Choosing character’s names

choosing character's names in a novel

My character’s names often change as a novel develops. Sometimes the original name just doesn’t seem to suit the way the character or their backstory develops.

There’s a theory called nominative determinism which speculates that your given name might define what you do in life. I don’t subscribe to that theory, but names do need to fit the characters.

I used the name Marcus in a novel recently, but you have to resolve the possessive suffix, either Marcus’ or Marcus’s. I would instinctively go for the former, but apparently this is a contentious point. I resolved it by changing his name to Martin.

Has anyone else experienced this problem?

For my current novel in progress all the characters have been given names from the Old Testament – no idea why, but it appears to be working and it feels ‘right’ for the story – for me at least.

They are Ethan, Abby (Abigail), Hannah, Isaac, Martha, Beth (Bethany), Daniel, Simon, Peter and Mary.

In my head there’s a connection between my novel, set 100 years in the future, and names from over 2000 years ago.

Does anyone have a better way of choosing character names?

Book Titles

It’s just a matter of getting those pesky little letters in the right order
And there are only 26 letters in the alphabet – so how hard can it be?

woman sat on floor on laptop

Every now and then my mind gets sidetracked onto book titles and I hear potential candidates during everyday conversations. I ought to stop and write them down because I have usually forgotten them by the time I find a pen and a quiet moment.

Then there are song lyrics. There I am minding my own business, a song playing in the background, and I hear a phrase that sounds like a great book title. It even happens during supper parties, but as nobody else shares my obsession I try to keep quiet about it.

In a moment of desperation, a few years ago, I tried using an online title generator – that was as useful as a chocolate frying pan.

Here are just a few of the potential book titles I’ve culled from lyrics (I don’t claim they haven’t already been used).

Caught in the Race
Belonging to the Living
The First Time We Fell
The Life Museum
Dancing to Forget
Blue World
Everybody’s Watching
Metal Thorns
Restless Hearts
Autumn Falling
Terminally Pretty
A Piece of Time
One Thing in Common
Suicide Blonde
At the Drop of a Name
Neptune’s Daughter
Blinded by Daylight
Flowers for a Wedding
All the Time
Fancy Things
Dangerous Boys
Magicians Never Tell
Walking on Clouds
Touch and Run
Losers and Fools
A Stranger’s Touch
Lucky Girl
Wasted Time
Dreams About Tomorrow
What Was Left Behind
Ribbons and Bows
Across the Sea
What is Yours
In the Name of the Past
A Small Family
Not for the Money
Running Everday

Does anyone else share this obsession?

How do you start a novel?

Book cover for White Lies and Black Sheep

I had heard from many different sources that there is a tendency to put a version of yourself front and centre of your first novel. I wanted to avoid this trap so decided to write from the perspective of a young woman. Writing is a form of escapism and jumping both gender and age was an interesting challenge.

The original concept
I started with the premise of a girl thinking she might be responsible for someone’s death. In law she might be guilty of manslaughter if not murder. Of course she isn’t, but doesn’t know the full details of that fateful night.

So she had to have some terrible grudge against him to make her feel guilty of wanting him dead, or at the very least punished. She would have to move away from the scene of the crime, create a new life and then return later to discover the truth. 

I planned for her to fall pregnant, but not want to reveal the father because it could have been one of two people. One being her boyfriend, the other his father who raped her when she was drunk after a party.

I also wanted to write from the point of view of a woman aged eighteen and her return, at the age of thirty-six, to the village where she grew up. 

And I wrote all this before the #metoo hashtag came into prominence.

White Lies and Black Sheep probably falls into the genre of ‘commercial women’s fiction’, not chic lit as it covers too many serious topics in an otherwise light novel. I still like the story structure and the characters, but it would be odd if I didn’t think my writing hadn’t evolved since my first novel.

How to act like a human

lots of blurred people

Everyone human being is made slightly different. Given that there are now over seven billion of us that’s pretty remarkable. It’s also not surprising that some of us malfunction in minor ways.

When I was a child
I thought everyone else had a sixth sense that I was lacking. As an adult, and after several different and sometimes interesting psychiatric diagnoses, I have come to realise that we’re all different in some way (not just me) and that applying labels doesn’t change anything.

As a child I didn’t understand how social interactions worked. I watched, trying to see how people communicated beyond the words they uttered. Small changes of expression, subtle body movements and hand gestures, variations in tone of voice and small pauses – they all augmented what they said or even replaced speech altogether. I didn’t have an innate ability to pick up on all of this so I studied cartoons, where an artist uses a set of facial rules for expression.

The people watching syndrome
This problem with ‘reading’ people also turned me into an extreme people watcher. By the time I was at university I was also supplementing my course work with reading about non verbal communication and body language. And I devoured several accessible books on psychology and psychiatry – plus attempting a few that were beyond my understanding.

So this is me
I am a hotchpotch, created by observing other people and trying to imitate their tics, blinks and sideways looks. I’m quite good at it now.

What I never realised was that all that observation would turn out to be useful when creating characters in stories. I had unknowingly been building a reference library in my head of characterisations.

What about wearing a label?
Maybe all writers should wear a warning sign, ‘Everything you say or do may be used in a novel’.

My particular label?
According to a recent diagnosis (about 5 years ago and very detailed over several meeting) I am ‘sub clinically autistic. Even my GP doesn’t quite know what that means so who cares.

Have you had a label attached to you that either makes you laugh or explains some of your quirky habits?

The World in AD 2000

This is an essay my father wrote in 1937 about the what he expected the world to be like in the year 2000. I’ve included a transcript for easier reading.

Essay predicting the future from 1937

The World in AD 2000 – David James Aiken

Sixty three years hence? think of sixty three years back! would the average man of eighteen seventy four imagined out present world, with its fast traffic, its aeroplanes, the radio – and all that forms the fabric of our modern existence, but what of the future, will the world improve as much again?

The trend of modern life and its inventions is to give more leisure time to the average man, by speading up of work and an eventual shortening of working hours. This leisure time used wisely promises benefits to be reaped in the future, and as man becomes more familiar with the secrets and forces of nature, so will further secrets and forces become revealed to him.

With the advent of the telephone and television into every home, domestic private life will to a great extent disappear, distances will be reduced and it will be commonplace to speak with relations in far off countries and probably to see them on a television screen. Travel to distant parts of the globe will be speeded up by flying hotels travelling at speeds which today are records. Our ocean going liners will be used for heavy freight and as a cheap form of travel as well as pleasure cruising.

A world tour will be a matter of a week or two instead of months.

With this increased facility for travel and increased leisure, education will have progressed, and the risk of friction between nations minimised byt the interchange of ideas and visits. It will not be so easy to mislead people about their neighbours as it was in the past.

Our men of science will also be progressing, and we shall find bloodless surgery holding a very high position in medical treatment. The people may even pay doctors a weekly fee to keep them advised as to their health and not pay when they are ill.

Interplanetary communication may be a possibility, and new realms for explorers to search. News will be in the papers almost as soon as it is an accomplished fact.

In general, life in 2,000 AD will be faster and consequently leisure will be of utmost importance, and the correct use of this leisure. If wisely used it will be a happy world.

How this essay came to light

I never saw this essay until after my father died in 1983 and I was going through his papers. This was a peculiar affair as not only had I lost my father, but he had been a very secretive, reclusive man. He worked for the government, ostensibly in the civil service, but his work was covered by the official secrets act. I never knew what he did and neither did my mother or sister.

As children my sister and I were sometimes entertained by curious pieces of equipment he would bring home, usually only for one evening. Miniature tape recorders, tiny cameras and on one occasion a bottle of mercury (times were very different in the early 1950s.

This essay was written before the second world war and I imagine he would have been disappointed by that part of his predictions being so far off the mark. In most of the essay he got he pretty close to what has happened.

Those first 500 words

book cover for Hannah's Island

The first 500 words of a novel are the most important – maybe as few as the first 300 according to some people.

I have read through the profiles of over 150 agents, watched their video blogs where available (this is an excellent one from an agent I immediately warmed to because of his honesty) and read their twitter feeds (that took a while and wasn’t very productive). But one frequently mentioned desire is to be immersed in a place, a culture, a character – almost immediately. They want to know how it feels to be there. They want to be captivated.

My own writing has been strong on plot and characters, but I may have found a possible weakness in my previous novels in terms of this immediate immersive feeling. I am now trying to correct that with my fourth novel and am sharing my work in progress here. This opening may have to change a little as the story develops because plots evolve and characters develop.

ps The title of the novel is going to change, Hannah’s Island is just a ‘working title’. The cover image is apt and will probably remain if I end up self-publishing. This opening has not been edited yet – warning, there may be literals.

Hannah’s Island – Chapter 1

Hannah dived, leaving only a ring of ripples on the mirrored surface of the sea as it closed behind her. A trail of bubbles marked her progress as she knifed deeper, hands pulling confidently against the cool water. She eased herself between the roof timbers and into a space lit only by flashes of shattered sunlight on the swaying weedcovered walls. Swimming down the line of the stairs she searched for the kitchen, where any valuable items would most likely be found.

That day a soft mist had stretched along the horizon, obscuring the mainland, so that the island appeared to be afloat in an endless ocean. Even though it was not yet noon the sun-scorched rocks had burned against the soles of her bare feet. The sea shimmered with the ice-cold clarity of a reservoir and looked no more than a few feet deep, but the rafters of a roof were clearly defined, stark beneath the surface, a skeleton picked clean like carrion on a field. A shoal of small silver fish flashed against the bare ribs of the abandoned house.

Most buildings covered by the rising seas were stripped in the decades before she was born, but Hannah enjoyed the silence of exploring old submerged houses. She imagined a family there once, clustered around a television, each with their own personal phone, chatting to friends and to each other – technology that was no longer viable. Her occasional discoveries of aluminium pots and pans, copper items, even iron tools could all be weighed and exchanged for small luxuries when the packet steamer called on the second Tuesday of the month. Most of what she earned was saved towards a gift for Ethan.

After drifting out through the open back door, still empty handed, she glanced to one side and saw two large coalbunkers. They must have been overlooked when the house was abandoned to the waves. The timber covers had rotted and between missing planks they looked to be still full of coal – worth investigating with fresh air in her lungs. Hannah pushed off from what had once been the doorstep, a slab of dressed slate that might also be worth salvaging. She let her natural buoyancy pull her upwards. In no hurry, Hannah watched the ever-changing patterns of sunlight and blue sky flash and dance on the surface above her. With only a few feet to go a shadow cut across the water. The hull of a small boat sliced through the sea, the daggerboard missing her shoulder by inches.

Hannah broke the surface and gasped for air as her eyes followed the line of white water left by the dinghy. She heard wood grind against shingle as the boat rode onto the beach. The sudden contact unbalanced the woman at the tiller. The sail slapped like sheets drying in a fresh breeze. The boom swung, it struckthe woman on the side of her head and pitched her into the water. Hannah took a deep breath. Her hands dug hard as she swam towards the beach and the body, which lay face down in the shallows.

Plots and storyboards

plot a novel on cards

My first novel was planned meticulously
I had no idea how ‘real’ authors developed their plots. Previously I had tried to write a novel with very little planning and my plot got confused, I got confused – even the characters in my novel got confused. So I set about working out everything beforehand.

Here is my nerdy, old-fashioned, personalised method of plotting.
You will need…
Hundreds of small bits of cardboard
Two coloured felt-tip markers
(blue edge on a card for a chapter head and date, red for a chapter summary)
A pen of your choice that doesn’t smudge easily
A roll of clear sellotape
A cup of tea (coffee is an acceptable alternative)
Patience

The advantages of this method (which I still use in a modified form)
You only need to know three or four things in your plot, scribble them on bits of card and put them on your table.

You don’t have to imagine a whole plot in one go. Once you’ve started you can move them around, add ideas, even push some to the side. Before you know it the story will grow in front of you. Sellotape them together before the wind blows them all over the floor (it happened to me once).

Don’t let it rule you
In my work process this is produced as a guide only. Once I start writing everything changes. But you can just cut up your bits of card and replace them with new strands and characters as they appear. You can see my scribbled character spider in the top left of the picture.

Software options
There are software programs that emulate this method and probably give you more options, but…
1) I don’t have a computer screen as big as my table.
2) Getting away from the screen can liberate your imagination – it’s a touchy-feely method.