Archive for the ‘Characters’ Category

Naming Characters

How do you name your characters? Do you write the story first, using ‘protag’, as I do sometimes, then find a name which fits? Or do you plan the name beforehand?

In The Story of O, O is never named. Neither is the woman in Rebecca. I love not knowing her name in Rebecca; a brilliant decision from Daphne du Maurier. It means that Rebecca is the name we think of, Rebecca is the image we have, and the main character seems pale in comparison.

I found my notes on how I named Stephanie Searle in Slights. I knew I wanted her to admire Stalin. Stalin means ‘stone’. I wanted a name starting with S, and found that Searle means armour, which seemed to match ‘stone’ and gave me an idea as to what sort of character she was. Stephen means ‘crown’. I thought that worked because she is monarch in the dark room, centre of all attention.

I have two or three name books. I don’t always use them. If I’m struggling, though, I’ll seek out the meaning and match a name that way.

In Walking the Tree, all the characters are named for trees. I sat down with my 1978 Encylopedia Britannica and made a long list. I still love flicking through those books my parents bought for me when I started high school.

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The latest book I’m reading is “T0 the Castle” by Dorothea Malm. Published in 1957, I’m not sure where I got it from, but it cost me a dollar and has a dead insect squashed between the cover the the frontpiece.

It’s described as a gothic romance, and so far the only romance on the horizon is a ‘bastard daughter’ and her long-lost father. Not sure where that’s going, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about that.

There’s a wonderful section where the father and aunt are talking about all their crazy relatives, including Cousin Thibaut who collected his earwax because he thought it must be useful (“His little spoons! No, say something quickly, take it out of my mind!) and Great-Aunt Angele.

Great-Aunt Angele was “of a truly abnormal timidity and had “all sorts of queer ways.”

One of these ‘queer ways’ is that she washes her hair every day.

This really got me thinking about the importance of detail when you’re setting a scene and placing people in it. For me, washing your hair every day or every second day is standard behaviour. In 1957, in a castle where the water had to be carried up two flights of stairs, perhaps once a month was more like it. Elsewhere, today, others will wash once a week and without easy access to the chemicals I use to clean my hair all the time.

Seems shallow, but it means such a lot. The availablility of hot water, the habits of many lifetimes, access to shampoo and conditioner; all of these things need to be considered. It’s hard to avoid writing yourself onto the page, and these small details are the places you can be tricked into doing so!

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Historical memory

One of the things I need to watch myself on when creating a character is to build the right historical memory.

In a recent story, I had a 17 year old studying in 1942 for her final year of high school. She was  snacking on carrot sticks and hommous dip, dried fruit, garlic bread and chicken noodle soup.

On my second run through, I realised that these are the snacks a girl of today would eat. Not a girl of 1942. Not even a woman of my age, studying in the 80s.

So I asked around to find some year-appropriate snacks. I changed the description to include bread, butter and jam.

It’s a tricky thing, this backtracking. I have a fantasic  reference book called The Chronicle of World History, which lists, without opinion, the events of the day.  Reading it gave me a better idea of the time she was studying in.

I skip her forward to 1962 and came up with the same mistake. I wrote a bar scene which would be right today, but not 40 years ago. It won’t take much to fix it, but I need to place myself back then to get it right, even if it’s a small scene and I only use a word or two of description. It’s the sights and smells, as well. The things that happened in the news. Adolf Eichmann was hanged that year and I imagine it would have caused much discussion. Is my character the type to discuss it? What about the people she is with?

Writing the past is tricky but I like the mental challenge it brings me. Somehow, the last four or five stories I’ve worked on have had at least some element of the past in them. You need to draw the line between whacking in every bit of research you find and creating the feel of the time. Understanding how someone grew up, what their world was like as a child, can help me understand what sort of adult that person is and how they make their decisions in life.

Not just fiction, but real human beings as well. Knowing something about a person (that they lost a parent at an early age, or that they moved around a lot as a child, or that their mother was a well-known charity worker) helps you accept them, understand them.

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