Tag Archives: character creation

Characterization – The Art of Naming Characters #amwriting

When laying down the first draft of a work in progress, I always give every walk-on a name, right down to the dog. I generally write with an outline, but during NaNoWriMo, my stream of consciousness takes over, and the story veers away from the outline.

namesOnce NaNoWriMo is over, I try to shave my cast of thousands down to a reasonable level.

What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen. I say introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense.

I now have 3 hard and fast rules for deciding who should be named and who should not. Sometimes I am good at following them. Other times—not.

  1. Is this character someone the reader should remember?Even if they offer information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they must be named. Throw-away characters provide clues to help our protagonist complete their quest. Also, they can show us something about the protagonist and give hints about their personality or past.
  2. Does the person return later in the story, or are they just set dressing? Are they part of the scenery of, say, a coffee shop or a store? They don’t need a name if they are only a component of world-building.
  3. Only give names to characters who advance the plot.

In my experience as a reader, the pacing an author is trying to establish comes to a halt when a character who is only included for the ambiance has too much time devoted to them. If they are set dressing, they should be nameless.

When we are writing a scene, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do these people advance the plot?
  • Do they help or hinder the protagonist in some crucial way?
  • Do they provide essential background information we won’t get any other way?
  • Is their presence a necessary part of world-building?

storybyrobertmckeeTake a second look at the characters in each scene and remove those with no real purpose. (Save everything you cut in a separate file—you might want to reuse these characters someday.)

This is true of a novel, a screenplay, or a short story. Names alert us, telling us a character will have an important role in the story.

  • Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.”
  • Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know? If not, don’t give them a name.

Novelists can learn a lot about writing a good, concise scene from screenwriters.

  • An excellent book on craft, and one I highly recommend, is Story by Robert McKee.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. In the second draft, we hunt for the distractions we may have inadvertently introduced in our first draft. Having too many named characters in a scene is easy to fix.

  • We remove side characters from the scene if they have nothing to contribute.
  • Walk-on characters can be identified in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them.

When Joley entered the café, all the seats were taken but one at the counter between a man in paint-stained coveralls and a woman with a briefcase at her feet. She caught Nathan’s eye, and he brought her a coffee. “We need to talk,” she whispered.

“I get off at four,” he replied. He refilled several coffees at the counter, then carried the pot to the tables.

The tendency to make every character a memorable person is one we can’t indulge. The reader will become confused if too many characters are named.

When I first began writing full-time, I learned a lesson the hard way about naming characters. I have a main character named Marya in one of my early novels, and she’s central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name, but my mind must have been in a rut when I thought that one up. For some stupid reason, I named her Marta.

You can probably see where this is going—the two names are nearly identical.

name quote, richard II shakespeareWhat is even worse, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly was a protagonist with a significant storyline. She actually becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one for publication. I immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

But how do names play out in real life? In my family, “Robert” is a recurring name.

My father was named Robert, and my two brothers are both named Robert (with different middle names). My mother’s younger brother is also a Robert. My younger brother’s son is named Robert, as is his son. We have a Bob, a Little Bob, a Rob, a Bobby, a Robby, and a Quatro. Two Bobs are no longer with us, but the confusion continues with each new generation of Roberts in our family.

I took this absurdity to an extreme in Billy Ninefingers. In Waldeyn, the most common boy’s name is William, which is why Billy MacNess embraces the name his mercenaries give him after the injury – Billy Ninefingers. In that novel, anyone named William generally goes by their last name or their trade. Think Mason, Sawyer, etc., etc.

Other than Billy Ninefingers, where the overuse of one name was intentional and integral to the story, my personal rule is to NEVER name two characters so that the first and last letters of their names are the same.

I try never to have two names that begin with the same letter, but that becomes difficult.

But in a scene, who should go and who should stay? And what is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but should also use common sense.

One last thing to consider: how will that name be pronounced when read aloud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling, so a reader can easily read that name aloud. You may not think that matters, but it does.

I read Tad Williams’ Memory Sorrow and Thorn series aloud to my youngest daughter when she was old enough to appreciate and understand it. (I was too cheap to pay for cable television, and it kept my teenager from being bored.) I will just say that while his narrative is brilliant and engrossing, many of those names took some practice to say without stumbling.

Epic Fails meme2Names are also a component of world-building. While recording Tales from the Dreamtime, a novella consisting of three fairy tales, my narrator had trouble pronouncing the names of two characters. This happened because I had written the names so they would feel foreign and look good on paper.

Despite my experience of reading fantasy books aloud to my children, it didn’t occur to me that the names were unpronounceable as they were written. We ironed that out, but that hiccup taught me to spell names the way they’re pronounced whenever possible.

In conclusion, don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names.

Never give two characters names that are nearly identical.

Do consider making your spellings of names and places pronounceable just in case you decide to have your novel made into an audiobook.


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Characterization part 3 – When the Antagonist is a Nebulous Behemoth

Today we’re continuing our discussion of characterization by examining the nebulous antagonist.

WritingCraft_Dark_EnergyIn many thrillers and cyberpunk novels, the faceless behemoth of corporate greed is the overarching antagonist. It can be represented by characters who are portrayed as utterly committed to doing their job and loyal to their employer. In many cyberpunk novels, the antagonists tend to be goons-in-suits, enforcers who work for the corporation.

In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer whose forces/minions the protagonist must defeat.

The ultimate mind behind the conflict is a person they might not meet face to face. How the protagonist reacts internally to the threat posed by the machinations of those distant antagonists is the story.

While the true enemy might be a faceless power supporting the intrigues of their servants, their laws and rules are the ultimate evil that must be defeated.

Alternatively, the enemy might be a technological breakdown in hard sci-fi and sometimes in contemporary military novels. The novel Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald was a groundbreaking example of this:

From Wikipedia:

Level7Roshwald (1)Level 7 is a 1959 science fiction novel by the Ukrainian-born Israeli writer Mordecai Roshwald. It is told from the first-person perspective (a diary) of a modern soldier, X-127, living in the underground military complex Level 7, where he and several hundred others are expected to reside permanently. X-127 fulfills the role of ‘push-button’ offensive initiator of his nation’s nuclear weapons capacity against an unspecified enemy. X-127 narrates life within a deep shelter before, during, and after a nuclear war that wipes out the human species. [1]

Just so you know, the book doesn’t end well—I read it in high school.

The enemy could be a military coup or a mega-corporation whose “guards” are really an elite military. A few soldiers could represent the antagonist and enforce their wishes. Getting to know those characters and their motives adds depth to the story.

We’ve all seen disaster movies like Titanic and Twister. We know the enemy can be the environment. Andy Weir in The Martian made the planet of Mars the antagonist.

I love the notion of the faceless behemoth that threatens all we love. When a novel has an immense, nebulous antagonist, the possibilities for creating the hazards that impede the heroes are endless. Giant waves, hurricanes, weapons of mass destruction–these are worthy obstacles our protagonists must surmount.

Fear makes the risk feel genuine to the reader. To show great evil in genre fiction, we take that which is damaging and destructive to an extreme and show the emotion of living through that experience.

When we are writing a story where the root of evil is represented by its minions, the perception of corruption and the evil humans are capable of sometimes horrifies us. As a character, the mega-villain can be shown in the actions of certain employees who don’t consider the human cost of their loyalty.

Tenth_of_DecemberThis type of psychopathic antagonist is explored exceedingly well in George Saunders’ brilliant sci-fi short story, Spiderhead, a short story in the award-winning compilation, Tenth of December.

For a reader, perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after the lights have been turned out can be terrifying.

We’re still subconsciously hunter-gatherers, always watching for lions and tigers (oh my). As children, the formless monster lurking in the darkness of our room terrifies us until we discover the truth: several toys were piled there and never put away.

As adults, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark story can be equally terrifying. Thus, you can write dark, frightening scenes but don’t have to be utterly graphic.

No matter how right the cause, war is an evil that is too large to personify and is challenging to make sympathetic. But sometimes, war, a faceless blob of evil, is the proper villain for the narrative. We represent that evil in the actions taken by the characters.

I try to choose a single word (and its synonyms) to characterize my antagonist, even when it is something as significant as a pandemic. That one word becomes the theme, the underpinning of how evil is portrayed.

In one of my practice short stories, I used the word escape as the theme. The first paragraph opens with that word, and every synonym for escape is used to underscore that thread woven throughout the story.

Another example is the word corruption. We tend to think of it as referring only to illegal activities, but it has many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are bribery, debasement, debauchery, decadence, degeneracy, distortion, exploitations, fraud, and immorality.

We view the antagonist through the protagonist’s eyes, so a strong theme that colors the enemy with a perception of corruption drives home the evil they represent.

Someone—and I wish I could remember who—said a few years ago in a seminar that the author is the character’s attorney, not their judge.

This is an important distinction and applies to villains as much as it does the heroes.

theRealStoryLIRF01102021When evil is a behemoth on the order of a mega-corporation or a military coup, the villains who represent it all have reasons for their loyalty. They’re like the hero; they care intensely, obsessively about something or someone. They have logical motives for supporting what we are portraying as the enemy. Our job as authors is to make those deeply held justifications the driving force behind their story.

True villains are motivated, logical in their reasoning, and utterly convinced of their moral high ground. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. As the author and their lawyer, you must know what their narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist.

As always, the reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details. Having this backstory to draw on will make your characters easier to flesh out. Hints of their thought processes and motivations will emerge gradually.

But more importantly, once we know what drives them all, we know what is at stake for those who represent your antagonist. You will understand how much they are willing to sacrifice for it.

Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Level 7 (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Level_7_(novel)&oldid=1132228006 (accessed February 12, 2023). [1]


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Heroes and Villains part 2: Who are they, and why should we care? #amwriting

When we begin planning a novel, we might have the plot for an award-winning narrative in our head and an amazing cast of characters eager to leap onto the page. But until we know who the hero and the antagonist are when they are off duty, we don’t really know them. And until we know what they want, we have no story.

depth-of-characterNo matter what genre we write in, when we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled, a quest of some sort.

For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal. But they must also have secrets, underlying motives not explicitly stated at the outset.

The supporting characters also have agendas, and their involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ stories intersect seamlessly. Motivations must be clearly defined.

We must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.

  • To that end, we assign verbs, action words that reflect their gut reactions.

What drives them?

  • This is where we give them a void, a lack or loss that colors their personality.
  • We assign nouns that describe their personalities.

Finally, we ask ourselves, “What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?”

  • Why are they in this story? What is their role?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
  • Conversely, what will they NOT do? Even supervillains have something they draw the line at doing.

So now we create their file:


The antagonist also has motives, both stated and unstated. They have a deep desire to thwart the protagonist and have reasons for that wish. They have a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad guy, and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.

No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse they might offer to conceal the secret that really drives them.

The antagonist also gets a personnel file:


One thing we must ask of each character is this: what will happen if they don’t achieve their goal? Who has the most to lose?

Once we know who has the most to lose and what motivates each character, we know who has the most compelling story. At that point, we have our protagonist and our antagonist

In the beginning stages of planning, we see a large picture, and the details are blurry. At first, we have an overall idea of what the story could be. We have the basics of who the characters are:

  • Sex and age
  • Physical description—coloring, clothes
  • Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer

A reader will want to know a little more than that. Good characterization shows those things but also offers hints of:

  • An individual’s speech habits.
  • An individual with a history.
  • An individual’s personal style.

As my characters develop, I ask more questions:

  • Are they an individual with or without boundaries? What are things they will or will not do?
  • What are the secrets they believe no one knows?
  • What are the secrets they will admit to?
  • What secrets will they carry to the grave?

Sometimes identifying just whose emotional and physical journey you will be following is easier said than done. When faced with a pantheon of great characters, ask yourself these questions (listed here in no particular order):

  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Whose personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Who will be best suited to taking full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

The character who best answers those questions must become the protagonist. It is okay to scrap that original draft and start a new one to reflect that change. Many parts of the first manuscript can be reused.

Author-thoughtsI recently had a manuscript undergo a complete change from what I originally planned. The original antagonist had such an engaging story that he had become more important to me than the protagonists.

At that point, the plot stalled. I had no idea how to get it going again.

I had to find a new villain—and then the solution occurred to me. One of the side characters was poised for that position, lending a little treachery to the mix.

That happy bit of treason kicked the plot in a new direction, and once again, I was having a good time, feeling energized as I wrote.

We were taught to use the “five Ws” of journalism in our essays in elementary school. These five words that begin with the letter ‘W’ form the core of every story.

Who did whatWhen and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

Who are youAs a reader, I dislike discovering the author is at a loss as to what their protagonist wants. Without that impetus, they don’t have a good reason for the villain to be there either. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story, but motivation does.

Character creation crosses all genres. Even if you are writing a memoir detailing your childhood, you must have a fix on the person you were in those days. You must portray your gut reactions, hopes, and fears with immediacy, a sense of what it felt like. You want the reader to see the events that shaped you, not through the lens of memory, but as if they are observing as the events unfold.

Who are your characters? Who do they love, and who do they despise? What is their goal? Why is this goal so important?

When you answer those questions, you will know them well enough to write their stories.


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#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

Today is part two of my October NaNo Prep series. This post explores character creation. Often, we have ideas for great characters but no story for them. For those who don’t write daily, it’s a way to help get you into the habit.

nano prep namesThese exercises will only take a few minutes unless you want to spend more time on them. They’re just a warmup, getting you thinking about your writing project. Each post will tackle a different aspect of preparation and won’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes to complete. By the end of this series, my goal is for you to have a framework that will get your project started.

SO—let’s begin with characters. Some will be heroes, others will be sidekicks, and still others will be villains to one degree or another.

rudimentary stylesheetI recommend you create a file that contains all the ideas you have in regard to your fictional world, including the personnel files you are creating. I list all my information in an Excel workbook for each book or series, but you can use any kind of document, even handwritten. You just need to write your ideas down. See my post, Ensuring Consistency: the Stylesheet.

Perhaps you already have an idea for the characters you intend to people your story with. Even if you don’t, take a moment to sit back and think about who they might be.

No matter the genre or the setting, humans will be humans and have certain recognizable personality traits.

names keep them simpleSo, who is the protagonist of my intended story? Truthfully, in some aspect or another, they will be the person I wish I were. That is how it always is for me—living a fantasy in the safe environment of the novel. Bilbo was J.R.R. Tolkien’s younger self, an inexperienced man discovering the broader world through his wartime experiences. Luke Skywalker was the hero George Lucas always wanted to be.

For me, a story is the people—the characters, their interactions, their thoughts, and how the arc of the plot changes them. In return, writing the events they experience enables me to see my values and beliefs more clearly. I begin to understand myself.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story. But we must also use common sense. Too many named characters is too many.

So, let’s start with one character, our protagonist. First, we need a name, even if it’s just a placeholder. I have learned to keep in mind simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation when I name my characters. My advice is to keep it simple and be vigilant—don’t give two characters names that are nearly identical and that begin and end with the same letter.

Have you ever read a book where you couldn’t figure out how to pronounce a name? Speaking as a reader, it aggravates me no end: Brvgailys tossed her lush hair over her shoulder. (BTW—I won’t be recommending that book to anyone.) (Ever.)

You might think of the unusual spellings as part of your world-building. I get that, but there is another reason to consider making names easily pronounceable, no matter how fancy and other-worldly they look if spelled oddly. You may decide to have your book made into an audiobook, and the process will go more smoothly if your names are uncomplicated. I only have one audiobook, and the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply.

Now that we have a name, even if it’s just a placeholder, we can move on to the next step. Then we write a brief description. One thing that helps when creating a character is identifying the verbs embodied by each individual’s personality. What pushes them to do the crazy stuff they do?

The person our protagonist appears to be on page one, and the motivations they start out with must be clearly defined. Identifying these two aspects is central to who your character is:

  • VOID: Each person lacks something, a void in their life. What need drives them?
  • VERBS: What is their action word, the verb that defines their personality? How does each character act and react on a gut level?

the hobbitIf we know their void, we should write it down now, along with any quirky traits they may have. Next, we decide on verbs that will be the driving force of their personality at the story’s opening. Add some adjectives to describe how they interact with the world and assign nouns to show their characteristics.


Maia (healer, 25 yrs. old, black ringlets, dark skin, brown eyes with golden flecks.) Parents were mages, father an earth-mage who builds and repairs levees in the cities along the River Fleet. VOID: Mother murdered by a priest of the Bull God. Father never got over it. Maia is not good with tools and unintentionally breaks or loses things. VERBS: Nurture. Protect. ADJECTIVES: awkward, impulsive, focused, motivated, loyal, caring. NOUNS: empathy, purpose, wit.

Once I do this for the protagonist and her sidekicks, I will ask myself, “Who is the antagonist? What do they want?”

Nord, a tribeless mage, turned rogue. Warlord desiring control of Kyrano Citadel. Intent on making a better life for his children and will achieve it at any cost. VOID: Born into a poor woodcutter’s family. Father abusive drunk, mother weak, didn’t protect him. VERBS: Fight, Desire, Acquire. ADJECTIVES: arrogant, organized, decisive, direct, focused, loyal. NOUNS: purpose, leadership, authority.

Our characters will meet and interact with other characters. Some are sidekicks, and some are enemies. Don’t bother giving pass-through characters’ names, as a name shouts that a character is an integral part of the story and must be remembered.

Your project could be anything from a memoir to an action-adventure. No matter the genre, the characters must be individuals with secrets only they know about themselves. This is especially true if you are writing a memoir. Over the next few days, list these traits as they come to mind.

Name your characters as they occur to you. Assign genders and preferences and give a loose description of their physical traits. If you like, use your favorite movie stars or television stars as your prompts.

We are changed in real life by what we experience as human beings. Each person grows and develops in a way that is distinctively them. Some people become jaded and cynical. Others become more compassionate and forgiving.

Everyone perceives things in a unique way and is affected differently than their companions. In a given situation, other people’s gut reactions vary in intensity from mine or yours. Whether we are writing a romance, a sci-fi novel, a literary novel, or even a memoir, we must know who the protagonist is on page one.

That means we need to create their backstory, just a paragraph or two. This will grow in length over time as the story takes shape. As we write each personnel file, we will begin to see their past, present, and possible future.

name quote, richard II shakespeareMaking lists of names is essential. You want their spellings to remain consistent and being able to return to what you initially planned is a big help later on. When we commence writing the actual narrative, each character will have an arc of growth, and sometimes names will change as the story progresses. Do remember to make notes of those changes.

Heroes who arrive perfect in every way on page one are uninteresting. For me, the characters and all their strengths and flaws are the core of any story. The events of the piece exist only to force growth upon them.

Posts in this series to date:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

Credits and Attributions:

Dustcover of the first edition of The Hobbit, taken from a design by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.


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