, or The Strange Case Of Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now, there are other points-of-view writers have used, typically as an exploration of a concept — first person plural — “We are going to the store”.

Plus, there’s always the use of epistolary text — traditionally, a story told through letters, now used with articles, chat logs, and faux-book excerpts. This faux-documentation is also a great way to add world building and introduce new information, without needing to introduce a new point of view character.

There are a variety of ways one can combine both voice and point-of-view to create a story that resonates.


What is your favorite point-of-view?

Do you like to write something different than what you prefer to read?

Any tips I missed?


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

What The Writer Needs To Know: The Brain and The Body

Writers do their best to bring life an authenticity of the full range of human conditions. Sadly, however, writers are mere mortals and can fall into some trope-tastic misunderstandings and assumptions.

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Daryl Gregory, Dr. Keren Landsman, Benjamin Kinney, Mick Schubert, and Hadas Sloin were there to set the record straight.

On “Team Brain” were Daryl and Hadas. On “Team Body” was our epidemiologist, Dr. Keren. Benjamin, as a neuro-scientist, was claiming seats on both teams. And Mick Schubert did his best to stay out of the fight.

“Favorite” Misunderstandings in Media

  • Dr. Keren – Nosebleeds as a sign of something catastrophic!
  • Daryl – The significant cough. The character thinks they’re on the mend, and they cough once, and everyone exchanges significant glances. 2 scenes later — we’re at the funeral.
  • Hadas – On The Walking Dead, they did an MRI on a zombie. By definition, there should be nothing. They zoomed in to show a single neuron (ridiculous!) And showed the ‘electrical activity’ in blue and the ‘zombie activity in red’. Claiming “it invades the brain like meningitis.” So Wrong.
  • Mick – Magical genetics, with no epigenetics. And timing! They take a blood sample and know exactly what’s wrong in 10 minutes. The tests can take longer, and more tests are ruling out what it’s NOT, than figuring out what it is.
  • Dr. Keren – On Dr. House — Oncologists don’t do surgery.
  • Benjamin – Human minds being ‘uploaded’ into digital form or AI minds being ‘downloaded’ into a body.
  • Hadas – Her career goal IS the digitization of the human brain. The human mind’s computational power is underestimated. It’s firmware — firmly attached to the body and the physical network. It’s fascinating, but we’re further away than we think.

Tips To Get It Right

  1. With sickness, we think we know how diseases work. Wrong. We only know how they affect us. Drugs are far more often to be guess and test, and then backwards derive the science to why it worked.
  2. Our brains’ perception of self is easily deceived.
  3. There’s been some cases of treating phantom pain (from lost limbs, etc) with mirror therapy. But, we’re not sure if it’s more than the placebo effect at this point.
  4. A human body can’t survive by consuming human blood.
  5. When someone is exposed to radiation, they’re far more likely to end up with cancer, like after chernobyl, than super powers.
  6. Super healing would lead to massive scar tissue and cancer
  7. Super speed would require eating more. Much more.
  8. Creating sensory experiences from the brain (i.e. in virtual reality simulators) is hard because it has to be customized per person. And is easiest when we bypass the brain.
  9. Genetics is hard. If changing one gene would change the trait, we already do that. Most are multiple genes with unexpected consequences.

Underused Diseases

  1. Tuberculosis
  2. Black death (not bubonic plague. Research the difference!)
  3. Influenza
  4. Stupidity
  5. Preventable ones (measles, mumps, chicken pox as an adult, tetanus, rabies, etc)

Books/Media That Got It Right

  1. Orphan Black (except the brain uploading)
  2. Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
  3. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  4. Blindsight by Peter Watts
    – He got it wrong. And Bad. But, it’s a great ethical discussion.
  5. Lock In and Head On by John Scalzi

Tips Specifically For Writers

  1. Your job is to be convincing. Read as much as possible. Say/Write as little as possible, to sound convincing.
  2. Write to the limits of your knowledge. Then stop and take out half. That way, you can only be half-wrong.
  3. Write from a layperson’s perspective, then you can claim that the character misunderstood.
  4. Remember that scientists have specializations. Your character doesn’t have to know how everything works.
  5. Making magic ‘scientific’ usually doesn’t work. Understanding why it wouldn’t work in real life might help you get it less wrong.
  6. Pick your premise (zombies/magic/whatever), but be consistent after that.

A Helpful Resource!

The Science and Entertainment Exchange exists to help writers of all forms of media Get. It. Right. Their mission? To connect “entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storytelling.” The website seems movie and tv focused, but Mick Schubert said it’s for all of us.


When writing about the brain and the body, beware the Dunning–Kruger  effect! A little bit of knowledge makes you think you know how something works, when you’re barely seeing the tip of the iceberg. Do your research and be sure to double-check everything you think you know.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Done To Death: The Art of Killing Characters

When you’re reading a story and a character dies, you can tell if it’s just the writer trying to manipulate your emotions or if it’s good storytelling.

In the titular panel at Worldcon77, Patrick Rothfuss, Veronica Roth, Su J Sokel, Amy Ogden, and Daryl Gregory did their best to make sure we know that every death should count.

Before we got started, the panelists listed their credentials…

How many characters have you killed?

  • Su killed 3 in one novel.
  • Veronica, in her Divergent series, asked if we counted “outside of catastrophic events?”
  • Amy killed all of humanity. Twice.
  • Patrick has killed 5 characters.
  • Daryl says his only die offstage.

How To Use Death and What Deaths Are Overdone

Fridging Characters

There are tropes that keep popping up, and one of the most trite ones in fiction is using the horrific death of a 2-dimensional female character to motivate the (usually male) main character.

From TVTropes: “The name of the trope comes from a storyline in Green Lantern, in which the villain Major Force leaves the corpse of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, literally stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find.

We’re not saying horrific deaths are bad (in fiction. Please don’t kill people.) We’re just saying they need to matter beyond character motivation.

Parents

Many stories start off with the parents being killed. Even books for those who aren’t old enough for school. And this is traumatic for small kids. We want to teach empathy. We want them to understand death. This is a bad way to do it.

Daryl’s daughter would always go ask him for a snack during the Lion King stampede and get back just as Simba was running away.

Patrick’s sons loved the 3 Little Pigs and the wolf destroying the houses. But they wanted him to tell it without gobbling the pigs all up.

As Amy said, “as a mom, I’m tired of seeing myself die. As a queer person, I’m tired of seeing myself die.”

Queer Characters and Characters of Color

Either as bad guys or as expendable characters, queer characters or characters of color are often the first to die.

Children

Killing children, just to demonstrate that the villain is a bad guy.

Patrick declared, “if that’s all you can do, you’re a bad writer. I stand by this.”

Other

Veronica, in retrospect, admits that there is a bullshit death in her second book. She could have handled that differently. There are plenty of horrible ways to LIVE!

The list could go on. Do we want to show readers the gritty truth, or a better world?

How Do You Make a Death Not Bullshit?

  1. Give fullness to the dead character’s story arc
  2. Try to only kill well rounded main or secondary characters, but think first if there is another way to progress the plot.
  3. Listen to the character – they should tell you if their death is bullshit.
  4. Feel free to have foreshadowing — best done when it’s only obvious in retrospect.
  5. Context matters — who is being killed by whom?
  6. If you do kill characters — parents, children, lovers, make it matter. Make the reader cry and miss them forever.
  7. Showing life after trauma is important.

The Power Of Writing

At this point, the panel started to meander, but we followed along for the ride.

Patrick shared a story. After the Frog Princess, 70 kids were hospitalized from salmonella (from licking frogs). Now, he worries a lot about the consequences of what he writes.

Veronica asked, “then how do you write?”

Patrick — the man whose audience is still waiting, 8 years later, for book 3 of his series — replied, “I’m the wrong person to ask.”

Where You Are Emotionally Affects Your Writing

For almost all of us, what we’re worried about and what we’re struggling with tries to come through in our writing.

There are two approaches.

  1. You can try to leave it at the door.
    • Personal essays, blogs, etc on whatever is bothering you can be a cathartic way to get it out, so you can focus on the story you want to tell.
  2. You can use your writing to work through it
    • So many writers end up doing this. Even if they don’t know that they are.
      • Veronica’s first series was literally about exposure therapy. Later, she went on to be prescribed it!
      • Patrick was thanked for his handling of PTSD in his writing. 10 years later, he realized where it came from. Now he’s in therapy.
      • Amy notes that as a mom, she’s leaving a worse world for her child than she was given. Everything she writes is about climate change.
    • NOTE: Mission-oriented novels come across like after-school specials. It’s okay to work through things, but forcing the theme doesn’t come across as genuine.

[Audience Question] How Do You Handle Villainous Deaths

Everything should be complex — the desire to simplify makes it less real. Just remember, death is a change and it’s the final one. [source?]

Disney took the violence out. Took the blame out. The hero still wins, the bad guy still dies. But, the hero isn’t the hand by which the villain dies. And that might be wrong. There should be consequence.l

[Audience Question] Which Death Would You Undo?

Veronica said, “Lynn.”

Amy’s answer? “Humanity deserved it.”


What stories have you read where death was handled wrong? Which ones have done it well?

If you write, how many characters have YOU killed?

Advancing the Story Without Traumatizing Your Characters

You know stories need stakes. You know you need to get your readers to care. So? You try to make the stakes big enough and scary enough to drive the story forward. But you don’t HAVE to traumatize characters — or readers — to advance your story.

From the titular panel at Balticon53, Jean Marie Ward, Eric Hardenbrook, Steven Wilson, Jamaila Brinkley, and Mattie Brahen shared their tips and tricks.

Conflict versus Trauma

We all know that stories thrive on conflict. If everyone is in agreement, marching forward, you don’t have much of a story.

So, what’s the difference? When you boil it down to their core:

Conflict is:

  • when two or more entities have opposing goals — or at least, not-aligned ones

Trauma is:

  • a change that damages you
  • is harmful

Now, a caveat: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of what is traumatic. Thanks to people’s pasts, their mental health, and their current emotional state, what is traumatic to one person may be fine for another person.

Where Some People Draw The Line

This is clearly not a comprehensive list, but the panelists shared their following lines.

  • Explicit sexual abuse
  • Dismemberment
  • Kids shoved out of windows
  • Children soldiers
  • Explicit assault/violence
  • Killing the cat/dog

How To Raise the Stakes

Without trauma, what are other ways you can raise the stakes?

  1. Family
    • Protecting/defending them
    • Handling with their expectations
    • Dealing with the family history and fraught relationships
    • etc
  2. Survival
    • Human versus nature (or space) is a classic story of stakes.
    • Hunger
    • Illness
    • Injury
    • Weather
  3. Meaningful relationships
    • Trying not to disappoint people
    • Satisfying the needs of different people
    • Handling emotional baggage — the main characters OR those they love
  4. Separation
    • Take them away from their friends or family — this can be as serious as fleeing in the night or as light hearted as a RomCom

If You Do Include Trauma: What About ‘Trigger Warnings’?

It’s contentious.

On one hand – Books shouldn’t shy away from hard topics. Sometimes, trauma is exactly what needs to be worked through in a story. Plus, you don’t want to give away spoilers!

On the other, there people are dealing with depression and loss and are trying to avoid stories about suicides. Or have dealt with miscarriages and find it upsetting to read about them.

Since we’re talking about books, and the characters being traumatized are usually the main characters — we typically get to watch them work through their trauma, grow and manage to move past it. (Or, become Batman.) And seeing that healing can be good for people.

However – dealing with that can be exhausting, especially with a good writer and an immersive story.

Especially in genre fiction, people are looking for escape from the real world. And there’s plenty of books that offer that without triggering content — if the reader knows where to look.

Clearly, one cannot give a trigger warning about everything that might be traumatic to anyone. But, some are some triggers implicit in certain genres – like suspense, or thrillers, or military fiction.

Personally, I think there are ways of writing blurbs that can hint at the content within. We already rate these things for movies.

When books are used in schools, they often have themes listed, I think we should be able to do that.

Mine would probably be something like: “This book deals with themes of: religion, magic, suicide ideation, violence, and the killing of both humans and animals.” Then again, I’m mostly writing young adult, so letting libraries and teachers know can help them know if my book is right for their freshman class, or if they should save it for their seniors.

Clearly, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This one is mine.

Compounding Traumas

Once you’ve decided that your story should include traumatic events, you need to look at who you’re traumatizing.

This is obviously not always the case, but very often, when you look at which characters are being traumatized in books, you can see a pattern. It’s not usually the man in authority. It’s the woman. The person of color. The lgbtqa character.

Is this due to cultural biases about who can be traumatized? Maybe. It’s impossible to know.

There are obvious exemptions from this: look at Iron Man and his phobias.

But, if you’re traumatizing women, people of color, non-cis het characters in order to motivate your main character? You’ve fallen into what is known as the “fridging” trope — named after a Green Lantern comic where his girlfriend was killed and shoved in a fridge just to motivate him.

Try to do better. It’s lazy writing, overdone, and often done to a 2-dimensional character.

Moving Beyond Trauma

Can limiting characters, through trauma or otherwise, make them stronger?

It makes for a more compelling story. We’re drawn to stories of people overcoming obstacles. Just be sure to avoid stereotypes — like the brave little disabled kid, who, with relentless optimism, overcomes ALL obstacles.

But without limits, there’s no conflict.

Be certain that you’re giving your traumatized characters agency to make decisions — not just react to what you do to them.

Captain America dealt with his trauma through altruism.

Black Widow dealt with hers by devoting herself to her job.

Which brings us to the flip side, you can give characters advantages — and regrets about what they had to give up to get them.

The panelists sitting at the table.

I know these notes covered array of topics, some only tangentially related to the premise. But, it’s good to remember that stakes don’t always have to be paid in flesh and blood.


Let me know what you think!
Do you hate the idea of sharing themes about your novel?

Do you have a better method in mind?
Do you have some ideas of new ways to raise the stakes — without destroying your character’s psyche?

NOTE: Opinions are welcome, as are discussions, but I’m not going to argue with people. I know I’m unlikely to sway your mind.