Monthly Archive: May 2018

Win the character name game in style: 11 ways to dream up an original, effective name. Pt. 2

Great Character Names, Part Two: Methods 4 through 6

This part two of a series on choosing great character names, breaking the topic into three bite-sized chunks.  To get the whole picture, check Part One here.

Think of super names for your characters and win the race on characterization at the starter’s gate. Your hero’s essential traits will strike readers before a single word is uttered.

Let’s get right to the next three tactics to sharpen up your characters through smart naming:

4. Evocative names

“aptronyms”

Han Solo. A great appropriate name – or aptronym – for this independent, self-reliant buccaneer. Even if Han actually does have a partner and technically does not go it solo. It echoes Napoleon Solo, the man from U.N.C.L.E, with the short first name, the word solo looms large, at 2/3 of the whole name.

The aptronym, that is, a name that is especially apt for a person’s character or profession, stands out as the most common type of interesting character name. Reconsider the names Sarah Suckling, Clark Kent and Peter Parker, in Part One of this series. You probably get some idea or their character just from hearing the names. Sarah Suckling creates – intentionally! – a very negative impression. Clark Kent, which begins and ends with hard consonants, invokes a solid, strong character with traditional, Anglo-Saxon values. Peter Parker begins and “middles” with relatively strong consonant sounds, but ends with softer r sounds. In keeping with this, Peter has strong values, but also a sensitive side.  Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes implies refinement and intellect. The first sound, sh, suggests the hush of covert investigation.

More examples include the Bond women:

  • Bonita,
  • Fiona Volpe
  • Kissy Suzuki
  • Pussy Galore
  • Plenty O’Toole

And more. Some have a sexual or romantic meaning: Bonita, Mary Goodnight, Kissy Suzuki. Note that the least sexily named of these, Mary Goodnight, Bond never manages to bed. Fittingly, she has the first name of a virgin, and her last name sounds more like a not-tonight-I-have-a-headache sort of moniker. But on the sexier side, let’s not forget Chew Mee. Others sound dangerous, like Fiona Volpe, whose job was to lure men to their deaths. In contrast, Patricia Fearing had to be rescued by Bond.

Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore. Honor Blackman, because it is real name not an imaginary – character – name, proves that great monikers are not necessarily unrealistic. Her first name could be an aptronym – an apt name – and her last name “black-man” is its opposite, the inaptronym or inappropriate name, since she is a white woman.

Note that the most blatantly evocative names originate from the more humorous Bond films. Subtler names appeared when moviemakers went for a more dramatic effect. Good character names should match the genre of your story for humorous or dramatic or subtle effect.

Consider these evocative names:

  • Vince Majestyk, played by Charles Bronson in Mr. Majestyk
    How different this film would have been with a different name, like Mr. Weiner.
  • Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane
    He sounds rich.
  • Snake Plissken in Escape From New York
    Here we not only have the reptile name, but the sibilance ss in the surname. Perfect for Snake’s sneering insouciance.
  • Buckaroo Banzai in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
    This wonderfully whimsical name (which is also alliterative, just to make sure) sets up just the right offbeat expectation for this off-center all-time cult favorite with elements of comedy and satire.
  • Darth Vader
    Till the prequels came out, we didn’t know what the heck this name meant, but it implied menace. “Darth” sounds like “death” and “Vader” sounds like “invader.”
  • Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly, full of bawdy innuendo, whose name may be a pun on “quick lay”, though “quick” also had the meaning of “alive”, so it may imply “lively”, which also commonly had a sexual connotation.

These are not a rarity in fiction at all. In fact, have found too many to list.

Think of dynamite names for your characters and win the battle for characterization at the reader’s first glimpse of you character. Your hero’s essential traits will hit readers in the face before she even opens her mouth.

“Inaptronyms”

Above we covered aptronyms, when a name clearly suits a character, but what their opposite, the inaptronym? (I’m not making these up.)  This refers to a character whose name stands in sharp contrast to her personality.

Some examples:

  • Mr. Big, Zootopia
    He is an arctic shrew, no taller than 3-4 inches.
  • Little John, Robin Hood
    His real name is John Little, but he’s actually a huge fellow.
  • The Ancient One, Doctor Strange
    She looks no more than thirty.
  • The suicidal Happy Franks, The Impostors
  • Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, The Fifth Element
    Jean-Baptiste was a Christian saint, as for Emmanuel, well, it is another name for Jesus.
    Thing is, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg is an insane and callous weapons magnate with a fetish for “creative” destruction.
  • Captain Murderer from Snuff
    He’s a smuggler.
  • Mike Stoker, Emergency!
    Stokers kept fires burning in places like metal foundries and steamships. Mike is a firefighter, and puts them out.
  • John Singer, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.
    He’s a deaf mute.
  • Two more great character names

    Cartoon names: Judy Hopps and Mr. Big. “Gram-mama taught me respect, determination, and above all else, the importance of family. She was the whole cannoli.”

    Captain Keene, Horatio Hornblower
    Not at all keen (meaning enthusiastic), the good captain is an old and tired gentleman who keeps coughing and breathing heavily, who barely manages to captain his ship, preferring to make gnomic, sarcastic, sometimes bitter, asides.

  • Lucky, Waiting for Godot
    He suffers the most abuse in the play. However, maybe is secretly lucky because, unlike the others, is not looking forward to anything, and will not be disappointed.

See from this list that such names can be given either flippantly, or with deeper irony.

As a side note, you can use this, and all of these methods to name other things, as well. Charming is a town in Sons of Anarchy – with a long history of gang violence. Prague is a novel about Budapest.

In real life, knew a man called Adam Eve. So referencing historical and literary names is not unrealistic.

But avoid overkill

Go ahead and use names like Ralph Kramden (whose bulky frame is “crammed in” to his driver’s uniform and also into his small apartment) or Holden Caulfield (who wants to “hold on” to childhood), but avoid names that sound like porn stars or romance heroes unless you write in those genres.

Bottom line:

If you are hesitant to give your character an evocative name, if you find it trite or obvious, try an Inaptronym. Call the surgeon who saves your protagonist Dr. Slaughter. Or name an ugly character Mr. Kiss. Or give him cold sores.

Your readers will give you credit for irony.

5. Modern-sounding names:

Zachary Quinto as Skylar from Heroes. Using a modern name is a way to get people to take notice of you character.

Modern sounding names can be used either as aptronyms or inaptronyms, but merit a section of their own.

First let’s see some examples, listed here with the years these names became popular:

  • Liam, 1967
  • Mia, 1964
  • Harper, 2004
  • Madison 1985
  • Aiden, 1995
  • Avery, 1989
  • Jayden, 1994
  • Aubrey, 1973
  • Zoey, 1995
  • Addison, 1994
  • Dylan, 1966
  • Aria, 2000
  • Layla, 1972
  • Brooklyn, 1990
  • Riley, 1990
  • Skylar, 1990
  • Jaxon, 1997
  • Paisley, 2006
  • Ariana, 1978
  • Grayson, 1984
  • Aaliyah, 1994

To sum up, use a modern-sounding name to accentuate or contrast with a character’s innate qualities, whether the character is forward thinking and modern, or old fashioned. Despite some people’s initial reactions, this type of name is not unrealistic. Just think here of actress America Ferrera.

6. Reference names

Rank Xerox, the anti-hero monster Robot. Part aptronym, part reference name. Be careful! Rank Xerox had to change his name in the USA and the UK after a lawsuit for infringement on the Xerox trademark.

In addition, your names can reference characters and people and events in their entirety, rather than characteristics like majestic. Take, for example, Bambi and Thumper from Diamonds Are Forever, or Jaws, also from the Bond series. Bond has to fight the two women, Bambi and Thumper, but in a playful way that makes these impish names perfect for the occasion. Bambi can also imply elegance and beauty, and Thumper, fighting prowess.

Meanwhile Jaws, with is steel teeth, humorously evokes the hit Spielberg film of the same name, which still loomed large in the public consciousness at the time.

Alternatively, your character can be partly named after other literary or historical characters. Here we can take Napoleon Solo (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as an example.

Just a note: In real life,  knew a man, I kid you not, called Adam Eve. So referencing historical and literary names is not unrealistic. Just consider real names like George Washington Carver and Francis Scott Fitzgerald (named after Francis Scott Key), both taking their names from historical personages. However, you needn’t reference only other characters and literary works when you select a name. Jack Bauer, already mentioned above for his Bond-like initials, references the game euchre. In that game the Jack card ranks highest in the trump suit, and is called ‘The Right Bower.’ He is a trump card and trounces his enemies.

Reference name: Hawkeye Pierce (M*A*S*H) was named after the character Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans.

An intentional use of a name with negative associations can be great. Go for it!

PS: If you liked this post, find out a lot more about winning character names in Character names: Part One here.

Win the name game in style: eleven smart ways to dream up original, effective character names.

Terrific Character Names Part One: Methods 1 to 3

Have great character names and get a head start on characterization from the firing of the starter’s gun. Your protagonists’ core characteristics will hit people before the first word or action of your stories, before readers even see their faces.

You’ll find myriad ways to achieve this. Let’s review a few of them.

1. Alliteration

Hannah Helene Horvath, Marnie Marie Michaels, Jessamyn “Jessa” Johansson and Shoshanna Shapiro, Girls. In many genres names don’t have to be totally realistic, just memorable.

Alliteration, when both first and last name start with the same letter, produces a strong, easy-to-remember name. People will remember your character longer, and you will have better brand recognition.

Consider:

  • Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey
  • Captain Kirk
  • Selina Suckling, from Emma
  • Mimi Mamoulian and Billy Battuta from The Satanic Verses
  • Tom Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss
  • Clark Kent, Peter Parker and many, many other comic book characters.
  • Binx Bolling, from The Moviegoer
  • Big Brother

Dick Dastardly. What a great name for a bad guy to send up the old melodramas! It is not only alliterative, but evocative, too. See Part Two for that. Dastardly and Mutley is also a great name pairing, as we will see in Part Three.

Alliteration provides your character with a snappy, unforgettable name. Memorable names increase brand recognition, and make your character spring to mind more often. After all, if you cannot remember the name of a character, you will think of that character less easily and less often.

Remember, you want a name that springs to mind. But bear in mind: too many alliterative names in one work can seem humorous or absurd. Another caveat: some genres use this more than other – just examine the list above. This device could set up expectations in people’s minds of what sort of story they are about to read. This effect declines if fewer characters have alliterative names, and if the alliterative character is not the main character.

Note from the above list that the alliterative moniker may not be just a proper name, but a nickname or title.

2. Avoid character names with an unintended negative association

References are great, but you should be aware of them and in control. Think about the implications of you name. Has a story with a similar name recently been published? Has the name been in the news in an unflattering context? For example, in the series The Greatest American Hero, creators named the protagonist Ralph Hinkley. But when a man with a similar name, John Hinckley Jr., shot then-president Ronald Reagan (a great name, by the way!), Producers changed it to Hanley.

Is your name shared by a figure in the news? Or another character from a classic or very recent book? Do you want that association?

Think of super character names and win the race on characterization at the starter’s gate. Your hero’s essential traits will strike readers before he utters a single word.

3. The so-called “meaningful monogram”

Furthermore, a good name can give insight into your character or foreshadow their fate. For example, tried and true (some would say overdone, but the trend lives to this day), giving your character the significant monogram JC invokes Jesus Christ and martyrdom. Sharp readers will expect them to meet a bad end for a greater cause. Examples number too many to list but here are a few. In these cases, the lives of the characters back up the Christ comparison.

Let’s just take a look:

  • Jim Conklin in The Red Badge of Courage
    He sacrifices his life like Christ, but apparently without any noble reason. An ironic Christ figure. One the other hand, his death may teach his friend, Henry, something about life, death, and manhood. The author, Stephen Crane, backs up the Christ comparison with his mention of a “whipping,” a “solemn ceremony,” and “bloody hands,” as well as an injury in his side (where Jesus was stabbed with a spear). Crane even describes the dying man as “a devotee of a mad religion.”
  • Jesse Custer in Preacher
    Appointed by God to take his place.
  • Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio
    His name itself is a euphemistic replacement for the oath “Jesus Christ!” in general parlance. He teaches Pinocchio morals and warns him against temptation. A mini “Christ the Teacher.”
  • John Connor in The Terminator
    Sent on a mission of salvation for the sake of all mankind, and gives up his life for the cause.
  • Computer-game hero JC Denton
    Also out to save the world, and he may actually be descended from Jesus. According to the theory, JC names subliminally get us to connect these characters with another, more famous person who had them..

Proviso:

But bear in mind that some people claim the whole JC thing has grown fusty and flat. Usually, though, critics feel this way, mostly about unpublished manuscripts, rather than readership after the work has seen the bookstore shelves. Regardless, once your work hits the market, no one will question it, just as in the examples above.

JB-JB-JB & JB

Furthermore, you character could have the initial of some other important personage: JFK, MLK, FDR. Or your JC character could be like Julius Caesar. Or resemble Jesus Christ, but be a woman. Joke initials like FU or WTF are always available for comedies or parodies.

Just look around and you will find other famous initials to borrow. The initials needn’t be those of a real person. Think also here of the many “JB” spies and action heroes:

  • Jason Bourne
  • Jack Bauer
  • Jack Bristow

To remind people of James Bond?

Finally, remember that whatever you do  with your names, have fun. Your readers will, too.

For more effective ways to grab attention for your characters with a standout name, please have a look at Character Names: Parts Two and Three

8 way to make your story stand out

Your manuscript has arrived!

Editors and agents see enough manuscripts in a day to make their heads spin, most of them with the same mistakes. If you want to forestall the “Not again!” reaction, follow these 8 steps to a more competitive story.

1. Make sure you base your story on some kind of action that propels it forward.

 

This could be a problem that the protagonist encounters in the first scene, one that she works the entire length of your story to resolve. Sometimes even writers with a good publishing track record submit what are known as “walking around thinking stories,” which follow the protagonist from encounter to encounter, each one related to her problem in some way, but not bringing us any closer to the point where she solves it.

2. Conversely, avoid the “macho hero story”

in which your protagonist goes from climax to climax like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra. You will have a hard time making this kind of story seem fresh.

3. In a similar vein, avoid repetitive profanity, sex and gore.
If they are necessary for the story, then fine. But these, when not essential, will do nothing to hold the attention of weary and revulsed editors. Quite the opposite. Add alcohol, drugs and rape to the list. The writers of these tales (there are many!) realize they must avoid “walking around thinking stories.” But rather than turning heads, they will be turning stomachs.

4. Sympathize with your characters, even in a comic novel.

Too many agents meet sorry, unrealistic characters who fart, belch, scratch and pick their noses throughout the story. If we don’t feel for you protagonist at least, we will turn off and put your manuscript down.

5. Persist.

As science fiction great John Campbell said: “The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.” You can be absolutely sure your favorite author was rejected far more than you before the publication of her first book.

6. Don’t just submit. Resubmit.

Find the right home from the thousands available online and in print. Editors may reject a newcomer many times before letting him into the fold. Submit, rewrite, resubmit.

7. Be yourself.

Don’t just try to hit the hottest new fad in publication. Chances are prospective agents and editors are sick to death of it. Harlan Ellison put it this way:
“Publishers want to take chances on books that will draw a clamor and some legitimate publicity. They want to publish controversial books. That their reasons are mercenary and yours may be lofty should not deter you.”
They make money off of finding new things.

8. Work on a strong ending.

End your story in the right place. Does you ending focus on particulars and the tying up of loose ends? Or does it focus outward and help us see something greater? Is there an earlier point which would fill the bill? You may have to cut a few pages off the end of your tale.

You can do it. Remember: the good news is, if you can avoid the mistakes that editors see 99 times out of 100, then you have a foot in the door. Make the best of it.