Monday, January 18, 2010

Names, Part 2.

My characters don't name themselves. When I give a character a name, it's the result of a lot of work on my part. What's weird, though, is that after the first main character is named, most of the other names come pretty readily. (But that first one is a killer.)

For example. In the novel I'm working on now, the Heretic King, I had two main characters. It's offworld fantasy, and one of the main characters is from fantasy-Egypt/Greece and the other MC is from fantasy-India. I had a bunch of scenes in my head that I was just bursting to write, but I've never been able to start a novel without named characters. So I spent a day (literally, 8+ hours) trying to think up names for these characters. I must have read half of Then I had to go to a baby shower. I spent the car ride there and back (and the whole party, except, of course, while we were having cake) thinking of names. At twelve that night, I finally came up with some names and started writing. (The girl's name is Sabrai and the guy's name is Ptolemael, in case you were interested.)

I've never really given a character a name that had a meaning, like Miri does--I go more for form than function, I guess--but I really like most of my character names all the same. So the moral of this story is: when it comes to names (and most other things), do what works for you.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Names, or, Characters Do Name Themselves, I'm Not Crazy, I Swear

Anyone who knows me and has been on speaking terms with me since mid-October or so has heard me chatter (nigh incessantly at times) about my fifth National Novel Writing Month Novel, Clockwork Wings. And anyone who's spoken to me further knows that I attribute a lot of rather active traits to my characters - that I discuss them more in terms of living "people" than most people really get.

This year's effort stood out in a number of ways. From a practical standpoint, it's the second NaNo I've finished within November (the fourth NaNo I've finished overall) and the first I've finished within November with a book-length wordcount (my first year didn't precisely limp to its conclusion at 52k, but there wasn't a great deal of urgency in its pace). This year presented me with my greatest extra-NaNo workload - all the high school juniors in the audience can sympathize here - and somehow it was my best showing to date. (And I confess I'm worried about my next attempt, considering that several fellow Mooselings suffered something of a sixth-year NaNo slump. But I think my stubbornness is equal to the challenge.)

Maybe I'm finally learning to finish what I start. Maybe it's true that if you want something done, you should ask a busy person to do it - to quote Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, if you've already got a million things to do, adding number one-million-and-one is no big deal.

But I'd be remiss in not crediting this year's monumental sucess at least in part to my cast of characters - an astounding group of people that I'd known (if you'll forgive the conceit) anywhere from two weeks to four years before I started writing their story.

My focus on the characters was an interesting reversal: while many writers I've spoken with (though by no means all) identify themselves as either a plot writer or a character writer, I've always been an avowed setting writer. A compulsive worldbuilder. I started drawing maps shortly after reading The Chronicles of Narnia in the second grade - my middle school notebooks are riddled with them. I love flags, I love cultures, I especially love languages (as anyone who's seen my class schedule can attest) and there's no greater intellectual joy than creating a world that is complete unto itself, with its conceits and dysfunctions providing and enhancing any conflict, any story I could place there.

This time, now that I'm thinking about it, I guess the setting did come first, or a very (dimensions-wise) small part of it: the Gray Tower, the site of the execution of traitors, my analog to London's Tower Green. (I can admit this.) For most of 2006, I planned to write my second NaNo about a young captain of the royal guard who would be forced to execute her two best lieutenants and best friends. (I was a morbid twelve-year-old. Sue me.)

The captain's name, from the first time I pictured her, was Marsa. I didn't look into it, didn't run searches on word elements like I do now that I've discovered I just knew that it was her name, that it fit.

Marsa. My duty-bound militant guard captain.

Mars. Roman god of war.

I put this together in December (2009) and it blew my mind. I'd read mythology before, so I'm sure I was very, very subconsciously thinking it when creating this character, but it still surprised me, this accidentally perfect name.

That's not the only example. My main character this year popped up in a scenelet I wrote on the bus last May, and that morning in first period I asked for a female name at random. A good friend said, equally at random, "Claire." I decided I liked it, stuck it on, and didn't think much more about it until October came and I was putting together a plan for my story. Claire's clarity - her clear vision of problems and solutions, her brightness of outlook - were her defining characteristics. Another perfect name, without any input from me.

Now, several of my names were researched and planned. The deciding factor in naming the bodyguard Alexei was that one of its meanings was "protector"; my wing-technician Ciel was very intentionally named for the sky. Claire's parents were named, in a roundabout way, for the gods of tricks and fire in a couple of different mythologies, and that says a lot about their personalities. I liked names that say something about the character - I think it's my right as a writer to have as much fun as I possibly can with them.

And I do. Names are fun. Great fun.

But they're even more fun when they present themselves to me whole-cloth, hiding their true importance until I stumble across it.

Names. Reason number #23 I love writing.