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Get Ready: Are Your CHARACTERS Ready? #ReadySetWrite

Monday, January 19, 2015

Get Ready: Are Your CHARACTERS Ready? #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comNow that you have your PREMISE nailed down, it’s time to start thinking about characters. Since we’re not actually writing yet—or really even in deep preparation for writing—now is the time to really just concentrate on who’s going to be in the story, not on deep character development.

Who are your characters?
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to know who your viewpoint characters are. This just means you need to know whom your story is about. Who will be taking part in the conflicts that the premise will create.

Now would be a great time for character casting.

This is one of the times when you can have the most fun with coming up with characters. What types of characters do you find most fun to work with?

If you aren’t sure what kinds of characters are right for your story, start by playing with some archetypes:

  • the seductress
  • the Amazon/woman warrior
  • the dapper businessman
  • the cutthroat salesman
  • the dreamy artist
  • the grungy musician
  • the angsty teen

You can get even more ideas for this by Googling “character archetypes” and seeing what comes up.

What are your characters’ names?
Your premise may have come from your character’s name. But in case it didn’t, before you do anything else, you need to name your characters. This sounds simple, but, really, it’s not.

Way back in 2008, I went through a bookstore catalog and started tallying the names appearing in fiction, the results of which can be seen here. Out of curiosity, I decided to do it again, this time using the bestsellers lists on Amazon for Historical Fiction, Christian Historical Fiction, and Contemporary Christian Romance. I ended up with a total of 611 entries (from approximately 300 books).

The most commonly repeated women’s names were:
Anna/Anne/Annabelle/etc.—15 times
Charlotte/Charlie—6 times
Elizabeth/derivations—11 times
Emilia/Emily/Emma—9 times
Jane—6 times
C~Katherine/Kate/etc.—13 times
Meg/Maggie/Margaret—7 times
Mary/Maria/Marianne/etc.—14 times
Sofie/Sophy/Sophie—6 times

And the men:
Alec/Alex/Alexander—7 times
Charles/Charlie—9 times
Christopher/Christian/Chris—5 times
Daniel—6 times
Eric—4 times
Henry—5 times
Jack-ish names—5 times
James/Jamie—9 times
John—8 times
Michael—5 times
Robert/Robbie/Bobby—8 times
Tom/Thomas—6 times
Will/William—6 times

You can see the full list here (clicking the link will download an Excel file).

I purposely avoided Amish fiction, or else there would have been A LOT MORE repeated names on these lists.

Granted, the names in both of these lists are relatively common names, so they’re going to appear more without seeming overused. But this is one area in which market research can be to your advantage to make sure that you’re not using the same names that just got used in a book that someone else just pitched to the editor you’re about to meet with at a conference.

This is a very important exercise. It’s easy to go with the first name that comes to mind, but if you don’t put a whole lot of thought into finding names that are original (while still accessible to your target audience) while also suitable for your characters, story, and setting/era, you may find yourself in a sticky situation halfway through a manuscript when I had to rename a main and a secondary character in a book that was on a tight deadline.

Got to the second page of Julie Klassen’s MAID OF FAIRBOURNE HALL and discovered that not only did we pick the same name for our heroines (Margaret—though mine goes by Meg), we picked the same name for their maids—Joan! Thank goodness I haven’t finished/turned in FOLLOW THE HEART yet, so I can re-name my Margaret’s maid and no one will think I stole these names from the inimitable Julie!

(You can read more about it and how I ended up renaming my character—and how it changed the character—here.)

But you want to be careful that you don’t go so far afield in naming your characters that they’re so weird and unusual that your readers either can’t pronounce them or they get pulled out of your story every time they see them. Good rule of thumb in a real-world setting (not talking fantasy or sci-fi here, obviously) is that if you’re going to give one of your characters an unusual name, make sure you give other characters more common names (e.g., Zarah and Bobby, Caylor and Dylan, Flannery and Jamie).

Also, if you are writing SFF or set somewhere like Wales or another country with tongue-twister names, keep in mind that stopping to try to sound out names will pull your reader out of your story. I’ve given up on a book that I might otherwise have enjoyed simply because I could not get my brain wrapped around the names (Welsh, in this case). This is something I tried to keep in mind with my Louisiana-set books, in which I tried to pick the easiest to read (if not pronounce) Cajun names. People don’t have to be able to pronounce them correctly—just recognize and remember them so they don’t trip (visually) over them whenever the names appear on the page. Varying the length of the names, as well as the first and last letters helps: Guidry, Landry, Boudreaux, Delacroix; mixed in with names like Hawthorne, O’Hara, Laurence, and Huntoon.

For some fun exercises to come up with character names, here are a couple of posts:
Fun Friday–What’s in a Name?
Creating Characters—What’s in a Name?

What do your characters wear?
How a person dresses says a lot about them. So before you get bogged down in details like plot and conflict and backstory and goals and motivations, go ahead and play virtual paperdolls with your characters.

One of the things I love, and probably get into too much, in writing historical-set fiction is costume research and dressing my characters. In fact, in my last two books, I loved it so much, I wrote a seamstress as the heroine of the last book, which gave me that many more excuses to delve more deeply into researching the fashions of the 1840s–50s.

Pinterest wasn’t around when I was writing my last contemporary series, and right now, the contemporary heroine I’m writing hasn’t done anything which required her wearing anything other than uber-casual outfits (jeans and a T-shirt or sweatshirt) or her chef’s coat. So I haven’t really had a reason to dress her. But maybe I could get inside her head a little bit better if I did take a few minutes to create a virtual wardrobe for her. (That linked image is my own personal dream wardrobe, done in PowerPoint—but I think I’ll do one for Jenn this week.)

Are your CHARACTERS ready?

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