Building Character—Literally

I’m working on a new series proposal and I thought you might be interested in how I populate this world.

First, I think of all the regular characters who will live and breathe there, noting everything I know about them on their character sheet: age, marital status, kids, where they live, how they dress, how they speak, their personal motto, what they’re good/bad at … whatever jumps into my head.

Then I imagine what they look like and go on the hunt for a photo, almost always using a celebrity or person I know. In this series I have Sigourney Weaver, a young Meg Ryan, Dom Delouise, Frida Kahlo, some writer pals of mine, an artist I know, JK Simmons, and Helena Bonham Carter’s hair.

When interviewers ask me that standard question of who would I want to be in the movie version of my book, I always laugh because it’s already cast!

It’s a lot of fun to fill out my character sheets. Like the ultimate Barbie Extravaganza. They do and say and wear exactly what I tell them, just like when I played Barbies.

photo from

One of the character’s mottos is, “Speak loudly and carry a soft stick.” He’s a cop.

Another is, “What’s one more gonna hurt?” This from a man who has fostered and adopted so many kids he’s lost count.

And my sleuth? “Let’s just try.”

“Helena Bonham Carter” believes, “I’m not upset about my divorce. I’m upset that I’m not a widow.” Think that might get her in some trouble?

Then I spend some time on a juicy secret for each of them because everyone has secrets, large and small. The fun thing about these secrets is they may come out or they may not. But if they do, you can be darn sure it’ll be at the worst possible time.

The last thing I do are the names. I pull out my file of newspaper obituary listings and my big “Character Naming Sourcebook.”

The Sourcebook is an index to a ton of ethnic names, along with what some of them mean. Like, I could have a character who is wise or wealthy or pure and the book will give me a list of all the names with those meanings. It may never be apparent to the reader, but if it is, then we have an inside joke.

I remember when the Harry Potter books came out and people found out so many of the names had Latin roots that literally defined those characters. If you knew Latin, you had the inside scoop.

My obituary file is absolutely indispensable to me. The Sunday paper publishes the most. There’s a list at the beginning with just the names, which I clip after reading the display articles. I love reading the stories of these lives, which, of course, is another great way to find characters. Some are absolutely marvelous and it’s a shame their obit will be the only story written about some of them. These lists include many fabulous names. I mix and match first and last names and can always find a memorable one that speaks to the character but isn’t outlandish. Sometimes I’ll start with a perfect name and draw a character around that, but that’s pretty rare for me.

Choosing names is the most time consuming part for me because I try to make them match the traits I’ve just laid out for them, which, of course, never happens in the real world. When my kids were born, I had no idea who they might turn out to be. We had hopes, of course, but if everyone did that, every kid in America would be called Healthy, Wealthy, or Wise. But when I come at it from the other direction, I can give my readers a hint and/or reminder of who these characters are.

Names can change, but that’s hard for me. I’ve used placeholder names for characters in the past, but they become so real to me that it’s virtually impossible for me to think of them as anyone else. Because of this I’ve learned that even minor characters need some thought put into their names before I can ever write a word.

So that’s a little snapshot of my process of building character. They say adversity or playing sports or surviving middle school builds character, but now you know how it’s really done.

Do you like it or is it annoying when authors make the name match the character traits? Do you even realize you’re being manipulated that way? Which are the great character names, people you can’t imagine being named anything else? Writers, how do you come up with your character names?

4 thoughts on “Building Character—Literally”

  1. I’m working on a book. It’s my first though. I took the time and found the names first. I still have a few names I have to gather, but I do have most of them connected already. Then I picked a location and see how it comes together. Again I’m still very new at this so we’ll see how it turns out. Have a great day.

    1. I think it’s important to pick names before you start writing, Lynette. I like to start solidifying them in my brain so I can remember them better. Sounds like you’re well on your way … congrats!

  2. I get annoyed if the match between name and characteristics seems too perfect. It can be fun when it’s dramatically–and deliberately–mismatched, though!

    Sometimes a name simply comes to me. Marguerite, the protagonist of “A Most Inconvenient Corpse” (coming soon) was always that, from the first moment that I thought of the basic story. It means daisy, which is a symbol of innocence. She is an innocent, in a way, if you just overlook the fact that she’s killed a man. I had to think for a long time to come up with Armand des Yroises, the privateer. Since I do fantasy, my names are often at least partly made up. I then Google them to make sure that I haven’t inadvertently called someone something dirty, or given a villain the name of a powerful international business family.

    1. I find those names in fantasies really complicated! Sometimes when I’m reading something I feel sorry for the narrator if it goes to audio. It’s so gratifying when the perfect name simply appears. Wish it happened more often!

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