ARTICLE #8 - Developing Believable Characters PART TWO
When you asked each of your characters, “By what name do I call you?”—did you find their given names appropriate to their individuality? As seen in many fantasy and science fiction adventures where out-of-this-world and bizarre creatures exist, were any names strange or difficult to pronounce? Or did you find their names to be common, elite-sounding, or perhaps even bold? Did any name assert a sense of class, or perhaps heighten an awareness of mystery? Obviously, what you name your characters is essential to how they’re portrayed; it adds, or even dictates their persona. If you should find it difficult to come up with compelling names there are a few good references you could use. Among them are phone directories, movie credits, and programs.
Before you assign a name, there are factors to consider. First there’s genre. Second, consider the era in which the story takes place. Lastly, there’s, of course, is the character’s gender and sexuality. For example, if a character is portrayed as a hardcore assassin, or perhaps a no-nonsense detective, or maybe a scientist out to save the world, then you might consider using a hard consonant-sounding name, keeping it preferably to one or two syllables. On the other hand, let’s say your character is sexually appealing and romantic, in which case you may want to use a sensual, melodic name that’s pleasant-sounding. Also you may want to keep whatever name you choose phonetically easy to pronounce.
The sound of a name is important when considering the gender of a character. But take note, just because a character may be female doesn’t necessarily designate a soft name. For instance, the main female character in the screenplay Wanted played by Angelina Jolie, her character’s name was Fox, implying someone stealthy, crafty, a name that makes you feel alert and watchful.
Keep in mind, too, that names are dated and may have geographical significance. Spelling may be relevant to time and place as well. For instance, you may not want to use the name Doris for a leading Chinese heroine in an epic set in China during the nineteenth-century. It’s also important to keep in mind when using bizarre, unfamiliar names that you ensure they’re befitting to the tale. Limit unfamiliar names to one or two per tale; otherwise, a reader will grow weary and put your book down, finding it too laborious to read. Remember, you want to keep your words flowing, and keep your story moving.
Okay, so you’ve interviewed your protagonist and all supporting characters. You’ve assigned them appropriate names. Now use the information you’ve gathered to write a one- to two-page biography about the protagonist, and then a paragraph or two about the major supporting players.
If your protagonist is a superhero, then your story will naturally involve a super-villain. The antagonist-counterpart. The antagonist is a fierce character that fanatically opposes the protagonist. This super-villain is a major player and is as paramount to the tale as the superhero. That being the case, you must also sit down and interview this personality thoroughly. You’ll be amazed at how this exercise can keep you focused while ultimately enhancing your story. All that background data will act as your Story Director, directing all the actions and responses of those characters, along with helping to mold the course of plot development.
Apart from direction, writing a character-bio provides your protagonist, antagonist, and all major players with more than a one-dimensional name on a page. Through your narrative and the characters’ dialogue and interactions, their personalities take shape. They become vividly real people—believable in your mind and in the minds of your readers.
Because your characters have become real to you, you will then understand their emotional and psychological makeup, as well as knowing their childhood backgrounds and current social standing. Therefore, this vivid realism plays and shows through their actions and interactions within the tale. Even the response to your characters’ physical appearances shows through the perception of how others perceive them, whether they’re physically attractive or exhibit flaws that make others they encounter in the story shy away from them. For example, perhaps the protagonist is difficult to look at without pity, concern, fear, or possibly even revulsion, which may be a strong factor if you’re building a character into the leading villain. Or, in another example, physical appearance could be a tool you use to draw attention to a grossly disfigured character to win public favor through a heroic deed they perform.
By the way, I should mention, supporting characters are sometimes referred to as sidekicks. This is true where a close companion of a main character is usually regarded as subordinate, as in how Doctor Watson was to Sherlock Holmes in the famous mystery dramas, or as Abbott was to Costello in the comedy series. A protagonist may have more than one sidekick, as seen in the chronicle adventure of Harry Potter and his faithful companions Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
While writing bios helps to bring your characters into focus and make them real-to-life, remember it is also vital that you read and pay close attention to how other authors bring
characters to life. Keep in mind, too, that no matter how “seasoned” you become as a writer, you can always learn and keep yourself up-to-date by reading the works of fellow authors.
C. R. Swainward