The Name Game

name-tag-600Maybe at some point you’ve heard “The Name Game,” a song released in 1964 by Shirley Ellis. The song has a certain rhyme scheme, as Wikipedia details:

Using the name Katie as an example, the song follows this pattern:
Katie, Katie, bo-batie,
Banana-fana fo-fatie
Fee-Fi-mo-matie
Katie! . . .
If the name starts with a vowel or vowel sound, the “b” “f” or “m” is inserted in front of the name. And if the name starts with a b, f, or m, that sound simply is not repeated.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I’ve always been fascinated by character names and the thought process behind their choice. As I read a work of fiction I ask: Did the author employ a carefully thought out system? Or, were the names simply chosen off the top of the author’s head or designed to be variations on existing names, sort of like the rhyme scheme of “The Name Game”?

I love choosing names for my characters. Because I’m writing high fantasy and including some of the creatures found in the mythology of Western cultures, I tend to use Western names. Once I come up with a name possibility, I check its meaning. I can think of few things more embarrassing than to learn that the name I carefully chose for my hero means “banana” or even “coward,” unless that name helps show the character’s emotional arc somehow. I also consider the mood I want to convey in the story. Writers like J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens chose names that helped show mood in their books. So for my book, if the mood is tense or dark, I shouldn’t choose a character name that will undercut the tension (i.e., a name that means “cheerful chipmunk”), unless I’m trying to be ironic.

twilight-coverIf you read the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (and if you hated it, please don’t scoff; this is not a review of the series), you’ll note Meyer’s choice of old-fashioned names—a decision that inspired a naming trend among babies. Since her vampire characters were born in an earlier century, choosing contemporary names for them like Britney, Jayden, or Zuri would have seemed jarring.

Back in my days of writing parodies, I didn’t give much thought to name origins. I just used the first goofy name that came to mind. Ever make up a name you thought sounded cool or beautiful, but that later comes across as silly or even pretentious? I made up names for my own amusement, names like Leaferella or Concretola. I know you’re impressed with my naming finesse. Want me to come up with names for the characters in your book? I’ll understand if you don’t. Perhaps you’ll be relieved to know that I’ve given more thought to names these days.

Silly names can work if you’re writing a book with a high level of humor. But humor is a tricky beast. Not everyone gets the joke. And if you picked a name for the sake of a laugh without careful thought, you run the risk of the chosen name being perceived as on par with “Katie, bo-batie.” In other words, something slipshod. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, give serious thoughts to character names.

clipboard-iconHere are some naming strategy suggestions, which probably go without saying, but I’ll add them anyway:
• Check the phone book or a baby name book, then check online for the etymology of selected names.
• Keep a list of names that strike your fancy. You might be able to plug those names into a story someday. Case in point: a friend told me the story of someone who bullied her in the fifth grade. I wound up using that person’s name in a story.
• Pay attention to the names of people within the age level you’re writing about. Avoid names that sound overly dated. For example, you won’t find a ton of teens named Egbert these days (but see the next point). Beware overuse though. If you see a dozen young adult novels with a main character named Connor, you might not want to go that route if you want your young adult novel to stand out.
• Consider the cyclical nature of names. Names that sound trendy now might seem dated in a few years, whereas names that went out of style might be in vogue.
• Try to avoid clichés if you can. For example: naming a poodle in your story Fifi.
• Avoid stereotypes while choosing ethnic names. (This point alone is worth its own post.) Take time to research the culture as you choose names.
• Don’t forget the Mary Sue Litmus Test. The first question deals with names.

Great posts on checking names:
http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-7-rules-of-picking-names-for-fictional-characters
http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/25-How2-CharacterNames.html
http://www.babynames.com/character-names.php

What’s your strategy for choosing names?

Name tag from mashable.com. Clipboard from freepsdfile.com.

Three Is a Magic Number?

Hope you had a joyous Easter!

Before the snow I wrote about in a previous post came and went like a drive-by shooter, a friend’s mom gave me these from her garden:

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Pretty, huh? But would you say this arrangement is more satisfying than it would have been had there been only two daffodils?

Number-3-iconAccording to the Rule of Three, the answer is yes.

The rule of Three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. (Wikipedia)

Want some more on that? Here you go:

The Latin phrase, “omne trium perfectum” (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three. (Wikipedia again)

You’ve seen this rule played out in literature: for example, stories have a beginning, middle, and an end; the three-act structure of a work (setup, confrontation, and resolution); three tasks someone has to perform in fairy tales; stories from the Brothers Grimm like “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes,” “The Water of Life,” and others involving three characters in specific situations (usually a quest); “God in three persons” (from the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”); and trilogies like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Juliet Marillier’s Shadowfell and many others.

Number-2-iconYet in regard to book writing, the magic number for me is two, rather than three. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against trilogies. I’ve read dozens of them. But I’m writing a duology.

How many duologies have you read? Probably not many, right? I can only think of a few duologies off the top of my head: one by Sherwood Smith, another by Robin McKinley (I’m still waiting on the second book of McKinley’s duology to debut), and a third by Juliet Marillier. (See, the rule of three still comes into play, even in a discussion of authors of duologies.)

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Many series I’ve read involve an uneven number of books, namely three, five, or seven books. Some dare to be even-numbered series, like Stephenie Meyer’s four-book Twilight series. But three is the popular choice.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked why I’ve chosen to write a duology, rather than a trilogy. I know. I’m violating the rule. Though I haven’t yet written the second book, the story arc as planned seems complete not with three books or five, but two.

7873172Sorry, trilogy lovers. I can’t stretch the story over three books just to satisfy a rule. If I might borrow the words of Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring (though he referred to himself), the story would

Feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. (Tolkien 54)

See what I mean? Bilbo understands.

My hat is off to the many, many writers who can pull off three good books. I’m not one of those writers. That’s why I’m glad to know that good things also come in twos. Think about it: two arms, two legs, two eyes. Do you feel incomplete because you lack a third eye or a third hand? My guess is, you don’t.

Are you a firm believer in the Rule of Three? Would you prefer to write a trilogy or a duology? What is your favorite trilogy? Duology? Sandwich? (I threw in the latter to see if you were paying attention.)

To show that there are no hard feelings between me and the number three, check out this Schoolhouse Rock video, “Three Is a Magic Number.”

Another good post on the Rule of Three: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RuleOfThree

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1955. Print.

Numbers 2 and 3 images from iconarchive.com. Book covers from Goodreads. Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins photo from middle-earthencyclopedia.

A Writer’s Process 8(b)

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The marvelous Melanie Fishbane and I are back. And so are you! Great! Let’s get this party started! But first: If you’re brand-new to the blog, you may wish to know that this is part 2 of the interview. You can jump over to part 1 here and get acquainted with Melanie’s work in progress. (Or, if you’re like Kay Thompson’s irrepressible character, Eloise, you can skibble over to part 1.)

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El Space: Aside from your work in progress, you’re working on some academic papers. Please tell us about those and how you came to write them.
Melanie: I love breaking things down and analyzing them, because it is a way for me to have a conversation with myself about what I’m thinking. Essays (and answering questions for a blog post) are a great way to do that!

I returned to essay writing in 2008, when I was inspired by the way teens were responding to Edward Cullen (Twilight), Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), and Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables) online. I considered how there was a similarity in the way that these characters were constructed that made teens fall in love with them and then wondered about my own literary loves—Gilbert Blythe and Almanzo Wilder in case you were interested.

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Almanzo Wilder

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Gilbert Blythe

El Space: I am! Mainly because I’m nosy.
Melanie: Well, in that case, you should check out this blog post where I talk about it.

El Space: Read it! Great post.
Melanie: I’ve been working on the Perfect Man Archetype for about four years now (it was my critical thesis) and hope to put my literary findings into a book one day.

El Space: I’d love to read that! And I could say something about finding the Perfect Man in general, but let’s move on!
Melanie: YA is having such an interesting growth and I think by tapping into this archetype, I’ve been able to connect to our literary heritage.

The other essay I’m working on is how L. M. Montgomery used writing to help her deal with loss, specifically what I see as her grief narratives: Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes Are Quoted. I came to this, because I wanted to explore how Montgomery wrote about grieving and the process of grieving.

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El Space: How do both worlds—your academic subjects and your novel—meet?
Melanie: Well, for the Perfect Man Archetype I’ve been able to look at how I construct the love interests in my novels and how I might subvert them. I want to create characters that I hope my readers will fall in love with, but will also, hopefully, surprise them.

montgomery_rilla_hcFor the Montgomery essay on grieving, I came to this because my novel is also a grief narrative, as my protagonist is recovering from the sudden death of her father and I hoped to gain insight into how to write this with authenticity.

 El Space: If you were to write an academic paper on a current heroine, not including your own, who would you choose? Why?
Melanie: Good question! You know, I don’t know. The first character that came to mind was Katniss from The Hunger Games, mostly because she has inspired a stream of strong willed, hurt, emotionally detached characters in YA. I wonder if maybe it is because I remember being so emotional as a teen but don’t think that I even understood what was going on or why I felt the way that I did. In a way, that is being disconnected, going into the head, not the heart. Come to think of it, my novel deals with this a bit, too.

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El Space: What advice would you give to a teen about writing?
Melanie: Write things that inspire you and don’t worry about being bad. You will be, but that is okay. I would also suggest keeping a journal, because it will allow you to safely work with your own story and emotions. Then if you see a writing workshop at your local library, take it. And don’t take the feedback too personally; you aren’t a bad person or a bad writer if the sentence is bad; it is just that the sentence is bad and that can be fixed. I wish someone had told me that as a teenager. I might not have waited ten years to go back to writing fiction and poetry.

Wow! Thanks, Melanie, for being such a great guest. (She also picks up after herself and doesn’t leave coffee mug rings on the table. Nice.)

And thank you for stopping by. If you have questions for Melanie, you know what to do! Please comment below!

Eloise illustration by Hilary Knight found at truetostyle.com. Gilbert Blythe photo from sjaejones.com. Almanzo Wilder photo from Wikipedia. Rilla of Ingleside cover from lmmresearchgroup.org. Other book covers from Goodreads.com. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss photo found at graphic-engine.swarthmore.edu.