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Tools for Naming Characters


Tom Riddle

In my current novel, my character names have been a mess. I’ve used up hours naming and renaming major characters, with the protagonist so far the most name-changed individual with two rounds of selection for her first name and three for her last name. Not only do I want each name to be right, I also want them to fit together, and to minimize the possibility of them being confused with each other. For instance, I generally try to avoid giving any two major characters of the same gender the first initial.

Naming characters well
Character names are important to me for a number of reasons. An awkward name makes it harder for me to read a story. A name with the wrong “feel” or associations is offputting. A name that I don’t like makes it hard for me to like the character. The wrong name in a story, especially in my own story, yanks me out of the experience and into a critical, peevish attitude that gets in the way of experiencing the story.

Some writers have nailed this. Shakespeare, for my money, was as poetic with his names as with everything else he wrote. Dickens was a master of names, too. J. K. Rowling has some of the cleverest names I’ve ever heard, given that she’s writing for a young audience. That she would have a wizard character with the intriguing but cheerful name “Tom Marvolo Riddle,” and that this would be an anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort,” with “Voldemort” not only having an ominous and terrible sound a la Sauron or Tash or (more subtly) Moriarty, but also having the meaning (if we apply German and French) of “full of death” … that’s just insane. I can’t imagine how she managed that.

Name resources
Let’s not set the bar too high, though. In terms of finding good, appropriate names for characters, first of all, here are a few of my favorite resources:

Scrivener (see “How Tools and Environment Make Work into Play, Part I: The Example of Scrivener” and “Would Scrivener Make You a Happier Writer?“) has a name generation feature which is very convenient, but I have often found these names to be too random and uncommon for my taste. However, it will let you choose nationalities and other factors, so for some Scrivener users, it might be just the thing.

Choosing a name: an example
Here’s a grid I used to choose a new surname for the protagonist of my current novel. I had five criteria:

  • How the name sounded (to me) with the protagonist’s first name
  • How it sounded with her family members’ first names
  • How the name “felt” to me in terms of suiting this character (and to a much lesser extent, her family)
  • Associations I thought readers might commonly have with the name, and
  • Thematic resonance/appropriateness.

I got my list of candidates by browsing through that “1,000 most common surnames” link and choosing anything that looked like it might suit.

Check marks mean “win,” x’s mean “fail,” and tildes (~) mean “meh, sorta.”

In the end, I went with “Finch,” not only because it was the one choice to score all five check marks, but also because of the nuances of the the specific associations with advocacy, right action, long odds, great literature, and nature. What this gives me is a character name I feel good about and that works with me rather than against me. It doesn’t matter that I stole it: as Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Whether you steal your name or come by it honestly, here’s wishing you characters that sound like the people you want them to be.

Drawing by Irrisor-Immortalis.


Three Act Structure: Essential Framework or Load of Hooey?


Back in July, Film Crit Hulk posted this discourse on the utter uselessness of three-act structure. In case you’re not already familiar with three-act structure, it’s an approach often recommended as a key tool for writing, especially with screenplays.

The version of three-act structure Hulk takes apart in his post (“setup, rising action, resolution”) is indeed pretty useless–but it’s not useless because three-act structure is trash: it’s useless because it’s been oversimplified to the point of being hopelessly vague.

Three-act structure certainly isn’t something a successful writer needs to follow, but it can be a hugely useful tool if used properly.

Act I
In effective three-act structure (says me), the first act constitutes pitting the character against the conflict. Generally speaking, the incident that defines the transition from Act I to Act II is the protagonist committing to taking on the central problem; before that there’s resistance, avoidance, lack of understanding, etc. Simultaneously, you introduce the reader/viewer to the protagonist and the protagonist’s world. Referring to it as “setup” is trouble, because that sounds like you’re supposed to dump a bunch of background information or move characters uninterestingly into position.

Act II
Act II starts with the protagonist doing something to join the action, which usually means actively striving to make the situation better. Act II comprises repeated attempts by the protagonist to resolve the central story problem, usually resulting in disasters that up the stakes (hence “rising action,” though “rising action” makes it sound like it’s supposed to be some kind of an upward slope rather than a cycle that gets bigger each time through). I agree with Hulk that the movie Green Lantern sucks on this count, as Hal in the movie is reactive to circumstances instead of proactively trying to do something. It’s much more interesting to watch a character push to try to accomplish something–even (or perhaps especially) if that something is ill-considered–than it is to watch the character get hit with a bunch of plot developments and not do anything meaningful about them.

Act II ends with the introduction of the final gambit: this is where the protagonist commits to an all-or-nothing bid to make the thing happen. Thus Act III is the character trying to make that last plan work and probably having to adjust or reframe right in the middle of it (since if everything works as planned, it’s kinda boring).

Five acts?
Hulk points out that Shakespeare wrote in five acts, but Shakespeare’s stories can also be considered in the light of real three act structure. The turning point between the first and second acts is where Romeo leaps the orchard fence prior to the balcony scene (Act II, scene 1), after which the two lovers commit to each other despite their families’ enmities. They struggle to be together, marry, have their moment of love, and Romeo has his run-in with Tybalt throughout the second act.

Act III is the desperate gambit, Juliet’s plan to fake her death and how that pans out (Act IV, scene 1). Note that Shakespeare puts act breaks in both these places.

If you’re concerned that three-act structure is formulaic, I’d suggest that you can ease your mind. Three-act structure is a set of ideas about tension and satisfaction that suggest a way to structure a story. You can’t simply plug in details to get a good story: good writing always takes craft and artistry, regardless of whether it’s on a framework.

Not every good story fits three-act structure. However, it’s a very widespread and successful approach to story writing if properly understood. It has certainly been useful to me!

By the way, I later followed up this post with an additional one: Three-Act Structure: Answers to All Your Questions.


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