What’s In a Name? Everything!

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When I create a character, I love mapping out personality quirks, physical appearance, and flaws, but my absolute favorite thing to do is pick a name.  A lot of thought and planning goes into a picking a name because there is so much riding on the fact that it has to “work” on so many levels.  The name of a character can make or break a reader’s opinion right from the first page. I know this from my own experience as a finicky reader who will put a book back on the shelf if I don’t like the main character’s name.

When I set out to write my first and second novels, I spent a ridiculous amount of time deciding on names for my characters.  The process goes much deeper than picking a name I like or settling on something that’s easy to type.  All names have meaning, so its imperative to find one that matches the character’s personality and relates to the his or her ultimate journey in the story.

My favorite place to go hunting is in the pages of a baby name book.  I own a few of them, despite the fact that I’ve never had a baby other than the fictional “babies” I create.  Meanings of names can vary based on etymology and spelling, so its good to have at least three baby name books from different sources floating around.  Baby name books not only tell the meaning of a name, but also the ethnic background of the name, which was very handy when I was looking for Greek names for my second novel.

After countless hours of paging through baby name books, making brainstorm lists, and matching meanings to the cores of each character, I’ve managed to create a cast of aptly named characters for each of my novels.  I thought I’d share some of those names and why I chose them.

Novel #1

Noah – peacemaker. The main character is very passive (his fatal flaw), which leads to a lot of internal strife.  The name of Noah suits him because the story starts with him doing what makes everyone else happy in order to keep the peace, yet he remains at war with himself.  I like the irony of that, especially as he grows toward a different path. His journey is one towards placating the conflict between what everyone tells him to do and what he knows is right for himself.

Quinn – planner, enclosed dwelling. The secondary main character is a crotchety old man who has spent most of his life regretting his mistakes, hence the metaphorical connection of an enclosed dwelling. He is a loner by choice, until he meets Noah for which he plans the ultimate life lesson.

Novel #2

Amanda – to love, fit to be loved.   I was busy creating a profile for the main character when her name popped into my head.  When I looked it up and saw the meaning, I knew the name Amanda came straight from my muse. Amanda is a young girl who is very alone and struggling with the absence of her father and her mother’s debilitating illness.  She isn’t a whiner, but rather a fighter who needs someone who won’t turn their back on her when things get tough. Her journey of finding strength she didn’t know she had and understanding what it means to love and be loved unconditionally ties beautifully into the meaning behind her name.

Ian – believer. The second main character put up a little more of a fight than his counterpart.  Due to his true identity  (which I cannot divulge), I needed a name that could easily be converted into a name of Greek origin.  The name Ian stood out for its meaning as this character is the ultimate “believer” in humanity as a whole, (and Amanda, in particular).  However, it also morphs to the Greek name of Iason in a way that won’t confuse the reader later on.  His journey starts with believing his life is predestined towards a certain path, but ends with believing his ultimate dream is closer than he thinks.

The art of naming varies from writer to writer, but we all have the same goal of creating believable characters.  Perhaps, I think a little too hard about how to name my characters, but its a big part of how I connect to them.  The harder I work to find the right name for them, the deeper I have to look into their souls.  In doing so, I learn how to tell their stories.

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c.b.w. 2012

The Notebook That Built My Novel

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When I first got the notion to write a novel, the most daunting part was getting started.  I had the inspiration, a basic story idea, and a main character, but I realized very quickly none of my ideas mattered unless there was a system in place to give them room to grow.  A journal wasn’t big enough for the job and a laptop didn’t offer the tactile experience I needed to connect to my ideas.  What I ended up creating was The Big Notebook.

I went out and bought the largest spiral notebook I could find along with a set of highlighters, my favorite blue pens, a pair of scissors, and a glue stick.  Then I collected catalogs, magazines, and newspapers from around the house.  With these tools, I could start the mad process of brainstorming or what I like to call “extreme outlining.”  The only rule was anything goes if it has even a remote chance of fitting in with the basic inspiration for the story.

Now, I am an extremely organized person who is well known for color-coding and alphabetizing everything.  Initially, I was going to divide the notebook into specific sections for different categories of information, but that plan fell apart almost instantly. Ideas don’t present themselves in any particular order in my head, so it made more sense to let the notebook come together with a more holistic approach.  In effect, I made a giant mess that defied all organizational logic, but at least the ideas were no longer just floating in my head.

Elements of the mess were then classified into a set of categories I’ve listed below. Underneath each category is a brief summary of what I collected and/or scribbled on random pages.  To keep it all straight, I used a system of highlighter color-coding and symbols.

Characters

  • Character cards. Every character got a card that included ideas for names, mini-bios, age, physical traits, quirks, goals, fatal flaws, and saving graces.  As the plot evolved, I continued to add information about their roles in the story.
  • Wardrobe pages.  I went through magazines, catalogs, and clothing store ads to look for clothes my characters might wear.  I cut out an entire wardrobe for all the main characters and pasted it into the notebook.  Each character got a spread and it really helped shape their personalities in a visual sense.

Above: Part of the main character’s wardrobe spread.

  • Personal belongings pages.  Every character has special objects that belong to them – things that define them as individuals.  Through brainstorming I knew what these items were, but I still wanted a strong visual that gave specifics. In the case of the main character, I needed an old camera.  Image searches online, plus a little reading allowed me to track down the perfect camera and a picture to paste in my notebook.

Story

  • I did a lot of free writing to loosen up my imagination, which lead to endless streams of brainstorm bulleting.  If an idea popped into my head, I wrote it down.  The handwriting is atrocious and some thoughts wind all the way around the margins.  Less than half of my rambling was actually used, but the process itself got me to the core of the story.  The brainstorming aspect of writing is probably my favorite step of the process.  Out of all the categories, this one takes up the most space!
  • Sometimes I’d wake up at night with full paragraphs streaming out of my head, so there are multiple pages of complete passages, (many of which have made it to final draft!).

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How Music Helped Me Write A Novel

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When I set out to write my novel, I had only a vague picture of my main character, Noah.  I could see him and I knew most of his story, but the stuff that hides deep inside a person remained a mystery until I started constructing his character profile.  After a mess of notebook pages and scribbling, I realized character building takes more than just pulling things out of my imagination.  I needed to grab onto something concrete in order to get a real sense of this guy’s soul.  As it turned out, music was the key to understanding him and his journey.

I started by scanning through my iTunes library and randomly listening to songs of all genres.  I asked myself what Noah would blast in his car or what he would listen to when things didn’t go his way.  As I listened, I wrote down song titles when they made me think “That’s Noah.”  It didn’t take long for a very distinct profile to emerge.  Noah was all about good ol’ rock n’ roll, grunge, and a thumping beat.  He has strong emotions that he keeps locked up, so his music had to have the same vibe.

Noah’s Playlist:

Precious Declaration – Collective Soul

Allison Road – Gin Blossoms

Waiting For The End – Linkin Park

Propehcy – Remy Zero

Iridescent – Linkin Park

Shine – Collective Soul

Unwell – Matchbox 20

Gone Missing – Maximo Park

Long Day – Matchbox 20

For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield

Against the Wind – Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

Alive – Pete Yorn

Heavy – Collective Soul

Anything by John Mellencamp and Eric Clapton

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Each of the above songs helped to flush out the subtle nuances of Noah’s character regarding mood, temperament, attitude, and emotions.  On days when it was hard to find him, the music put me into his head and it helped me see things through his eyes.

Once I found songs for Noah, I looked for music that fit his story, a soundtrack of sorts.  The feel had to be similar to Noah’s Music, but it didn’t necessarily have to be something he’d crank up on the radio.  The music was more for me as his creator and narrator.  I looked for songs that lyrically told part of Noah’s story, while also encompassing his personality.  The soundtrack had to be strong enough to trigger the mindset I needed to be fully immersed in the story, even after a long day at work. Just like music creates mood and tone in film, it can do the same thing for the process of writing.

Story Soundtrack:

Angry – Matchbox 20

Life is Life – Noah & the Whale

All at Once – Pete Yorn

The Way It Is – Bruce Hornsby

Robot Boy – Linkin Park

Your Life is Now – John Mellencamp

Shadow of the Day – Linkin Park

Acoustic #3 – Goo Goo Dolls

Better Days – Goo Goo Dolls

Listen – Collective Soul

Bed of Lies – Matchbox 20

Counting Blue Cars – Dishwalla

Fake Empire – The National

Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve

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While this is only a small selection, each song relates directly to major turning points in my novel. They all inspired something like a plot point, an emotional response from Noah, or a subtle shift in tone.  I’m usually a slave to outlines on large projects, so I needed a constant reminder not to be so rigid.  The music got me thinking in different directions and gave me the spirit to let Noah and his story evolve in a more organic way.

c.b. 2011