Characters and their names

Last week, a student asked me for a lesson on creating strong characters for his fiction, including tips on how to generate the names of characters as well. I tried my best to answer some of his questions and share the process by which I develop characters, but to be honest, I had little to say to the young man. It’s so odd how my own writing process can be such a mystery to me. But like my student, I am incredibly curious to find out how other authors develop and name their characters and will do some investigating on the subject when there is time.

As for me, my characters often begin in some way with someone I know. For example, the character of Cindy Clayton in Something Missing is based upon a real woman named Cindy, whose real last name was taken from a different friend of mine. The Cindy of real life is a teacher in my school and the mother of two who is married to a police officer. The Cindy in Something Missing is also a teacher (different grade level) but she has no children and is married to a contractor. Other than the fact that both husbands are bald, the men that Cindy and her fictional counterpart married have nothing in common at all. And while the real Cindy enjoys a happy and loving marriage, the Cindy in Something Missing does not.

In this way, I often use real people as the foundation of my characters and then slowly begin to manipulate and change them into the characters that belong in my story. I provided the example of Cindy Clayton in this post because she shares an unusual number of similarities with her real-life counterpart, whereas most of my characters eventually become indistinguishable from the real-life person with whom I started. I compare this process to working with clay: rather than starting off with an unformed ball of the stuff, I prefer to begin with a block of clay that has already been molded into the general form of a human being and work from there. This has proven especially useful for me in terms of the physical description of characters, an aspect of writing in which I am quite deficient.

But there are also many times when I find myself beginning with the unformed ball of clay as well. Typically, the more important a character is to my story, the more likely that I began from scratch, whereas minor characters or characters that play smaller roles in the story often have stronger roots in reality. In Something Missing, for example, the character of Laura Green is not based upon anyone I know, nor is Martin’s father. These characters are more central to the story and seemed to have already existed in my mind, whereas a character like Cindy Clayton, who Martin never actually meets, did not.

As for Martin and Milo and now Wyatt, the protagonists in all three of my books, I like to think that they all began as a seed within me, a possibility of something that I could have become had the circumstances of my life been different. They are original and unique and certainly not based upon me in the strictest sense of the word, but they share qualities and experiences with me and represent a part of me that never fully formed.

For the most part, thankfully so.

And as for names, they are quite often plucked from real life. Laura Green has the first name of my high school sweetheart and my wife’s maiden name. Daniel and Sarah Ashley are combinations of former students’ names. But then there are characters like Sophie and Sherman Pearl and Clive Darrow, who seemed to have names from the moment they appeared on the page.

As for the choice of Martin’s name, I’ve written about that before.