By Donna Schlachter
As we’ve discussed before, novellas have fewer words than novels, which means that each and every one must count. This includes—or perhaps is even more critical—when it comes to selecting names and occupations for your characters.
For example—and please forgive me if I step on anybody’s name here—imagine if Sleeping Beauty was actually named Hortense. Sleeping Beauty says it all, doesn’t it? It creates an image of innocence and purity, and raises a question in the reader’s mind: why is she sleeping?
As for Hortense, a completely different character comes to mind. Older. A spinster, perhaps. Not so pure or innocent. Maybe, in fact, that was the step-mother’s or one of the step-sisters’ names.
In the movie, The Man Who Created Christmas, Charles Dickens is seen jotting down names of those he meets in his everyday life. The strange names in his stories were real people. And in that great scene where he’s pacing the floor, looking for the main character for A Christmas Carol, when he finally comes up with Scrooge, the character appears before him. Great movie and highly recommended, particularly for writers. If Charles Dickens can struggle with a story, no wonder we often do.
So, with usually less than 40,000 words in the story, how to choose names and occupations that fit the story, the main character, that provide the backstory needed to explain the character’s current actions, and contributes to both the plot and them of the book is often a conundrum writer’s face. Of course, the tips below can be used in a book of any length.
When I start a book, I take a sheet of notepaper, divide it into 2 columns, label it First and Last, then run the alphabet down the side. I keep track of every character by first and last name. I try t avoid having main characters with names that begin with the same letter. It also helps me keep characters straight, and use their first and last names when needed in the story.
The same goes for occupations. Imagine if Jack Reacher wasn’t a retired ex-Army super Commando type, but instead was a retired accountant? (And again, not putting down anybody’s occupation. I am an accountant by training). First of all, he wouldn’t have those superhero skills he has, plus his backstory would have been markedly different, making him a completely different person.
For your character’s occupation or career, you will want to consider what skills the character needs to accomplish what you’ll have them do in the story. For example, if you need a superhero like Jack Reacher, you should at least have something in their past that has provided those skills.
This is different than a character stepping up and doing something fantastical to save the situation. After all, while most of us aren’t trained lifeguards, we might jump into a pool to save a drowning child. Or puppy. And this works really well when the reader knows the character is afraid of water, but will do the heroic thing when necessary.
The occupation is critical when it defines the story. For example, in Murdoch Mysteries, a television series from Canada, to have Detective Murdoch be anything but a detective would be ludicrous. He needs the skills, the police support, and the contacts to do his job. And every mystery involves a crime of some sort. He’s not a bumbling private detective, and the stories are not cozies, so the reader/viewer will expect a professional.
In the case of cozies, your character’s occupation should be outside of law enforcement or criminal justice. The expectation is that the solving of the crime is because of the deductive skills of the hero/heroine, not because they are/were a cop. For example, if your cozy is centered around a yarn shop, readers will expect that the main character’s expertise in yarn will help them solve the mystery.
Here are some suggestions to help you choose occupations that are out of the ordinary:
Theme can be a way to choose names and occupations, too. For example, if you are writing a novella about isolation—physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual—choose careers that keep the character by themselves, thus emphasizing their state. A forest ranger, traveling salesman, weather person in Alaska, or an air traffic controller for a small airport in the middle of nowhere.
Perhaps your theme is about second chances, so you might choose a career where there are few do-overs. For example, a heart surgeon, air traffic controller in LA, executioner in a prison, or a doctor operating in a battlefield during the Civil War.
In conclusion, names and occupations are critical to the success or failure of your story. Readers will know if you’ve simply grabbed a cool name from a baby name book, or if you really thought it out. The career should contribute to the character successfully navigating the obstacles you place in the story to keep them from achieving their goals—although characteristics that add to the obstacles is fine. Take, for example, a doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood. Or an undertaker who doesn’t handle crying well. Or a severely introverted teacher who is petrified of standing in front of people and talking. There is no harm in mixing up the elements, so long as your backstory makes the behavior believable, and the story arc brings success in the end.
Random Name Generator: https://www.behindthename.com
This article has good movie references: https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/the-importance-of-character-names-670c2bca8f33
Tips for choosing names: https://www.writing-world.com/romance/names.shtml
Why names matter: https://storyembers.org/3-reasons-that-character-names-matter/
https://www.thebookdesigner.com/tricks-and-traps-of-using-real-people-in-your-writing-part-1-the-right-of-publicity/ (Note, this site has a really irritating pop-up that has no opt-out. You can read the article but it’s difficult to print; reduce the size of your screen (CTRL and mouse scroll) to find the X in the upper right hand corner of the pop-up)
A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter, writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both, and is an avid oil painter.
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