Actions Speak Louder

One of the first pieces of writing advice almost all new writers hear is the old adage “Show don’t tell.” Back when I first started writing, I fully loathed hearing people say that–mostly because I don’t think anyone ever explained it very well beyond “don’t use to be verbs.” While trying to stay away from weak verbs is generally good advice, even brand new writers tend to realize going on a “to be” witch hunt get you awkward prose (at least I did when I had an English teacher tell us to write a story without a single was or were).


More than being about to be verbs, though, showing and not telling has to do with “showing” the reader actions and emotions rather than “telling” them what your character is like or is feeling. For example, you could tell a reader, “She was a quiet girl and wanted to be left alone” or you could show a little girl sitting at the back of a classroom, her shoulders pulled up to her ears as she prays in her head that no one comes to talk to her. While both make the same general point, the second paints a much more vivid picture and pulls the reader into the scene rather than just giving them statements to remember.

While it’s good to stay away from weak/telling phrases in general (I was; I felt; I wanted; I liked…) showing becomes immeasurably important when it comes to fleshing out characters. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your readers that your character is quiet and shy, if all you show is your character being the center of attention at party after party, your character is going to read as someone loud and outgoing. When it comes to characterization, actions truly do speak louder than words.

So, instead of telling your reader character traits:

1. Look for scenes that show important traits. For example, rather than telling the reader that your character is a good fighter (or having people talk about how good a fighter that character is–as seems common in TV shows) look for a scene where your character will be able to show off those skills.

2. Shape dialogue to show personality. No two people speak entirely alike. Some people share certain verbal tics, but personality shapes word choice, slang usage, wordiness, and all those other things that make a character sound like a person rather than the author. If your character is shy and quiet, their dialogue will likely be shorter and meeker than a character who loves attention and so pontificates whenever given the chance.

3. Make a point when your character is acting out of character. Sometimes, you’ll need your “stickler for the rules” character to go against type and break into work to steal a file. That’s fine, as long as you show that that’s not who your character normally is. Make a point that your character is nervous/uncomfortable with what’s happening or take the time for them to struggle with making the decision to act against who they are (ideally after you’ve already shown who the character normally is earlier on). By showing what is happening is the exception to the rule will help keep the reader from seeing a strange disconnect between what they’ve heard about the character and what they’ve seen.

Just remember, when it comes to learning about characters, seeing how they act is much more powerful than hearing once or twice or ten times that the character is X. Use showing to your advantage, even if you still need some was and weres in there.

Through His/Her Eyes

As October draws to a close, NaNoWriMo grows ever closer. And with thousands of writers joining the fray, I’m starting to get more and more questions about POV (Point of View). Last week I covered POV Bloat (having so many POV characters it’s difficult for the reader to connect with any of them), today I’ll be talking about how it’s possible to flesh out characters who aren’t POV characters.

Over the past week, perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from people who are considering–but aren’t sure about–using first person is: “I feel like first person would make for a stronger narrative, but I’m worried about being able to get in the other characters’ motivations.”

What always worries me about comments like that is the feeling that authors are relying on being inside a character’s head to tell information rather than working on showing events that let the reader learn about the characters organically.

Remember, it is not necessary to be in a character’s head for the reader to learn a lot about them. It’s not even necessary for a POV character to tell readers about him/herself. After all, “I don’t like going to zoos because…” is much less interesting for the reader than a character being dragged to the zoo and then going into fits because of a bad experience that then comes out. So, if you’re trying to build up a character without being in their head, try to:

1. Look for places you can show personalities rather than tell the reader about them. It is possible to bring across quite a bit about a character by showing how they interact with the world rather than relying on an internal monologue. There is an entire trope named “Pet the Dog” where a villain is shown to not be entirely evil by him/her having a scene where he/she is kind to an animal. Perhaps you don’t want to go with that specific example–as it is a bit of a cliché at this point–but character-specific scenes that give insight are always helpful, no matter who the character is.

2. Use dialogue. Sure, you don’t want your character to suddenly drop in and start spouting off his/her life story for no reason, but it is often possible to get characters to naturally talk about themselves here and there at least enough to show deeper motivations without needing to be inside that character’s head (just try not to overdo it or you could end up with the reader wondering why that character is always spouting off long chunks of backstory for no apparent reason).  Note: It is also possible to have other characters discuss the character you need more information about to get a similar effect.

and last but not least:

3. Trust your writing. If you have developed well-rounded, realistic characters, it won’t be necessary to explain that they have more thoughts and motivations than might come across just in the narrative. When characters feel deep, it isn’t necessary to tell the reader they have depth. (If you’re finding you’re having problems making a character feel real in small acts, consider doing more character building before continuing what you’re writing. That will likely come more in handy than just having a character think about who they are).

To everyone participating: happy NaNo planning!

The Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil

If you have been on social media for any length of time, you likely have seen a meme that looks something like this:


And half of them seem to use Game of Thrones character for whatever reason. (

Long before these charts became “meme worthy”, players of RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons were familiar with building characters in a similar way, aligning their characters along a “moral and ethical axis”. A full (very handy) breakdown is available on TV Tropes, but it can basically be broken down into:


Now, these breakdowns don’t always work for fiction writers (as TV Tropes very smartly says, “remember that the vast majority of characters in fiction are not tabletop game characters, and therefore lack a canonical interpretation of alignment“) more and more I have found it helpful to think of characters who fit a “vague alignment”, both when it comes to writing and editing. Why? For the same reason the charts came into fashion for role playing games, I imagine. Because it is a handy way to develop just who your character is.

Personally, looking into alignments arose as part of writing my Broken Line Series. With each book following a different main character (and yet interlocking with each of the others) it became very important to develop each character as their own person, otherwise everything slowly began to get a little too wishy-washy with an ever-growing cast of characters. Thinking of a character in terms of a designation (along with plenty of other character building of course) it can be simpler to think just how they would react when thrown into a tough spot.

So, if dealing with a number of characters (or simply needing to flesh out a single character further) consider their alignments:

  • Lawful Good: Simply put, the Lawful Good believes that, well, the law is good. Being a good person (which they strongly wish to be) requires upholding the law. This character believes in truth, justice, and other ideals seen as virtuous, but such strong convictions may also prove their undoing (see poor Ned Stark up there). They are so committed to their ideals, they may struggle to uphold them even to their own (or other’s) detriment.
  • Neutral Good: For the Neutral Good, doing the right thing is very important, but the right thing doesn’t always mean the lawful thing. Following their personal morals, doing good is more important than upholding the law, but they also don’t see law as a bad thing. If they are able to do good by playing by the rules, they will.  If they have to break a few laws to save someone, however, they don’t find themselves in an ethical quandary. As TV Tropes puts it, “Just think ‘basically nice person’ and you’ve probably got it.”
  • Chaotic Good: Home to the rebels and free spirits, the Chaotic Good want to help people and do good, but they tend to believe that things like order and discipline get in the way. For all the Whovians out there, my personal favorite picture I’ve seen for Chaotic Good is The Doctor. The man always wants what is best for everyone, but isn’t about to let silly things like laws (even generally good ones) get in the way of achieving good.
  • Lawful Neutral: The Lawful Neutral is “the rule-abiding sort”. Good and evil are all well and good, but not something that keeps them up at night. Law and Order (not the show) are what drives the Lawful Neutral with “justice” not necessarily coming into play. As TV Tropes says, “They’ll arrest a robber or rapist, but may also kick a family out of their home for failing to pay rent” even if the family missed rent for a “good” reason. TV Tropes and I agree probably the best example here is Inspector Javert from Les Mis (stealing bread to feed your starving family is no better than stealing cigarettes to hock to school kids). Any other character who is the same staunch type of Legalist would be a Lawful Neutral (protagonist, antagonist, or anyone in between).
  • True Neutral: True Neutrals are either characters who want to “keep the balance” and thus not interfere (think the Elves staying out of things in Lord of the Rings) or characters that don’t care about just about anything for one reason or another (be it they’re too stupid to realize they should care, have a “calling” they see as above Earthly problems, or just simply want to be left alone).
  • Chaotic Neutral: The Chaotic Neutral is either “the ultimate free spirit” or someone who is just plainly crazy. Chaotic Neutrals don’t wish to harm, but neither do they want to help others. Freedom is their be-all end-all. As long as you don’t try to rein them in, they really couldn’t care less what happens to anyone else.
  • Lawful Evil: Heading into the villains and antiheroes, the Lawful Evil is the “sort of Evil that often ends up in charge.” Lawful Evil don’t care in the slightest about hurting people, but they care a lot of keeping order (whether because they believe it’s intrinsically important or because order is easier to exploit).
  • Neutral Evil: As TV  Tropes so gracefully puts it, “Sometimes known as the Asshole Alignment.” It doesn’t especially matter who gets hurt to the Neutral Evil, and it doesn’t especially matter to them if they play by the rules or not. If the rules suit their purposes, they’ll follow them. If not, they’ll break them. They are often considered more dangerous than the Lawful Evil or Chaotic Evil simply because you never quite know where they’re going to swing next. (For those who have read The Copper Witch/The Copper Rebellion,  this is where I would honestly place our anti-heroine).
  • Chaotic Evil: Just as interested in being a free spirit as the Chaotic Neutral, the Chaotic Evil is all about doing whatever they want, even if it hurts other (for some, especially if it hurts others). Rather than simply being willing to break rules if they don’t agree/they get in their way (like the other Chaotic alignments) Chaotic Evils often take great pleasure in destroying order/causing chaos. Batman’s The Joker is perhaps one of the best examples of Chaotic Evil.

(Need more information before you can place your characters? Read the full descriptions on TV Tropes or click any of the links above for more examples of the specific alignments).

Character Flaws

With the term “Mary Sue” becoming more and more common amongst writers, one question I get asked more and more is how to give characters flaws. After all, one of the major reasons Mary Sues are so annoying are that they’re perfect, and perfect characters are boring at best, unbearable at worst.

The problem with thinking of weaknesses as something you have to throw in to balance out strengths, however, is that it is entirely missing the point. Giving a character weaknesses isn’t about balancing some cosmic Mary Sue scale (Good singer +3 Sue, Clumsy -1) it’s about making your character seem real

And so, if your character seems annoying perfect, throwing in a few “weaknesses” isn’t going to help all that much. A saintly character who is sweet, and smart, and entirely angelic is not going to become any more interesting because sometimes she’s a little absentminded or naive.

When trying to flesh out characters, don’t worry about the strengths and weaknesses lists, worry about building a believable character. While a lack of weaknesses is a warning sign for Mary Sues, the bigger problem is they simply aren’t believable. They’re perfect and special and the world around them changes to accommodate them because they are so perfect and special. Any amount of random weaknesses isn’t going to change that.

So, how do you build a believable character:

1. Separate yourself from your character.

Every author puts a little bit of themselves into their characters. One character might like the music you like. Another might have your sarcasm. That isn’t a problem.  What you don’t want to do is make a character your wish-fulfillment. A character that is you as you wish you could be isn’t going to be realistic. Even a character you just really, really care about might not be. Caring about your characters is fine, just don’t let your love for them cloud your judgment when it comes to building their personalities.

2. Think of personality as more than just a pro/con list.

As stated above, it isn’t possible to balance out a Mary Sue by countering their +3 awesomeness with -2 clumsiness. Instead of coming up with a list of all that is good about your character and then trying to think of an equal number of weaknesses, come up with traits. People are a balance of good and bad traits in real life, but many times what is positive and what is negative come from the same trait. Being outgoing, for example, is generally a good thing. It can become negative, however, if the character doesn’t know when to keep quiet or can’t keep secrets simply because they love to talk to people. Again, being a straight-A student would likely go on the “strength” side of the list, but what comes with that as far as weaknesses go? Perhaps they’re stressed, feeling they need to be perfect. Maybe they’re overly competitive or think school is the only thing that’s important. Consider each trait and what it means for your character’s personality, not just if it goes in the strengths or weaknesses category.

3. Change your character based on your world, don’t change your world for your character.

Everyone has a past. Whether you drop in when your character is 5, 15, or 50, it doesn’t matter. They have things that have happened that have shaped who they are. While the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know everyone’s back story, it’s important for the author to, and to think about how growing up as the character did affected them. Someone who grows up dirt poor in rural New Mexico. is going to be a different person than someone who grew up being groomed for the galactic senate. Don’t change the world you have built to suit your character (the real world doesn’t change to suit us), figure out how your character fits into the world you have built.


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Character Flaws

A little while back, I wrote a post about Mary Sues. For those who are not yet aware of this term, TV Tropes gives a pretty good definition:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

“She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series. (See Common Mary Sue Traits for more detail on any of these cliches.)

Mary Sues as a whole are dreaded in writing communities. There are litmus tests all over the place for people to test whether or not their character is one, people debate whether or not characters X and Y are Mary Sues (or their male equivalent, the Gary Stu or Marty Stu), and I don’t believe that’s going to go away any time soon.

You see, one of the reasons Mary Sue/Gary Stu are so dreaded by writers is because they are just so common. I have jokingly called being an author “multiple-personalities for control freaks” Perhaps we authors don’t actually have multiple personalities, but we do have complete control over a world when we’re writing. And that can go to your head a little sometimes. Especially when you’re just starting out.

Of course, building well-developed, non-Sue characters is something that you learn to do as you get better at writing (writing is a skill, after all, the more you do it, the better you get). But there is one way I often see authors (especially new authors) trying to stay away from Mary Sues that I don’t believe works 99 times out of 100. The “traits and flaws” list.

Before, I talked about how often times Mary Sues become Mary Sues because of how the world reacts around them. To be interesting, characters as a whole should react in ways that are realistic to realistic situations happening around them. The world should not bend its rules for them (anybody else would be expelled for this, but you’re special, so…on your way) and other characters shouldn’t change dramatically in response to them (Well, I’ve been an evil, misogynistic bas***d this entire book, but you are so special, and logical, and sweet, and [X characteristic] you have melted my heart in one well-done diatribe and I now see the error of my ways!) The world shaping itself around the character is part of what makes Sues so annoying.

Another part is how perfect Sues tend to be.

Everybody has flaws. It’s part of what makes us human. When you have a character that doesn’t, it makes them naturally unrealistic, and generally unlikable (especially when they then spend half the book complaining about things that aren’t flaws being awful for them: “I wish I weren’t so much prettier and more popular than the other girls…it’s so hard being me…”) So, you’re worried you have a Mary Sue (or someone told you they’re Sue-ish) what’s the logical thing to do? Give them flaws of course.

And so more than once, I’ve come across posts like this:

Is my character a Mary Sue?

She is intelligent/clever, funny, witty, friendly, adventurous yet responsible, free-spirited, optimistic, talkative, creative/artistic, and basically talented. For faults, she’s a non-domestic woman in the time where a  woman’s job was to be at home, and maybe she is intolerant towards people who are slower than her in brain power.

Now, always the answer to “Is my character a Mary Sue” almost always is ,”depends how you use her.” But in this situation, my Mary Sue sensors are seriously going. For one, look at how many positive traits there are (intelligent, funny, optimistic…). Then look at the “faults”. One basically boils down to “free-spirited and people are down on her for it” (not a character flaw as much as a situation). The other could be a flaw, but prefaced by “maybe” it does not seem overly likely this flaw will be general, but just pop out as a token “flaw” to prove that the character isn’t perfect. It’s much like making a character’s flaw be “clumsiness” tends to boil down to, “Look, she isn’t perfect! She just tripped and…awww, look how cute she is with all her clumsiness. It just makes people love her more!”

And so writing out “Good Traits” vs. “Flaws” lists don’t do much to help you with a building a well-rounded character. A character, like a person, is a personality that is made up of a bunch of traits, but is not only those traits. It is not important to balance “one good trait for one bad trait” in each of your characters, it’s important to really think about their traits as one larger personality. As one of the best pieces of advice I have seen in the NaNoWriMo forums lately  puts it:

Usually, a person’s negative traits are the flip-side of their positives. For example, A person who’s unflinchingly honest may be tactless and over-blunt. A person who’s super dependable, who sees every task through to completion, may also be a person who doesn’t know how to admit he’s in over his head on some overambitious project.

“Your character is free-spirited and creative, among other things. What is the flip-side of that? Might your character tend to be impractical or a bit idealistic (naive) at times? And (this is a really important point) what are the consequences of being impractical, idealistic, or naive? How does this affect her actions, the other characters, and the development of the plot?

“If you can relate your character’s imperfections to her good qualities, and if  you can make her imperfections matter in some meaningful way, you will be well on your way to avoiding a Mary Sue.

So, don’t worry yourself with “Good trait, bad trait” lists. Consider the character’s personality, and what that means to how they relate to the world (rather than how the world relates to them) you’ll be much better off than trying to decide whether or not your character is well-balanced by “here are her good traits, here are her flaws.”

I am woman, hear me roar

Recently, an article (“The five most pathetic female film characters of all time” by Lindy West) popped up on my Facebook feed, outlining West’s choice of “most-standy-there female movie characters.”

West goes on to point out female characters in movies who are “boring, old-timey, textbook damsel[s]-in-distress” with entries like:

-Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) in Red Riding Hood (described as “nubility personified/human Keane painting/tube of lip gloss made flesh…[whose role is to] Stand there. Wait to be rescued. Weep. Stand there some more. Quiver under the male gaze. Reapply lip gloss.”)

-Buttercup (Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride (“could Buttercup maybe DO something once in a while besides brush her hair and contemplate suicide because she and her boyfriend broke up? The woman is a blue silk sausage casing stuffed with whines.”)

and, of course:

-Bella (Kristen Stewart) in the Twilight Series (“Limp bag of tears waits for marriage to have sex with her undead boyfriend; is paralysed by grief every time he goes in the other room.”)

Ok, now even I can’t support a character that falls apart as soon as their man leaves (“You’re just… lifeless, Bella.”) but does that mean that you can never have a “weak” female character?

Now, having previously gone to a very liberal, very politically active university (we were in DC after all…) I have known my share of feminists, from radical to lipstick. I’ve also known a couple of people on the “feminism is subjugating men” side of the equation. Likewise, I would define myself as a feminist, by the fact that I support “equal political, economic, and social rights for women” What I have a problem with, however, is the idea I have found circulated in some groups that the only way to be a feminist is to rebel against what society has decided are “traditional” female roles. While I do fully support equal rights for women (which I don’t believe should shock many people reading this) I also like makeup, am currently wearing a dress, like to cook, and plan on taking my fiance’s last name once we get married (for at least social situations). Does the fact that I genuinely enjoy “traditionally feminine” things mean that I can’t be a feminist? If anything, how is telling women they have to like “traditionally masculine” activities to be acceptable any different from telling them they have to like “traditionally feminine” activities?

Now, there are so many different arguments you can go off of from there (“traditional” roles are really fairly modern, men and women are different, but equal in their different ways, feminism is losing site of its original goal, what have you) but my point through all of that is: How is forcing a character to be strong just because she’s a woman any different from forcing a character to be weak?

I fully understand not wanting weeping, standy-there female characters. But I don’t think that, over all, is a problem with the characters being female. It’s a problem with the fact that standy-there characters, in general, are boring (and many times annoying). A protagonist that doesn’t make any decisions and lets the rest of the story carry them along isn’t much of a protagonist at all. Male or Female.  The “damsel in distress” (or her male equivalent) is not often cast as the main character of interesting books. Why? Because she doesn’t do anything. There isn’t much of a plot to be written when your main character is sitting up in a tower waiting to be rescued (at least not if you aren’t planning on doing some psychological drama about the effects of isolation, which I could actually see being pretty interesting).

Day 1: Sitting in tower. God I wish I weren’t in this tower.
Day 2: Still sitting here, you’d really think someone would come help me. Oh well, still hate it here.
Day 3: Sitting against the opposite wall now. I passingly considered trying to make a ladder out of sheets, but I think I’d rather keep sitting here and whining about being stuck in a tower with no one to save me.

Male or Female, I don’t care, I would get fed up with that character (and that book) very quickly.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting people rely on stereotypes for any of their characters. A female character shouldn’t be weak and emotional just because she’s a woman any more than a Latino character should eat nothing but tacos just because they’re Latino. But there are people in the world that can be weepy messes. As an author, you are perfectly allowed to have one in your story.

But I can also promise you, at least 99% of the time, being a weepy emotional mess is not all that real person is. Perhaps they’re battling depression. Perhaps they cry at the drop of a hat, but they are a genuinely good, happy person. Perhaps they used to be more balanced, but something happened to make them think that’s how they should act to be accepted. Don’t feel the need to make your character something they’re not just because it’s something that could be seen as a stereotype, but don’t make that trait their entire personality either. If you dig a little deeper, you will find so much more to them that will keep them who they are (weepy) but make them so much more than a one-note stereotype.

Some people fall into “traditional” stereotypes, there’s a reason they’re stereotypes after all, but people are complex. If you can capture that complexity in your character, you don’t have to make them something they’re not to not be “insulting” Let’s face it, making a character “un-stereotypical” but, again, just that one simple trait, it isn’t any better.

Character Questionnaire

By popular demand, here is a sample of a Character Questionnaire (like the ones I mentioned in yesterday’s post). You can find the original questionnaire here, or many other wonderful questions on the web (some with over 100 questions, which I think will give you just about anything you ever wanted to know about your characters).

1. What is your character’s full name?

2. When were they born?

3. What are their parent’s names?

4. Do they have any brothers or sisters?

5. What kind of eyes do they have?

6. What kind of hair do they have?

7. What is their complexion like?

8. What body type are they?

9. What is listening to their voice like?

10. Do they have a favourite quote?

11. What sort of music do they enjoy?

12. Have they ever cheated on a partner?

13. Have they ever lost someone close to them?

14. What is their favourite sound?

15. What is their opinion on euthanasia?

16. Are they judgmental of others?

17. Have they ever been drunk?

18. What are they like when they stay up all night?

19. Have they ever been arrested?

20. What colour evokes strong memories for them?

21. What do they do on rainy days?

22. What religion are they?

23. What word do they overuse the most?

24. What do they wear to bed?

25. Do they have any tattoos or piercings?

26. What type of clothing are they most comfortable in?

27. What is their most disliked saying?

28. Do they have any enemies?

29. What does their writing look like?

30. What disgusts them?

The Unanswerable Questions

One of the best things about a writing community, be it an online forum, a writers’ group, or any other sort of group is that they give you the chance to talk out our stories. Whether you’re a plotter (someone who outlines) or a pantser (someone who plots as they go along), I have yet to find a writer who doesn’t like talking about their work. Sure, hearing, “Oh, what’s your story about?” isn’t always the most loved question (writing something is so much easier than summarizing it while not making it sound completely boring and/or bizarre for some reason…) but even if you don’t like quick summaries, getting the chance to talk about your story, on your terms is almost always fun.

Beyond that, talking things out can definitely help when you’ve hit a writer’s block, or even just a snag. Ignoring any little side projects, what I have been writing lately has been quite an undertaking for me. For one, it is a series. I’ve never done a series before, and for a die-hard pantser that’s a bit of a struggle. (I currently have two small notebooks of just notes so I can keep everything straight/not have continuity errors between the books. Broke down and got Scrivener [another NaNoWriMo sponsor] as well. Good outlining software, for the record). Also, since it’s historical fiction, it takes a lot more research work than my modern or fantastical works have. I know what sort of cell phone all of my friends have, I can make up what fantasy characters have, I actually have to look up what historical characters have, and that makes for slower going.

Luckily, I have people I can talk to to work through all these problems. In a stroke of luck, my dear boyfriend is a historian, and thus has become my live in history expert for all those random “I have no idea if they would do this. Honey?” questions. And for what he can’t help me with (or when I feel like I’ve bugged him too much recently) I have my dear friends over at the NaNoWriMo forums.

There are plenty of other writing communities online, but they’re mine when I have a question I often find myself posting in either the Reference Desk (for the factual questions) or Plot Doctoring (for help with a plot hole and such). When possible, I also try to help other WriMos with their questions.

Many of the questions get good discussions going (and save our friends and family from having to listen to us try to talk out our plots) but you also get a fair share of questions that are truly just not answerable.

“My character is a 17-year-old girl who lives in Alaska. What would her favorite band be?”

Really, how would any of us begin to help answer that? There are so many different answers there’s no place to begin. Is she into classic rock? Punk? Top 40? How would any of us know?

Now, the problem with most of these questions, I believe, is not that the author doesn’t know their own characters (or at least I would hope it’s not that), it’s that the author knows their characters too well. You’ve been either writing or outlining them for however long that it doesn’t cross your mind when asking about them to specify that they are homeschooled, and like pop, and…

If that’s the case, when looking for help, it’s important to think about everything the people whom you are asking for help don’t know. It might make for a really long question, but it will end up taking less time then having half a dozen posts asking about the character before you actually end up getting anywhere.

Now, if it really is that you just don’t know your character (it isn’t that you aren’t a seventeen-year-old and want some teenage opinions), before ever bringing things up to other people to answer, try using a character questionnaire. These handy tools give you questions to help you work out just who your character is, from hair color, to family, to favorite food. Once you have one of these filled out, then you’ll be able to ask the small questions without having trouble answering all the little things about them.

Just, please, don’t put everything on a questionnaire into your story…info dumps are no fun.

The Name Game

While working on a separate post for tomorrow, I came to the realization that a number of questions my fellow WriMos ask when looking for plot help in the NaNoWriMo forums have to do with naming, be it a character, tavern, city, or anything else.

I completely understand that. Names are important. They set a tone, and I know I personally can’t develop a character until I have a name for them (I’m just not able to write “X said to Y” like some people can while looking for names, it seems).

Luckily for us writers, the internet abounds with resources to find names (Lucky for my readers, too, or all my minor characters would have the first name that came to mind–which oddly enough tends to be Kyle.) So, in the interest of consolidating all those helpful sites I use when looking for/making up names…


Character Names: Personally, I consider this site a bit like the Holy Grail of naming resources. Not only do they have an amazingly long list of names (each with a full explanation of the history behind it) but you can sort them by country,  see what names were the most popular in the year your character was born, or even search by meaning. They have also recently started, which has last names. The list isn’t quite as extensive as the original behindthename site so far, but it’s still a great source. Though I am partial to behindthename, is also a good source for first names, including the rarer names behindthename doesn’t have listed. For example where “Me’Shell” might only get you this list of similarly spelled names on behindthename, it’s featured today on thinkbabynames, which will tell you it is a variant of Michelle. Another useful baby name site. Perhaps most useful is it’s front page “Find a Name” feature, which lets you search for a name based of certain criteria such as “Must start with __” or “Can’t start with __” If you really want an uncommon but traditional sounding name for a character that doesn’t start with B, but ends with an A, this is your site. If you’re looking for relatively common last names (for US-based) characters, this list provides, by percentage, the top ranked last name down to 88799th place. (Sorry Johnson, Smith has replaced you as most popular once again.) Yes, it had to pop up eventually, and now that it isn’t blacked out it’s really quite useful when naming characters, especially (I find) this list of common surnames. You can pick which country your character comes from, and pick one that is currently common in the region.

Place Names: Once again, and top ranking this time. Most of the place names I use actually come from wikipedia. Whether I’m stealing a common town/city name for a middle-of-nowhere US town, finding something French sounding, or making up my own town using generic forms of British/Irish place names, wikipedia is a great site. For example, my made up town of Ardbost? Comes from the generic list on wikipedia (Ard: Height, Bost: Farm. Named for the hill the town was first built on).

Serendipity Place Name Generator: A great place to get random suggestions for made up place names. I generally set it to generate 50 at a time (the most it will) and then pick one/come up with some combination of a few when one strikes my fancy. They also have Fantasy Place Name Generator

Chaotic Shiny Place Name Generator: Another fun place name generator. Also will put in real landmark names so you get fun creations such as “Taelus Glade” and “Dugfresh Pond”

Finally, since I have to give in to my NaNoWriMo Fangirl-ness, I can’t for get the NaNoWriMo Adoption Society. This forum is where any WriMo who can’t use a name, plot, title or anything else they think up is free to leave it for the needy. With how many things are there, if you don’t find a place name, or character name, or anything else you want to use, you’ll at least probably have some idea sparked while going through them all.