Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 10)

Just Right

In many ways, characters are like cooking. You can easily go overboard by adding far too many spices and adornments, and just as easily not go far enough, resulting in something bland or unappealing. To make creation more difficult, there’s no such thing as “just right” for a character because “just right” depends on what you want and need from the character. A bland character can be just as effective as a fully fleshed out character if used appropriately, and a fully developed character can be inappropriate.

Think of your mixture of characters as dinner. Are all the dishes strong and powerful? No, of course not. That would not work. Some dishes are strong, some mild, some salty, some sweet. Even the water, the plainest of all dishes, is welcome in a meal because it clears the mouth. In the same way, you want different characters who provide all sorts of different experience to the reader.


Picking a good name for each character is among the most important, and most difficult, aspects of creating a character. That name will be the meme with which your readers attach all information.

The human brain is a pattern-matching machine. When creating names, you want to use your reader's ability to detect a pattern without getting caught up in that pattern. If you aren't careful, you create create similar patterns in the character names, and then the reader spends cognitive effort detangling patterns rather than paying attention to your story. To that end, each character’s name should form its own pattern.

Here are my guidelines for naming:

  • If you don’t want to bother with a character, don’t name them.
  • If you want a new character to run amok in your story, name them.
  • Start your character names with different letters of the alphabet.
  • Vary name lengths. 
  • Vary name silhouettes.

As a simple rule, no important character should begin with the same letter. Amy, Ally, Arny, and Al may each be a wonderfully written character, but the human eye will mix up those names constantly. Your reader is already being challenged by what you write. Don’t turn up the difficulty by including highly confusable names.

Names that have similar lengths can be easy to confused as well. Billy, Willy, and Jilly each have the same length and visual pattern, so they tend to smush into each other. Billy, William, and Jillain are far less confusing to the eye. The eye can use the first letter of the name, the length of the name, and the shape of the name to help identify the character.

Words also have shape. Literally, they have a certain silhouette upon the page. Aim to have each primary name have a different silhouette. Billy, William, and Jillain Jo are each dominated by a ‘LL.’ Brains pick up on that. Better to have names like Billy, Walter, and Mary Jo.

Named vs Nameless

Some characters have names. Some don’t. The difference is actually very important. As much as possible, don’t name characters. Once you name them, you start needing to track them. The more characters that you have, the more tracking that you have. That creates a large amount of cognitive overhead on you as you write. Thus, don’t name characters unless you need them named.

The interesting thing about naming characters is that you start thinking about them as people, making them into more fully developed characters. That sounds great, but that doesn't always work. Sometimes you just need a nameless face waiting tables.

On the other hand, give a name to any character that you like and enjoy writing. That will help the readers to remember them. With a name, a character becomes more real.

When wrestling with a character, don’t hesitate to add or remove a name just to see what it does.

Projecting Importance

Readers use the information that we give them to assess the importance of a character.

How much time do you give any character? The more time that the character gets, the more important that character. It's pretty much the same as screen time for an actor. Simply by being around and getting mentioned a lot, a character will assume an importance in the story. This is why the "That Guy we gotta find" trope is so strong: the character that you are searching for is constantly referenced in the story, and so our brain soon consider him more important and more present that he would otherwise be.