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The following material is provided by WRITERLIST a Free service providing marketing and other information to writers. This material is copyrighted by Allen Rolf, but permission is hereby given for reproduction and distribution for non-commercial purposes. For more information, email WRITERLIST


Where Do You Get Those Names?

by Allen Rolf

Special names create special memorable characters!

          Creating a well-crafted piece of fiction is like painting a fine oil. The finished piece mimics reality, that piece of life visualized by the artist. The graphic artist pays attention to the finer strokes of his brush; the writer to the careful selection of his characters.

        It is not quite enough for the writer to tell about a main character who is merely known as "John Doe." No, this part of the composition must stand out on the page and exemplify .... even to the point of distortion .... all of those human traits that makes him a hero or a villain. Choosing a character's name can be an important part of making characters memorable.

          'At eighteen, Marine Cpl. "Lefty" O'Malley left his right hand, blown to smithereens, on the volcanic sand beach of Iwo Jima ......'

          The above brief paragraph illustrates how the author has quickly and economically told us about one of his characters, a young marine of Irish extraction who lost a limb in battle and is now known as "lefty." From here, the reader's imagination is allowed to take over: We probably picture a person of average appearance and ability, but one challenged by life. Instinctively, we know that Cpl. O'Malley is a hero.

          Part of the secret is that the author has told us a simple story about his character, a story we are apt to remember. Consider this approach as compared to the writer who is merely content to tell us his character's name. Quite a difference!

          It is safe to say that every reader deals in stereotypical characters based upon previous experience or what they have been told by society. In a word, we are all prejudiced in one way or another. Here are some examples:

          A modern terrorist is dark complected, may wear a scraggly beard, and is driven by some aberration.

        A 747 airline pilot is trim, well groomed, cool and collected. He is a conservative dresser and calculates every move.

        A traveling salesman is rumpled, a little sloppy in dress, loud, and smokes cigars. He has never met a stranger.

      A street prostitute is blunt, flashy, and bold. In a word, she is a tough cookie.

      A good storyteller will automatically trade upon these stereotypes to lend credulence to his yarn. If done suttley, he knows the reader will paint the desired picture of the character in his mind, thus saving dozens of words what otherwise would be expended in describing his characters.

      The same holds true for choosing a character's name. Names can provide wonderful descriptions of characters and their traits.

      "Bugs" Hanrahan, for instance, is a character from across the tracks. Michael Norris Flemingstead is a rich kid from up-town. Billy Joe Brown is a small-town yokel from the Ozarks. Cimon Rodriguez is a Latino from the barrio. In each case, the name has been chosen to imply a certain type of character with a certain background.

          Remember, it is almost always the small details that portray realism in any creative work. The fine touches, carefully selected by the creator, give final sparkle to any creative work.

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