Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ask O: How Do I Find Just the Right Name for My Characters?

Good morning! Ocieanna here. It’s Ask O Wednesday, the time when I answer your questions about writing. Fiction, nonfiction, plot, setting, research, character development—anything you want, I'll try to answer! Write me a note with your question and I'll give it a go.

This week’s question: How do I find just the right name for my characters?

That’s an important and sometimes difficult topic because names matter—are worth thinking about, discussing, and refining. I want my characters’ names to do something—exactly what can vary—but overall, I want them to resonate with my readers.

How do we christen our characters? Here are some techniques I’ve found as well as some “Why’s”.

Poor Asheley Wilkes
Sometimes we pick based chiefly on how a name sounds. A well-toned moniker helps readers relate to the carefully crafted players in our stories. Consider some familiar characters. From Pride and Prejudice, Bingly chimes of happy congeniality; Darcy sounds dark. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’hara fits perfectly, as does Rhett Butler. And don’t forget poor Asheley Wilkes—what hope did he have with that flimsy name?

To work through this process, I throw names on my characters like changes of clothes. Does Bubba McFlat fit? No. How ‘bout Charlie Prince? Not really. Jonathan Kirkpatrick. Yeah, that one’s pretty good. Dickens mastered this. Ebeneezer Scrooge—what name could sour the ears better? And Fezziwig rings of a jolly party thrower. Little Tim? Can’t help but feel sorry for the sweet tyke.

Why? Picking names based on sound adds another tool to give the reader a deeper sense of satisfaction with our stories. On the flip side, an ill-fitting name distracts and annoys.

Find the Hidden Meaning
My husband recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Honey,” he said, his voice full of thought, “I think the character Evangeline represents the gospel.” (Evangel means gospel. How smart is he?) Lots of names are pregnant with meaning. Did you know Aslan means lion in Turkish? And think about Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout—she’s scouting out the truth. Or a strong leader might have the name, Leo, suggesting lion.

If you have a well-defined character, make a list of his or her traits. Then go to a baby names web site and look up names that go with the meanings you’ve listed. You It’s sure to spark your creativity.

Why? Layers, layers, layers. Giving our characters meaningful names adds the yummy depth that keeps readers coming back for more.

Do I Know You?
Another name-picking device springs from allusions to well-known characters. Remember Francine Rivers’ book Redeeming Love? The hero’s name was Michael Hosea—and, well, the book’s patterned after the biblical story of Hosea.

I’m sure Moby Dick author Herman Melville had a purpose in naming his monomaniacal captain after evil king Ahab. In the book Ella Enchanted, the hero and heroine’s names are, Ella and Char. It took me till the last chapter to figure out she was pointing me to Cinderella and Prince Charming. I’m a little slow.

A twist on this is naming characters with the first letters of their famous precursors’ names. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s twins Cal and Aron coincide with Cain and Abel, which they represent. Liz Curtis Higgs’ Scotland-set novel, Thorn in My Heart, mimics the lives of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. Her corresponding character names begin with the same first letters.

Why? Allusion is a time-tested literary device. Using it in the name-picking process gives readers a clue—one perhaps no one else will notice (or so they think)—to the character’s true identity.

Quick Tip
Reminder: Be careful that your characters’ names fit the time period they live in. You wouldn’t want an American Revolution era gentleman named, Biff, or a World War II lady called Madison.

Though naming our precious characters can be challenging, finding the most fitting names not only adds layers of depth and meaning, it’s also satisfying as a writer.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

At several writers’ conferences, I’ve been told to study published books to find nuggets of writing wisdom. My husband and I watched The Secret Life of Bees on television this weekend and I was really surprised that he enjoyed it (maybe it’s because he’s a beekeeper.) But I have a feeling that the real reason that he liked it so much is because it was a great example of literary fiction. I’ve read the book several times and the movie stayed fairly true to the novel. So, I decided to glean what I could from this New York Times bestseller.

The Secret Life of Bees is about a young white girl and her black caretaker who flee their 60’s era small Southern town to stay with three black sisters who have an apiary (that’s a bee farm to those of you from the city) in the fictional town of Tiburon, South Carolina. The young girl, Lily, is desperate to learn more about her mother, especially after her abusive father tells her that her mother abandoned her. Lily helps her nanny, Rosaleen, escape after she was arrested and beaten for insulting a white man.

Opening line. I’ve always heard that you want to have a killer first line in your book. The opening line of this movie is, “I killed my mama when I was four years old.” Wow! Talk about a breath-taker. I immediately wanted to know more about the narrator and her situation. The opening line of the book is a little tamer, but it still piqued my interest.

Theme. Theme ties the book together and gives it resonance – something I’ll talk about later. In this case, each chapter of the book featured a quote from a beekeeping book that focused on the theme of the chapter. For example, the first chapter started with a quote about the queen bee and how the hive reacts when the queen is gone. That chapter tells how Lily and her father have coped – or tried to – since Lily’s mother’s death ten years ago.

Plot. Although literary fiction is considered to be character-driven – as opposed to plot-driven – it still has to have a plot. Here are a few plot points from the book (without giving too much away):

Lily is on a quest to find out more about her mother. She has two mentors, Rosaleen and August, the eldest beekeeping sister. One “inciting incident” is when Rosaleen pours tobacco juice on the bigoted white man’s shoes and she is beaten. The “door of no return” is when they escape from the hospital where Rosaleen is being treated under guard. At that point they can’t return to their town because T. Ray (Lily’s father) is becoming increasingly abusive and Rosaleen could be lynched if she returns to jail.

The sisters, August, June and May, seem to live in their own special world. But Lily and Rosaleen’s entrance brings the outside world inside with all it racism and hatred. August is the steadfast one, taking all the trouble in stride, but June resents Lily’s presence. May is the special one who feels all the troubles of the world down to her soul. The trials affect each one differently, and the climax contains plot twists that I definitely didn’t see coming.

Resonance. Resonance has been explained as the thing that makes you go, “ah” at the end of a book. As I mentioned earlier, it could be a recurring theme, a twist, or a satisfying ending. This book has a wonderfully satisfying ending. Let’s just say that the heroine finds the object of her quest.

So, what do you think? Did it have something to offer those of us who are aspiring authors?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Getting to Know Your Characters by Jeannie Campbell, Part Four

This month, character therapist, Jeannie Campbell, has shared a great series with  us on characterization. She's back with the conclusion today. Enjoy!

Getting to Know your Characters, Part Four
by Jeannie Campbell

This week we’re finishing up my series of four questions your characters need to answer and why. We’ve covered:

1. What is your biggest fear?
2. What is your biggest accomplishment
3. What is your biggest regret?

So far, these have been questions that I’ve selected from my intake form on my website where I give free psychological mini-assessments to fictional characters. But today’s question is one that I reserve for really digging deeper in a full assessment (valued at $14.99).

Question 4: What concept or principle would you be willing to die for?

The basis of this question stems from Dr. Stanley Williams book, The Moral Premise. Characters usually aren’t motivated to action by trivial thoughts and feelings. They, like real human beings, have core values that ultimately influence what they do, say, and think.

Whatever your character identifies as being worthy and important enough to die for is a good indication of what they value. Dr. Williams writes, “Psychologically, a set of values is the fertilizer for ideas, ideologies, and thought that course through our mind and soul and give us motivation to take action” (p. 9).

Dr. Williams then goes on to say that stories have to grow from a conflict of values, or the result will be “nothing more than…unmotivated juxtapositions.”

So while the answer to this question says a lot about the character, which I use for characterization purposes, it also says a lot about the structure of the book. How? I compare the answer to this question with the answer to two additional questions that are on my free intake form:

1)      What is your external goal in the book? Why do you want that goal and who/what stands in the way?
2)      What is your internal goal in the book? Why do you want that goal and who/what stands in the way?

These are sound questions for your characters to answer anyway, but when paired with the value question asked above, the three together give me a great sense of whether the storyworld you have developed is the best environment to showcase the particular character you’ve dropped on my couch.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this series of learning how to get to know your heroes and heroines better. Stop by my website,, and let me know if I can ever put one of your fictional characters on my couch…for real. 

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC # 45366) in the state of California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit in Humboldt County, and enjoys working mainly with children and parents. Two of her “therapeutic romance” manuscripts have garnered the high praise of being finalists in the Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), of which she is an active member. She writes a popular monthly column for Christian Fiction Online Magazine and has been featured in many other e-zines, newspapers, and blogs.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Silencing the Harpies by Jane Kirkpatrick

Those doubts that can plague our thoughts and threaten to rob our confidence … Are they currently nagging you? You’re not alone! Do you realize that most writers fight them? Take heart! There are successful ways to combat them. This Fortifying Friday, guest author Jane Kirkpatrick is here to share how she silences the harpies. ~ Dawn

Silencing the Harpies
by Jane Kirkpatrick

I once wrote a piece for Writer's Digest that went like this:  Writing is like undressing in front of the window at night with the lights on.  Getting a rejection letter means someone was watching me undress in front of the window at night.  With the lights on.  And what they saw was so awful they pulled the shade down.

I've had a few shade-pulling moments.  But I've had some success as well writing 17 historical novels based on the lives of actual historical people.  My writing has won awards and had starred Publisher Weekly reviews. What's gotten me through the discouraging times has been finding ways to silence the harpies, the negative voices asking "What makes you think anyone will buy your book?" or "What you just wrote?  No one will give up cleaning their toilets to read that." Now I've ventured into a new genre with my first contemporary novel, Barcelona Calling, (Zondervan) and the harpies are loud.

So here are some of my favorite harpy charges and ways I've tried to respond.

1.  You say you're a writer but you've never won a Pulitzer or even been nominated for one.
1.a I write because I care about the story and will be faithful to it even if no one else is.
            2.  You're too wordy. You get in the way of your
2.a  I know how to edit, revise and rewrite, all skills necessary for the writing life.
            3. You say you're a creative writer but you're
not making much money at it.
3.a -I've been blessed with talent, publishers, readers, friends, time and a supportive family, the real riches of life.

4. You write bland and clich├ęd little stories that won’t make any real difference in a person’s life.
            4.a Writing heals; stories change the world, so my readers
             tell me.

            5. You don't write everyday; you're not disciplined.
5.a I meet my deadlines or ask for extensions in a timely manner; I write even when I’m not inspired because I can’t wait for inspiration.

            6. You’re too preachy in your writing or too tentative
            and puny.
6.a  Without judgment I write to invite others to consider and explore their own lives. I write with a moral purpose that Anne Lamont says is "to feel deeply."

            7.  No one will give up cleaning their toilets to read
this book.
7.a I write of compassion, care and love and readers have given up housework to read my work or so they've told me and I'll listen to them and not you!

8. You're an historical novelist. You can't write a meaningful contemporary story with humor.
8.a  If I fail at Barcelona Calling, at least I'll have risked. I know how to pick myself up and start again.

It's easier to recognize the negative voices than it is to refute them and I often have to find new ways to put duct tape on their little mouths.  But it's worthy work for a writer.

Jane Kirkpatrick has written eighteen novels and three nonfiction titles in the past twenty years. Her essays and features have appeared in more than fifty national and international publications.  She's a two-time winner of the WILLA Literary Award and twice been a finalist for the Christy, the Spur, the WILLA Literary Award and the Oregon Book Award. Her first novel earned the prestigious Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Center. Jane believes that stories are the sparks that light our ancestors' lives, they're the embers we blow on to illuminate our own. For 26 years, she and her husband made their lives on a remote ranch in Oregon driving seven miles to their mailbox.  They now live on 2 acres near Bend, Oregon with their two dogs and one cat. Jane is a Wisconsin native, a former mental health therapist and administrator and consultant to American Indian tribes.  Barcelona Calling is her first contemporary novel.

To learn more about Jane and her books, please visit: