Ladies and gentlemen (and so on), I’m excited to announce that our next guest on the Crime Cafe podcast will be crime fiction author and Forensics Maven, D.P. Lyle.
I’ll let him give you the deets about the latest giveaway. Check it out! 🙂
Need a great stainless mug for your coffee or tea?
Or, even a refreshing cold drink?
This is the one.
From the Writer’s Medical and Forensics Lab.
Send an Email to: TheLab@cox.net
Include CRIME CAFE CONTEST in the subject line.
That’s it. The winner will be notified after the contest closes and then this excellent mug will be sent your way.
Who wouldn’t want the words “Forensics Lab” on their coffee mug? Oh, c’mon, you know you do! You have until Tuesday, April 2 to enter the giveaway. So go for it! 🙂
Have I mentioned that D.P. Lyle provides consulting on forensics for TV and movies? And writes a column for the Mystery Writers of America newsletter? Yep, I’ve read it. 🙂
I, for one, look forward to talking about how he picked THIS TITLE for one of his books! 🙂
In any case, let’s hear from Dr. D.P. Lyle!
CHARACTER NAMING: A VERY IMPORTANT PROCESS
by DP Lyle
How important are character names? Do they make or break a story? Can a name suggest a character’s personality? To answer these questions, let me share something I learned from a master of crime fiction—-Elmore Leonard. It was many years ago at the now defunct Maui Writers Conference that I met Elmore. He was one of the featured speakers. As fate would have it, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with him about writing for about 45 minutes on two separate occasions. I used that time to not only get to know this gracious and funny man, but also to pick his brain.
He is known as the master of dialogue, and for good reason. Every writer should read his work as each is a textbook for dialogue writing. But, I was more interested in his characters. They are always deep and complex and so well drawn. So I asked him if he did character sketches or exactly how did he create such wonderfully flawed people. His response was that, no, he didn’t do character outlines or anything like that but rather he would spend weeks, sometimes months, thinking about a character. At some point the character’s name would evolve. And once he had the name, he knew the character.
The beauty of this struck me instantly. What he was saying is that he lived with these characters for those weeks and months until he knew them. And once that familiarity was established, the name appeared. Basically, he mentally created character sketches. The results were classic crime fiction. I mean, could Chili Palmer be a neurosurgeon? No, only a loan shark. Linda Moon is, of course, a lounge singer, and Raylan Givens is the perfect name for a US Marshall from the coal mines of Kentucky.
So what’s the take-home message? Live with your characters, get to know them, and the name that fits will come. I’m sure, like me, you’ve named characters and began writing a story only to realize halfway through that the name you chose just simply didn’t work. The reason? You didn’t know the character well enough yet to know what that character’s name must be. But, if you live with the character for a time, a better name will appear, one that fits the character like old jeans.
I’ve always believed that your protagonist should have a short, clean name. One that pops. One that’s easy to say, and type. You’ll likely type it more than any other name in the story, so don’t make it long and complex. Mort works better than Mortimer. Unless, of course, the character is a Mortimer. A longer, tongue-twisting name might even annoy your readers. So, keep it simple, if possible
Also, it’s wise to have only one name per character. For example, let’s say Admiral Adam Jones, Commander of the Pacific Fleet appears in your story. If you call him Adam, Jones, Admiral Jones, the Admiral, the Fleet Commander, etc., you risk confusing the reader. Particularly early in the work while the reader is trying to sort everyone out. So call him Jones and maybe Admiral Jones and stop at that. Obviously, in dialog this might change as one or more characters might know him as Adam, but in the narrative keep it simple. Choose one name and stick to it.
Same goes for your main characters. Are you going to use their first or last name to identify them? Will you choose Adam or Jones, in the above example? This choice might be determined by the type and tone of the story, by local and cultural norms of the setting, and by the time period of the story. For example, in the South we tend to call folks by their last name. In the end, it’s up to you, but whichever you decide, be consistent.
In medicine, blood type O-negative is termed the “universal donor” because it’s least likely to cause a reaction and if in an emergency situation, where blood must be given quickly and without going through matching process, it’s the safest choice.
Is there a “universal” character name? You bet. Elizabeth. Think of all its iterations: Bette, Beth, Betty, Betsy, Liz, Lizbeth, Lizzie, Lisa, Liza, Libby, Lea, Lettie, Bee, Bess, Bessie, Eliza, Elise, Elsa, Ellie, Etta, Ilsa, Izzy, and others. Each of these evokes a different feel for the character.
Choose your character names carefully. You’ll be living with them for many months, even years.
A Bonus: There are many baby name lists and name generators out there—-some are helpful, others less so. This one is cool. It ranks the frequency of baby names by decade, allowing you to better match a character’s name with their age:
D.P. Lyle is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar(2), Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Today Best Book(2) Award nominated author of 17 books, both non-fiction and fiction, including the Samantha Cody, Dub Walker, and Jake Longly thriller series and the Royal Pains media tie-in novels. His essay on Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND appears in THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS and his short story “Even Steven” in ITW’s anthology THRILLER 3: LOVE IS MURDER. He served as editor for and contributed the short story “Splash” to SCWA’s anthology IT’S ALL IN THE STORY
He is International Thriller Writer’s VP for Education, and runs CraftFest, Master CraftFest, and ITW’s online Thriller School. Along with Jan Burke, he was co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.
Crime & Science Radio: http://www.dplylemd.com/crime–science-radio.html