Tag Archives: characterisation

what’s in a name? (quite a lot, as it turns out)

I finished my structural edit last week, and have moved on to a line edit (this is where I get to just read through and fix single lines, or delete single paragraphs that aren’t quite working. Hopefully it’s not the bit where I find whole bits of the book that still aren’t working).

The oddest, most enjoyable part of the process has been changing the name of almost every character in the book.

I don’t tend to agonise over character names when I begin – but that being said, every name has a distinct feeling to me that has to match the character. I’m one of those odd people who sees the week ahead as a 3D object in my mind, and attributes colours to numbers. So I have a feeling about a character, that’s a mix of colour and tone and shape and random adjectives, and I cycle through names until one fits.

The name-changing process has been much more conscious. The first to change was my heroine, Beatrice Sutherland. She’s most often called Bea, and thinks of herself as Bea. I started to notice, as I wrote the second half of the novel, that my hero always calls her by her full name – and he’s the only one to do so.

This felt important. She begins the novel as a tough country girl who works hard all day to keep her family afloat. Her journey is realising how narrow she has made herself, and beginning to see how powerful she could be in the world if she just lets herself think big-picture. I wondered whether I could make a better distinction between her pet-name and her full name, so that one would represent her as the country girl, the other as the powerful woman. Then, when the hero calls her by her name, he’s really calling her to be great.

The very first construction to occur to me was Kit/Katherine. I have a fondness for the name Kit, partly because it was my grandma’s name, and partly because it’s such a perfect tom-boy name. It really seemed to capture who my heroine is to begin, and how spare and tough she is. There are many, many K(C)atherines in my life, so I was a little hesitant to use it, but it’s such a grown up, strong sort of a name, that I kept coming back to it.

The second change was easier, and more mercenary. Kit’s mother was called Lucy, but my eye kept confusing it with Kit’s sister, Lydia. I cast around a little – with some of Lucy’s history in mind, her aristocratic, possibly-of-German-descent family – and came up with Gretchen. It has the same girlish tone as Lucy, which is important for her character.

Then came my favourite change so far. Lydia’s husband is the Scottish Earl of Danes. Danes was never a particularly Scottish sounding title, and Cat pointed out long ago that it was slightly confusing given that it describes a whole nation’s people. However, while I was writing I could only think of him as Danes, and couldn’t change it. In editing it became clear that I have a total love affair with the letter D – my hero is only the very alliterate Duke of Darlington.

Special k and I started talking about what makes a Scottish name, and he mentioned “Ben”, meaning mountain, instead of the more common “Mac”. I eventually came to what I think is the coolest title ever: The Earl of BenRuin. Even special k liked it, so big gold star to me.

The thing about all the changes I’ve talked about so far is that every single one of them deepened the character for me. They added a new facet – made them seem more real and interesting. They allowed me to read my own characters as though I hadn’t created them, but they existed somewhere beyond me.

The last change, though, I am finding almost impossible to make.

My hero has been, from the very first moment, Roscoe, Duke of Darlington. The name came from the song Roscoe by Midlake which is just a killer song, and make me fall in love with it. For me, it had no other context than that. As I’ve been getting more and more feedback, though, I’ve started to notice that Americans read the name Roscoe with a context. Then I read the hilarious review over on Dear Author of Hot On Her Trail, which is some truly awful sounding cow-ranch erotica. The P.I. the cowboys keep on retainer is called Roscoe. I knew it was time to face my suspicions.

On Saturday I put the call-out on Twitter: What do you think of, when you hear the name Roscoe? The answer was not encouraging.

It mostly consisted of fond reminiscences over Dukes of Hazzard and this guy:

A frighteningly intelligent duke – who can also totally pull off wearing a dress – he ain’t.

The problem is Roscoe is – Roscoe. He’s the one to whom only that name seems to fit. However, I have found a pretty great baby name website (which is gold, there are so many crappy ones out there) and I’m working my way through the alphabet. I’m currently on D. Wish me luck!

the anatomy of purring

According to Wikipedia, the mechanism by which cats purr is elusive, because there’s no part of their anatomy strictly responsible for the sound. I admit I found this a little surprising, because I was looking more for some concrete proof that it is physically impossible for humans to purr.

My failed research aside, though, humans do not purr. Go ahead and give it a go. No, really, take as long as you like.

Okay, now how about a snarl? And how about this for a research gem – a snarl is a facial expression, not a sound. Gums raised, teeth bared, nostrils dilated. The noise has become synonymous with the expression, but it was an expression first.

That little gem disproves the point I’m trying to make, because technically humans can snarl. Except that when I read “he snarled” I always imagine that terrifying low growly sound lions and such make.

I imagine the human range of expressed, primal emotion is more like the noises gorillas make. Huffs, growls, yells. All of those I could make right now, if I wasn’t sitting beside my husband in the morning quiet and it would make him think, you know, that I’d gone mental.

My point is this: Characters purr and snarl, I see it all the time. And aside from the times it makes me think, “Er, how exactly?” I like it.

A cat is such an alien, indifferent sort of an animal, but when they purr there is this moment of deep contentment and pleasure. So when a character purrs – and it’s most often used in an intimate moment, when they have opened up or come close – it evokes that same sense of contentment and pleasure. There’s almost a sense that home is achieved.

A snarl, despite the new evidence my amazing research has brought to light, evokes for me a wolf at bay. There’s something of a lifted lip, and teeth, and the low, continuous warning. It’s a sound that says, “Right now I’m making noise. If you don’t pay very close attention, I will stop making this noise and start using my teeth.” When a character snarls it most often shows possessiveness – a human reverting back to the animal to protect what is theirs.

Once I started looking directly at these traits fictional people have that I don’t, I started seeing other things.

Characters – especially in romance – are often described as graceful. So graceful their movements are mesmerising. This is such a rare quality in humans; I almost never use the word to describe someone. A friend of mine once told me that she loved how exact her boyfriend was physically. If he reached for a cup, his hand closed without fuss exactly around the cup. He never knocked things over. I found it such a strange – and strangely compelling – thing to notice about someone.

Crooked and lop-sided grins have a definite counter-part in reality, but I can’t help feeling they have come to mean something particular in fiction. When I read a crooked grin, there’s this extra dimension to the character’s face – this extra, curvy place a mouth can go to.

There’s the photoshopped perfection of skin, when it’s described as alabaster (which now applies so specifically to skin that I’ve done some more research: It is the material or calcite of two distinct minerals) and the brain is not obliged to add a single blemish.

Everyone reads differently. Just the other day Cat and I had a long, incredulous conversation, as I tried to wrap my brain around the idea that she doesn’t see pictures at all when she reads. She reads by accumulating facts.

I see pictures – but I put faces and places together imperfectly. My stock of character faces are possibly more similar to computer-generated characters. The planes of the face are sharper, eyes more saturated in colour, skin less complex. Limbs are easy, graceful, hair is all sorts of crazy things that can still be soft, because there’s no need for gel. The direction of hair, by the way, confuses the hell out of me. I think I see mirror image when I’m watching a character, then right way round when I’m in a character.

But that’s beside the point.

The point is: Fictional characters are not human. They are of a different species altogether – something alien and flexible, that takes on some internal point we’re trying to fix and express.

It’s good to get the details just right so that they can evoke something true. But I suspect it’s equally good to be aware that you’re describing the expression of something human that is itself a little inhuman.

a world full of things that are happening elsewhere

I’ve become aware recently of a writing technique I’ve developed over the last couple of years. Its genesis was probably in my lessons with Sonia Orchard, who could always be counted on to say, “This is very general. I want a specific detail.” (As well as “What does this mean?” and “I don’t understand this at all.”)

Her constant search for more detail made sense to me when she put it like this: When you remember high school you don’t remember this general thing that comprises all your experiences. You remember specific things, and High School is attached to those things.

That made a lot of sense to me, so I started writing More Detail.

I started using sensory details from a character’s life to describe the current moment. For example, when my hero is suffering a panic attack, what he thinks is:

It wasn’t the squeezing, suffocating pain he had suffered before. It darted and flickered at his muscles, threatening at every moment to crash through him. He thought of the waves he had watched as a boy at Stonehaven. The stones had ground and shifted beneath his feet on the beach, their mottled grey an off-kilter reflection of the sky. He remembered the sea, huge and steely, muscling its way up, against the pull of gravity. Crashing back onto itself, pounding the foam knit across its surface.

The duchess had been wearing a pale pink coat and bonnet over a darker pink dress with small panniers. He remembered how her round, placid face had pinched, her lips unsure as she told Nanny not to let him so close to the water.

If he let the pain descend, it would kill him.

I think this was the passage where I first became aware of what I was doing. It’s not backstory – his memory isn’t moving the narrative along in a plot sense. It’s hard to articulate, but I think it’s this:

Humans learn to interpret their sense-experience as they grow up and gain points of reference. They (we) create a personal paradigm through which we understand everything else that happens to us.

By using snippets of memory from the character’s learning period (and the example I’ve given is quite a long one, it can just be a quick association), the fictional world becomes self-referential and immediately feels more real. Suddenly the part of the character’s life that we’re watching is not all that exists – we’re also made aware of everything that has made them, and of the complex and entirely subjective way they process the world.

This isn’t a technique I invented – I’m pretty sure it’s just another way of looking at the iceberg theory – but thinking about it from this angle works for me.

Hot Fuzz is a perfect movie


just watched it again, and I’m still in awe of it. The characterisation of Sgt Angel is flawless, from the cop so good he has to be banished from London for making everyone else look bad, to the small town citizen who can get his Bad Boy on.

The bromance as the central relationship is simple but impeccably woven into the story arc, holding it all together (Simon Pegg’s face, when he thinks Danny’s in with the baddies breaks my heart, in the good way).

The crime and investigation are so much fun and executed with a deft layering that turns it into bloody brilliance.

And lastly, the whole thing is made in a slick, visually beautiful style that carries the beat of the story to perfection. Did I mention this is a perfect movie?

the brilliance of Terry Pratchett

when I was young and my older brother was reading Terry Pratchett, and my younger brother was about to start reading Terry Pratchett, his books still had those dizzying, vulgar (I’m not sure whether I mean that in a positive or negative sense, but I’m sure that’s the right word) covers. I thought for years that his books must be a surreal and adult romp through some incomprehensible world.

Not all of that impression was wrong, but having now read almost every Discworld book, I know that not much of it was right.

I’m reading his second-to-latest book at the mo, Unseen Academicals, and it’s coming home to me all over again, just how well he writes characters. Specifically, characters who are pretending to be something they’re not – or pretending not to be what they are.

(I realise those last two pretty much say the same thing, but there is a huge difference. It reminds me of an anecdote Michael Caine tells about his early days of acting. He was on the stage doing his very best “drunk man walking”, when the director stopped him. “I see a sober man walking in a squiggly line,” the director said (though he may not have used the word “squiggly”). “I want to see a drunk man walking in a straight line.”

Both amount to the same thing, but are completely different. The difference between a character putting their energy into pretending to be something they’re not, and putting their energy into pretending not to be what they are is what makes Terry Pratchett great.)

His characters are complex. They are unreliable narrators, because they’re not always honest with themselves about who (or what) they really are. Their motivations are not what they appear to be. Or else they have two opposing motivations, and you never know which one will out. It’s nature v nurture battling it out inside one consciousness.

It creates narrative traction like nobody’s business, because whilst you’re following the bigger-picture narrative and trying to figure that out, you’re also working away in the back of your mind on what this character is hiding from you. It never feels coy, because they’re almost always hiding it from themselves, too.

Very often, when the conflicting parts of a character come to a head, there’s a moment where free will determines the outcome of this one struggle, which most likely determines the outcome of a larger struggle. A character’s own nature sets the stage and writes the drama for their own moment of epiphany.

The next thing is figuring out how the hell he does it.

writing characters who are smarter than you

I love my new and improved hero. He’s so…unpredictable. Unfortunately, he’s also meant to be, like, the most intelligent person on the planet.

That’s a little bit intimidating to write.

It’s the same feeling I get when I want a character to be really funny. I have to dig in and find the inner comic. I don’t think there is one. But there has to be one. Somehow.

Lucky for me, my critique-partner-extraordinaire has a Machiavellian brain. Some things we talked about:

1. The reader shouldn’t have a plan explained step-by-step either before or after the fact. The plan should unfold and they should see what the mastermind gains by it.

2. The mastermind should be less impressed by the plan than the plan warrants.

3. If you intend for the reader to have figured something out by a certain point in the plot, this event shouldn’t take the mastermind by surprise – we should see them calmly accept the thing when it happens, as though of course this was obvious to them.

And of course, 4. plant your seeds carefully and well, so that things happen almost incidentally. (This is something I really love about J R Ward’s books – it feels like the goodies and baddies run up against each other almost incidentally, as though what they each want just happens to be mutually exclusive.)