Naming Characters? Be kind to your readers

Characters need less and less detail as they have smaller roles

Not long ago I was concerned that I might not be able to fulfill my New Years’ Resolution of reading 21 books in 2021. One of the reasons for this was the relatively large number of books I did not finish due to problems with the writing that squashed the joy of reading. Surprisingly, when I shifted genres from cozy mysteries to YA fantasy, I found the reading more satisfying. Since I enjoy both genres (and many others), I believe it was just coincidence.

I am pleased to report that I exceeded my goal with ease and am still reading voraciously. I stumbled on boxed sets of delightful young adult books. The plots were entertaining, and the writing was good—not excellent, but good. The first set had nine books, and I read and enjoyed them all.

The second was also a set of nine, written as three trilogies. I read the first two trilogies, but the third did not hold my attention. I did not find the characters as interesting. The third box set had eight books, and I read them all because I liked the characters and the story held my interest. The writing was not consistent. In the last book or two all the characters began smirking—sometimes several times on a single page. Ugh! The characters lost a lot of their individuality and their dialogue became almost indistinguishable as the snarky humor spread to infect them all.

As a writer and editor, I cannot read without picking up on the things that bother me. I read for the joy of reading, but also to learn what I can about the craft. Like many readers, I read quickly and often take shortcuts. One of these shortcuts is not storing the names of tertiary characters. I have enough trouble remembering the names of real people I speak to regularly. I don’t have the bandwidth to remember characters who walk across the stage in one or two chapters of a novel.

1. If you must name two secondary or tertiary characters with names that begin with the same letter, please make the names markedly different in length. The outline or picture of the name should be distinct—especially with names that are not familiar. Don’t make the reader read every letter before recognizing the character.

2. You do not have to name every person who appears in the work—especially in a nine-volume boxed set. Some characters can be identified by a physical characteristic or a title, etc. One rule of thumb that might be useful is to remember that characters who do not have character arcs seldom need names,

3. Please do not introduce too many characters at once. I must work hard to remember names of real people I meet at a gathering—I don’t want to have to work hard to read a book.

4. Please don’t change things mid-stream. The latest book I read switched from last names to first names as the relationships became less formal. It was fine for the major characters, but the secondary characters never sorted themselves out in my head. Remember that you the writer have been living with these characters far longer than I have. I live with your characters for a few hours whereas you have been living with them for weeks, months, or even years. The intimate backgrounds that you construct as you write give the characters depth, but I don’t have access to your character sheets.

5. My final suggestion is to make sure you do make character sheets. If a character, no matter how minor, has been named, for goodness sake, please keep the same name with the same spelling throughout the entire book or series. The same is true, of course, for eye color, mannerisms, or other traits that make them unique. Anything else tells the reader you are not taking your craft seriously.

If you want to find some interesting short pieces, author interviews, or other tips for writers, you can sign up for the free newsletter published semi-monthly by three writing women.

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
― Stephen King

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Writing Short Stories

Some writers love writing short stories. They love the attention to detail. They love the master stroke of a twist at the end. Other writers decry the lack of space to develop character and intricate plots. Whichever camp you belong to, short stories can help get your name out in the world as a writer.

The following is taken from my writing in a recent issue of the free Writing Women newsletter.

A simple internet search reveals there are 5 steps to writing a short story. No, it’s 6 simple steps. Oops, 9 proven steps. Apparently, both Neil Gaiman and Kurt Vonnegut had 8 rules, but not the same rules. One website pared that to 5 important rules. Another found 7 immutable rules, and yet another found 24. Scrolling a bit more reveals the 5, 9, or 10 elements of a short story. Stop! We’re here for the Readin’ and Ritin’ not the Rithmetic.

Let’s take it word by word.

  • Writing — a good short story, must follow the same general principals of writing. To name a few: 
    • The reader wants to connect with the protagonist. Characters must have depth and emotion.
    • The setting should contain just enough description to allow the reader to build a mental picture, but bear in mind that sometimes the setting is a character.
    • Short pieces are good places to display your versatility. Look for powerful verbs and descriptors to convey maximum meaning with few words. 
  • Short — Make sure every word counts. After writing the story, go through it paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and word by word making sure each element moves the story forward.
    • Focus on one aspect of the story: character, action, setting, and atmosphere must be there, but one must dominate.
    • Leave the complicated conflicts, inner tensions, and convoluted plots for your next novel.
    • Sketch your characters and your descriptions with as few words as possible. Leave out any unnecessary details, but don’t leave things so nebulous the reader is left adrift.
  • Stories— The plot must evoke emotion in the characters. The conflict and its resolution are vital elements, but without emotion your story will be flat.
    • Keep your story coherent by sticking to one character’s point of view. This does not have to be the protagonist, and often suspense requires the POV character to be secondary and not privy to the protagonist’s thoughts.
    • Limit your characters, but not your imagination.
    • The piece should flow from beginning to a satisfying end.

If you want to find some interesting short pieces, you can sign up for the free newsletter published semi-monthly by three writing women.

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
― John Steinbeck

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Blog of Accountability

Lot of room for improvement

My last blog announced two New Years Resolutions. I haven’t given up or abandoned them…yet. However, I have been procrastinating writing this blog of accountability, hoping to be able to announce a stellar performance. Three stars is not exactly stellar.

FIRST RESOLUTION: Reading for enjoyment
In nearly four months, I have read four and three halves books. I reviewed three of the books. The fourth book I considered mediocre so I did not review it. The fifth book I abandoned half way through. There are too many good books out there to waste my time on a book in which the main character annoyed me. I’m still working on the sixth book, but I put it down and started another one. I may pick it up again.

Helpful hint for writers: If you are going to write a book featuring someone who lies to her best friend, breaks promises, and lives like a slob, there better be a character arc that shows self-recognition of flaws and at least attempts at improvement if you want your reader to bond with the character. I skipped to the last chapter to find out whodunnit and found the character unchanged. So much for finding a series I could binge read.

SECOND RESOLUTION: Expand my reach as a writer
In February, I joined two other writers and did an online book launch for my new food memoir Breakfast in Palestine. This was a new experience, and it was a lot of fun. Terry Korth Fischer launched her debut mystery Gone Astray, and Linda Harris Sittig featured Counting Crows, the third book in her Threads of Courage series of historical novels.

Helpful hint for writers: You can always benefit from teamwork. We are not rivals, we are colleagues. We each have a unique platform and followers—even if our platform is small. In our case, we were writing in three different genres, yet our target readers were similar, and we would each benefit from the overlap.

Will I make my goals by the end of the year? I don’t know, but being a writer has taught me that success does not come without hard work. I will keep trying.

PS: If you have any suggestions for me, please leave a comment. Bear in mind, I want to read for enjoyment, and for me that means a happy ending (no romance, please).

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21 in 2021

Flying in the face of all known evidence, I still make New Years Resolutions and encourage others to do the same. Yes, I remember my blog post saying that nearly a third of all New Years Resolutions are abandoned in the first two weeks of the year.

But I really mean it this time. Echoes of five-year-olds everywhere. This time is different because I’m resolving to do something I want to do—for me. I want to read just for fun. This means while I’m reading I’m going to ignore the twenty ebooks on writing that I just downloaded. I’m going to ignore the tsunami of submissions that I should be reading. I’m going to ignore dirty laundry, unmade beds, and quarreling dust bunnies. And the most important part is I’m going to ignore my nagging conscience while I do it. 🙂

Unfortunately, my conscience is a real nag. I was only two pages into my first book of the year when it started screaming at me. The only way I could get it to leave me alone during my reading time was to make another resolution. So I did.

1. Read 21 books in 2021 for pure entertainment.

2. Do 21 things to expand my reach as a writer by going outside my comfort zone. This means writing in new ways and venturing into the dreaded land of Marketing.

So why am I writing about this? Following my own advice, I am writing this to set up an accountability check. I’ll take you along with me on the journey into new territory and let you know how well things are going.

Today I have accomplished one step: I have dipped a toe into the water and posted a partial cover reveal on my Facebook page, something I have never done before. Later today I intend to curl up on the couch with a cozy quilt and a hot cuppa to get to know the characters in my new book.

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Breaking Through Writer’s Block

You can’t think yourself out of a writing block, you have to write yourself out of a thinking block. — John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey, 06-25-11

Are you stuck on a particular passage in your writing? Don’t worry—it happens to all of us. There are many ways to tackle the problem. As usual, some are more productive than others. Some hints:

  • DON’T throw up your hands and quit.
  • DON’T beat your head against it until blood drips off your chin. You could short out your keyboard.
  • DO take a short break. Get a snack or a cup of hot tea while listening to music. Take a walk outside. Call a friend to chat about good things—not to complain about your problems.
  • DO try to get a fresh perspective. 
    • Stand in front of the mirror and explain what you want to write to yourself. Record what you say on your phone. If you don’t know how to do this, do a search for “how to record a voice memo.” Make two or three recordings and listen to yourself. Where does it break down? How can you fix it?
    • If you’re writing fiction, write the scene from another character’s point of view. Try using a character who has opposing views. Describe it from the POV of a stranger looking through an open door. Have the character tell about it five years later. 
    • Write the passage as fast as you can in five different ways. Read them aloud and highlight the good parts of each.
  • DO let it simmer in the back of your mind if the above suggestions don’t work. Work on another project today and think about it again when you turn off the light tonight. Oddly enough, you can sometimes untie the tangles while you sleep. When you wake up in the morning, try thinking it through before you open your eyes and let the new day chase your dream thoughts away.
  • DO skip the passage and pick up the narrative in the next chapter. My first drafts often have a couple of blank lines with a note to self: Bridge Out – need connecting paragraph. When you forget it for weeks or months until your first revision, it’s amazing how much easier it is. You already know what comes on either side of it.

Do you have a trick to jump start your writing? Please share in the comments. 

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