Names

I think one of the more overlooked aspects of writing when it comes to difficulty is naming. It seems like it should be such a simple thing, but as most parents will tell you, it’s hard to think of one that fits…let alone enough to populate an entire novel. I’ve even thought about scrapping characters when I couldn’t think of a proper name for them (which is probably not the best solution). There’s just a lot to think about when it comes to naming, especially if you’re as anal as I can be.

The Google Test

I think one of the more important things to think about when it comes to naming (at least for the names of your main characters) is how googleable they are. My spellcheck doesn’t like the word ‘googleable,’ but it also doesn’t like the word ‘spellcheck,’ so whatever. This happens most often when a name is too common or too associated with something else so that search results will be dominated by other options. I see this a lot with band names, actually–some bands, like the Eagles, manage to become popular enough that they apparently become more important than the original (although according to Google, the Philadelphia Eagles are also more important than the bird despite no one actually caring about that football team, so don’t read into that too much). But take a band like Love, one of my favorite psychedelic artists. I love Love, but seriously, what were they expecting with a name like that? You can go back 10 pages on the Google search without seeing a mention of them, so you’ll have to resort to (gasp!) typing the word ‘band’ after their name in order to get the results you want. Love, as much as I love them, have failed the Google test. Compare that to a band like Led Zeppelin, which doesn’t have to share its Google results with anyone.

Iconic characters have iconic names. I’m not exactly sure what the cause/effect relationship is there, but I know that characters like Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, Mario, etc. don’t have much competition for search results, because they’re very Googleable. I don’t think it’s a surprise that very few iconic characters are named John Smith or Joe Johnson.

There’s a way to take this too far, of course. If you’re really looking for an Awesome McCoolname to set your main characters apart, you may be tempted to use Xtreme Kool Letterz to change a more common name into something more memorable. I’m not going to dispute that adding an X makes a lot of things sound really, really cool, but remember one thing: a lot of people are crappy spellers. They’d have a hard enough time spelling a name the way it’s supposed to be spelled without remembering all the funky deformities you threw in there, which also makes your name less Googleable.

Name Consistency

Another overlooked aspect of character names is consistency–names should, in general, sound like they could come from the same planet, if not the same country (exceptions can be made for names that actually do come from another planet). For instance, if your main character’s name is Sue, and her love interest’s name is Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfernschplendenschlittercrasscrenbonfrieddiggerdingledangledongledungleburstein-vonknackerthrasherapplebangerhorowitzticolensicgranderknottyspelltinklegrandlich-grumblemeyerspelterwasserkurstlichhimbleeisenbahnwagengutenabendbitteeinnürn-burgerbratwürstelgespurtenmitzweimacheluberhundsfutgumberaberschönendanker-kalbsfleischmittleraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm, you may run into some problems. Not only are neither of those names very Googleable, but Sue is clearly a name from the American South (source: Johnny Cash), while Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfernschplenden-schlittercrasscrenbonfrieddiggerdingledangledongledunglebursteinvonknackerthrasher-applebangerhorowitzticolensicgranderknottyspelltinklegrandlichgrumblemeyerspelter-wasserkurstlichhimbleeisenbahnwagengutenabendbitteeinnürnburgerbratwürstelgespurten-mitzweimacheluberhundsfutgumberaberschönendanker-kalbsfleischmittleraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm is clearly German. Likewise, Xue-Fang may sound like a cool name (it does have an X, after all), but it’s going to sound more than a little silly when her brother has a lame name like Steve.

Obviously, in a Melting Pot Nomenclature like the United States, a little more variance in name culture is expected…but even here, people are going to find it a little weird when you write, ‘Aerith and Bob walked down the street’ (proof that I’m probably the wrong person to ask about names–I often have trouble telling the ‘Aerith’ names apart from the ‘Bob’ ones in that link’s examples). This only increases in importance when you’re picking names that are supposed to have come from the same family or the same culture, especially if that culture is dissimilar to the ‘main’ one. One of the reasons J.R.R. Tolkein is considered so brilliant is that he created languages for each of his races/cultures, and then derived character names from those languages. In doing so, he helped set the stage to make those of us who are sane/not cunning linguists look bad with our hodgepodge naming systems.

Titles

Characters are not the only things that need to be named in most stories. Sometimes, animals and pets will need names. Other times, characters will even name their big, scary weapons. And let’s not even get into the many pitfalls of naming places–that’s difficult both because naming consistency becomes much more important, and because names that somehow survive scrutiny in the real world (like Weed) will never pass muster in the critical eyes of a reader.

Even leaving all that aside, however, there’s one more important naming aspect to tackle, and that’s the title. Take this blog post, for example. I could have named it something cool/clichéd like “Name’s the Same” or “What’s In A Name” or “What’s Your Name,” but instead I chose to go with something boring. That probably made you less excited to read this post. It’s the same way with book titles (and chapter titles, if you’re into that sort of thing): a book’s title is going to be it’s biggest identifying mark, and if it’s more interesting, the more interested potential readers will be. This is challenging because there’s such a fine line between a properly dramatic title and a melodramatic or pretentious one, and a humorous title and a stupid one. Truth be told, I’m not really sure where that line lies, or what makes one title good and another bad.

All I know is that the title should at least be Googleable.

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Setting (Are We There Yet?)

For a lot of people, I think that the setting can be the most important part of a story. It’s what draws them in–maybe it’s because they enjoy imagining themselves in that place, or maybe they enjoy peeling back the layers of the new world, or maybe they simply enjoy the Scenery Porn (and yes, despite the name, that link is safe for work). I…am not one of those people. Yeah, settings are cool and all, and a good one can really enhance a work for me, but for me it has always played a distant third fiddle in importance to character and story. For me, there’s no such thing as the Science Fiction Ghetto; a show in any setting (or medium) can be great, no matter if it involves high-school girls battling demons, or if it deals with battles between humanity and aliens, or if it’s a cartoon with kids as protagonists, or if it’s a stick figure comic based on the geekiest of games, or if it takes place on a disc on the shoulders of four elephants standing on top of a gigantic space turtle. As long as the characters were engaging, or the story well-thought-out and the writing good, it often doesn’t matter to me where those characters are or where that story takes place.

That leaves me in a bit of a dilemma, however, because of the aforementioned people who really enjoy reading about a story’s setting. Even if I don’t care about it that much, a sizable portion of the people who might want to read something I wrote would…and besides, I can’t even say that I don’t recognize the importance of a setting in a story. Even in the examples/shameless plugs for stories I like linked above, the settings, while sometimes weird and different from the real world, are well-developed and thought out, and I can’t say that that wasn’t a part (maybe even a big part) of why I came to like those works. Done right, a work’s setting can really come to life in your mind/before your eyes, and it becomes easy to imagine what life must be like living there…and since much of what happens in novels is left to the imagination, that’s kind of a big deal. Not to mention the fact that it’s kinda hard to have good characters when you don’t actually have anywhere to put them. I often find myself with ideas for characters, scenes, even dialogue in my head, but I wind up lacking any real context for them.

So, despite my occasional disdain for the importance of setting, it’s a huge subject and not one to brush aside lightly. Too huge, in fact, for a single blog post, so (assuming I don’t procrastinate enough between posts to allow the internet spiders to take this place over) there will probably be more than one post on this general subject. Mostly, what I wanted to look at in this post was the general options for any story’s setting. And by general, I mean extremely general, like two very basic options.

1. Create Your Own Setting

This is the route that most (or maybe all; I haven’t run across one yet that didn’t) fantasy and science fiction stories take, and it can be an appealing one for sure. It affords you a lot of freedom with the way your world works, and you can mold it to fit the needs of your character and story. That’s not to say it’s without its difficulties, however.

1a. Worldbuilding

As it turns out, creating an entire world from scratch isn’t exactly easy (even God rested after doing so), as there are just so many things to think about. Take Geography, for starters: it might seem nice and easy to draw a map and place everything where you think it should be placed, but if you wind up with tundra bordering the desert and the rivers all going the wrong way, there are going to be problems. On top of that, you have cultures, religions, politics and government, and probably other things that I haven’t even thought of at the moment; sure, most of this isn’t strictly essential, but it’s the details that can really help to immerse someone in the story.

1b. Realism and originality

Unless, like me, you know everything, dealing with all of those details is going to require research. Yes, there’s a certain amount of freedom involved in creating your own world, but if it doesn’t abide by certain rules, it’s going to break people’s suspension of disbelief. In most cases, getting around that involves following similar rules for the real world (or explaining the differences clearly when you deviate). It becomes a question of how ‘alien’ you want to make your world, and what ideas you have to make your world stand out.

2. Choose a real-life setting

Maybe the idea of doing more than just patching a few rivers and mountains together without much thought is a little bit too daunting (it’s not exactly the easiest task, after all). In that case, you could always choose an already established location (could be present-day or historical). This trades a bit of artistic freedom for the advantage of having a solid foundation where you can base your story. It’s not exactly without difficulties, though, otherwise everyone would do it.

2a. Worldbuilding

Surprise! Just because you choose a location that already exist(-ed) doesn’t mean that there’s no work to do. Even if it’s a place with which you’re intimately familiar, you have to set up the geography, culture, etc. for the sake of your readers…and if it’s not a place you’re familiar with, you’re back to the research again, and this time it’s much harder to handwave the things you get wrong (and more likely that you’ll be called out on it). Is it possible to truly capture the feel of a real-world place you’ve rarely (or never) visited? I’m not sure, but if it’s not, a lot of us are not qualified to write about a wide variety of places.

2b. Tweaks

Okay, so there’s a little leeway to be had with a real-world place. Obviously, it’s got to be a little recognizable (otherwise there’s little point in choosing a real-world place to begin with), but that doesn’t mean that it has to be identical. The events of your story are almost certainly going to have an effect on your setting, and if you want to avoid libel or copyright issues you’re almost certainly going to have to change names and places. If you want a little more freedom while still maintaining some grounding, creating fictional places in real-world areas (such as a nonexistent city in California) can open up new possibilities. Finally, if you want a real-life setting but a story that’s a little bit more fantastical, you can always add something to a location in order to give it a little more pizzazz. I recommend zombies. Or ninjas. Although, I suppose there’s no way to tell that ninjas aren’t there already…

Oy. Setting is a complicated beast, and I still don’t feel as if I’m anywhere close to grasping how to capture a good one. This is probably my biggest hangup as a wannabe author, and it’s a little hard to proceed with a story with your characters standing in a vacuum (mostly because they’d all suffocate). I’ll probably have to tackle this subject again from a different angle, but until then…

Character Flaws

So you’ve got a character, and he’s heroic, intelligent, kind, powerful, and handsome. In short, he’s basically the most awesome character ever, and he’s become your own personal favorite character. After all, how could anyone not like this guy?

And then someone points out that he’s not very realistic, and you’re in a conundrum. You see, the character you’ve just created is comparable to Jesus, except for the fact that Jesus probably wasn’t actually handsome. The fact is that there’s a very good chance (I put it around 100%) that all of your readers have flaws of some sort, and it’s hard to relate to a character who is good at everything. Also, apart from being unrealistic, stories with a perfect protagonist have a tendency to be, well, boring.

At least for me, there’s a tendency not to want to ‘ruin’ a character with a flaw. After all, I’ve often been annoyed by characters in a novel or show because they’re making a mess of things by not doing them ‘right.’ Yet most of the time, when I look at the character as a whole, I find that those annoying moments and the flaws they demonstrate make the character more well-rounded and interesting.

So what makes a good character flaw? What turns an ‘awesome’ character into an actually interesting one? I’ve got a few ideas…

1. Actual Flaws

I don’t care what anyone says, being ‘too perfect’ is not a flaw. Similarly, it’s hard to take anyone who says they’re So Beautiful, It’s a Curse seriously (and even when that is justified, it’s due more to other characters’ flaws). And good luck getting people to feel sorry for someone for having powers they wish they had. Just because you label it a ‘flaw’ doesn’t mean it’s actually a flaw.

2. Demonstrated Flaws

What’s the point of giving a character a flaw if it doesn’t even have any effect on the plot? Just as labeling something a flaw doesn’t make it a flaw, simply slapping a particular label on a character doesn’t make it part of their character. That’s what’s called an Informed Flaw, and just as actions speak louder than words, showing is more effective than telling. I mean, saying that someone is an alcoholic but never showing them drunk really isn’t any more useful than saying a character in a fantasy setting is terrible with computers.

3. Realistic Flaws

The best flaws, in my estimation, are ones that people can recognize. After all, the main point of having flaws in a character is to make the character more human and thus more relatable. I suspect that one of the best ways of doing this is to give your characters flaws that you recognize you yourself as having. If you’re anything like me, you have more than enough flaws to go around, and since those are the flaws you know best, those are the ones you’ll be able to write best–I’ve often heard it said that the best writers write what they know.

Another path to doing this is to think about your character’s backstory and traits that they have and how they might cause someone to react. For example, take the handsome Jesus character I mentioned earlier, awesome at pretty much everything. It’s probably safe to say that one of the many areas he excels at is having an enormous head, and maybe this extreme arrogance rubs people the wrong way. He can still be improbably good at a lot of things without feeling like a completely unrealistic character.

4. ‘Imperfection’ Flaws

I was recently watching a couple of episodes of a favorite show of mine, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it struck me that this show does a very good job of making its characters good at stuff without being perfect. It recognizes that the wise old mentor character doesn’t have to be perfectly wise and right 100% of the time, so instead of turning him into a walking crystal ball the show allows him to make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are downright foolish ones, yet the character still comes off as very wise overall. Likewise, the central character has a justified in-story reason for being very powerful, but even he is shown to have trouble when it comes to certain disciplines and he’s certainly not a perfect individual.

In real life, no one is ever 100% perfect at anything. Even experts slip up and make mistakes, and even the most mellow person occasionally gets really ticked off and says something they shouldn’t. The ability to make these moments seem realistic without undermining the key traits of the character is what marks a great writer.

Originality (AKA: How the @#$% do you come up with anything new anymore?)

A couple of years ago, I decided I would sit down and write a novel. I had always been told that I was a good writer, and I really enjoyed writing, so I figured that the rest of my life would be simple: I would finish the novel sometime in college, it would jump to #1 on the bestsellers lists, and I’d be able to graduate with no debt, a steady stream of income, and a firmly established foothold in my dream profession.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m recently graduated and living back in my parents’ house, and I’ve just created this blog because I decided my already substantial list of diversions from job hunting wasn’t quite big enough.

As you may have noticed, there are some slight discrepancies between my plans and my reality. So what happened with that novel? Why didn’t it work out?

Well, I went home, and I started to put together an entirely new world. It would have elves, and dwarves, and goblins, and humans. The major characters would be a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits and a mentor who would undertake a quest to defeat the Evil Overlord and prevent The End Of The World As We Know It. The protagonist was an apparently unremarkable farmboy who grows to be a warrior and leader after learning of his special destiny and secret parentage. It was going to be epic.

It also sounded incredibly familiar.

As someone who had criticized works in the past for being a complete rip-off overly derivative of other works (no, you don’t get an obnoxiously placed link here), I wasn’t about to stand for the obvious similarities, but correcting them wasn’t as easy as I thought. I wanted to keep most of the elements of the Standard Fantasy Setting, but even many of those elements were far too reminiscent of other fantasy stories for my tastes. I didn’t want my story to be just another Lord of the Rings clone, but whenever I thought of a way to tweak the genre and put some distance between myself and Tolkien, I found some other fantasy series that had already covered the same ground (George R.R. Martin, for example, already began a darker and grittier fantasy series, while Terry Pratchett has the fantasy parody genre down pat). My dissatisfaction eventually became frustration, which in turn became resignation: if I couldn’t come up with something new, what was the point of writing to begin with?

Such were my thoughts when I made the decision to abandon the scraps of the novel I had cobbled together. Several years later, the originality thing remains a major issue in my mind, an almost insurmountable obstacle that looms menacingly over any attempts I make at novel-writing. And yet, I have to imagine that there’s a way around the problem of originality. New works of fiction are coming out every year, so surely it’s possible to write something that is both original and satisfying.

So, what’s the solution?

1. Recognize that nothing is completely original.

There is nothing new under the sun. Even that very sentence was stolen from someone else (fortunately, I don’t think God is in the business of suing people for plagiarism). This sounds depressing, but to me it’s actually a bit of a relief because it reminds me that it’s impossible to come up with a completely original story, which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to come up with a good one.

Some elements of stories are common simply because they’re the ones that resonate with people. The bad guy loses in the end. The good guy gets the girl. The hero makes a mistake and learns from the consequences. To call storylines like these unoriginal or clichéd is missing the point: they’re classic story elements because they work, and their prevalence is indicative of their success rather than authorial unoriginality. That doesn’t mean that they have to be played completely straight in every work, but they stand as good example of ‘unoriginal’ elements of storylines that don’t typically detract from a work’s quality.

All stories are going to share some (or rather, most) of their elements with many other works. Recognizing that takes some of the pressure off: there’s no need to make every single aspect of a novel completely new, and there’s no need to scrap some ideas because they are vaguely similar to something else.

2. Focus on the differences, not the similarities.

Maybe you’ve decided that your story is going to be traditional in the sense that it depicts a battle between light and dark, good and evil. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that can’t be all there is to your story. What sets your story apart from every other story that focuses on a similar conflict? There has to be something about your world, or your plot, or your characters that makes your novel stand out in order for it to be worth reading. The best novels/movies/TV shows/whatever are the ones that can strike a balance between traditional elements that many stories incorporate and the new ideas (or new combinations of old ideas) that make it different from other stories with the same elements.

3. Remember that everyone has their influences

This is similar to point #1, but having three entries in the list seems much more well-rounded than having two, so here you go. Creating a story that is basically a carbon-copy of your favorite novel is something that should be avoided, but perhaps even more damaging is to do exactly what I did and grow so dissatisfied with the similarities between your work and another author’s work that you give up altogether. It’s important to remember that just because there are similarities between your work and another person’s work does not mean they are identical. Even Tolkien drew heavily from a variety of works that came before him, and any modern author is going to have to do the same. There is a difference between ‘being influenced by’ and ‘completely ripping off of,’ and recognizing that can be the difference between being a published author and failing to finish at all.