Have you ever considered what your name says about you? How does it fit with who you are? Do you have a unique name? Are you a one-of-a-kind person? Maybe your name doesn’t define you at all. Maybe you are shy and have a name that better fits the most gregarious, outgoing girl?
Names can hold a lot of weight, and in storytelling they can give us plenty of fodder for storytelling. They can foreshadow some of our character’s personality traits.
Take, for instance, a girl with the name Charlie or a boy named Sue. While these names were once upon a time used for both sexes, recent trends have made them gender specific with Sue being primarily a girl’s name and Charlie one for boys.
But what if our hero or heroine had a name that was identified with the opposite gender? How would they react? Is there a way to use that to show something about their character? Their tenacity?
Then there are names like Amber or Daniel, names that conjure up certain images in one’s mind, like a popular, outgoing cheerleader for the former or a strong warrior for the latter. How can these stereotypes play into your narrative? For instance, what if Amber and/or Daniel were shy bookworms?
BTW: According to a study released earlier this year, my own name, (via the spelling “Faigy”) is New York’s favorite quirkest girl’s name thanks to the large concentration of Orthodox Jews in the state. (Also on the list are: Shimon, Yaakov and Nechama.) You can check out the rest of the list: http://www.today.com/parents/quirkiest-baby-names-state-t108836
Your Assignment: Research some names for potential story characters. Is there a name that perfectly fits your character? Or, perhaps, one that totally doesn’t fit? How can you use that to make your story and, more importantly, your character stronger and more vivid in the mind of your readers?
What will your character do when faced with questionable scenarios? Will they call their mother just to say hi or only when forced to once a day on Mother’s Day? Will they tell the clerk at the store that they were given too much change or just walk away a dollar richer?
The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about who characters are and what they value. What they believe in – g-d, country, greed, etc. – for better or worse will inform the decisions they make and how they should behave throughout the story.
Jane only speaks to her mother once a year on Mother’s Day. What will Jane do when her mother shows up on her doorstep one random morning and declares she’s moving in?
Jane isn’t just going to roll out the red carpet, hand her mother a cup of coffee and the keys to the house.
But what if she did? What if Jane acted completely out of character? Can there ever be a case for that? Yes, but it can’t be without a lot of discussion and introspection.
When your character behaves in a way that is opposed to the moral code that you’ve established for them, you need to give them a solid reason. Or, alternatively, you can use that as a springboard to a larger issue.
Joe watched James as he stormed off, slamming doors in his wake. Joe didn’t know what to make of his brother’s behavior. Where was the James that barely spoke above a whisper? The brother who stopped to give panhandlers crisp dollar bills or went and shoveled the neighbor’s walkway after a snowstorm just because?
Obviously there’s something going on with James and as the story unfolds, you, as the writer, need to explore, explain and build James’ character so that his actions make sense.
Your Assignment: Think about the essence of your character’s moral code. How do they behave with their family? With random strangers? How can you show through your character’s actions and interactions what they value? Are there any circumstances under which they will abandon their personal moral code? Can you use this to deep your story?
Where will your character’s journey take them?
Whether you realize it or not, your characters are on a journey. No, they don’t necessarily need to be physically traveling somewhere, but they do have to get somewhere – at least internally – in your story. Characters, like people, need to be moving. They need to have goals, wants, desires and they must take actions to help them at the very least try and reach their goals.
Ask yourself, what motivate your character? Why are they the person they are? What incidents in their past have most-shaped who they are in your story? What are their dreams?
Once you have the answers consider how the events in the story will intersect with the journey your character has had until now. Will it change who they are? How does their personal history influence how they will respond to actions in your story’s plot.
By answering some of these questions, you will gain insight into your characters and how they will act and the journey they will take when they face all the challenges you as the writer will throw their way.
Grab a piece a paper and jot down a few things that have happened to your character in the past. Then, jot down some of the challenges they will need to face in your story. See how they will meet (or even fail to meet) those challenges.
Every action your characters take are like a tiny seed toward their growth in your novel. As the story develops these seeds must blossom, and create richer characters who learns from their experiences.
Think about who you were 5 years ago, 10 years ago. Are you the exact same person? Well, of course you are! But in some ways you’re not. You’ve learned, you’ve had life experiences. You may have changed jobs, moved, graduated, gained a family.
In other words, you have grown and changed as a person. Everything you’ve experienced in life, good and bad, now impact the choices you make.
Consider this example, last week you drove down the main street in your town. It took almost 15 minutes to navigate less than 2 miles of roadway. You decided that was a fluke and did it again the following day and the day after that. And, guess what, it still took 15 minutes to traverse that road. When you are making the decision of driving down that road this morning, will you leave a few minutes earlier to allow for the extra driving time? Will you find another way to get where you are going?
Similarly, your character needs to learn from his or her experiences. Each action in the book, each conflict are like tiny seeds planting the roots of your character’s growth.
They need to grow as they experience life, aka what’s happening to them in the book. They must evolve and change, conquer their fears and find new directions by the books end. Now, I don’t know that these always need to be great big discoveries. Quiet moments of growth are still growth.
Take, for instance, a story about a widow, who, through the course of a novel, discovers that she not only has an inner strength, but has a hidden talent (say painting) is a story about growth. Likewise a blockbuster novel where there is action on every scene as the hero tries to best the villain is a novel of growth (catch the villain, save the world).
Some posit that not every character needs growth. I recently read an article on character growth that maintained that some characters do not grow and change throughout the story. And, indeed, I recently read a novel where the protagonist was so remote, so removed from the actions in the story she seemed detached from the reader and the plot.
While such characters do have their place in fiction, I, personally, believe that these are not the majority of fictional characters. For most of us, the characters we write will need to learn, grow and change. Thereby becoming truly rich characters in the eyes of the reader.
YOUR HOMEWORK: Think about your main characters. What life experiences have made them who they are? What obstacles do they face in your story? How can those experiences impact their lives?