Monday, September 26, 2011


A question I am frequently asked is: "How do you name your characters?" A better, perhaps more accurate, way of putting it though, is: "How do you find your characters' names?"

There is a difference: naming your characters has a subtle overtone of author as god/parent, naming his/her creations. Imposing it on them. Finding your characters' names, though, implies author as explorer, uncovering, discovering his/her characters' names. Which is part of discovering, uncovering the character.

Sometimes it's easy. Your character arrives with a name that somehow cannot be changed. You may also have a clear sense of who your character is, the ins and outs, the earthy, fleshy, obvious and subtle details that make her/him unique. But sometimes you have a name that is absolutely right and yet only a shadowy sense of that character -- in which case the name can be a gateway through which you come to discover your character.

Scully, in my picture book, A Screaming Kind of Day, arrived full-blown with that name. As I re-worked the story I questioned that name, thinking it wasn't really much of a girl's name. I tried to change it, but I couldn't because Scully was her name. That kind of clarity is a gift -- no, no, I don't mean a gift I have, but rather a gift that is visited upon writers at times.

When I'm not lucky enough to have a character's name arrive with such clarity and immediacy, I hunt for it in other ways. A great way is to have at hand a good baby name book. I have an old one from when my kids were born. It has a host of names from a number of cultural backgrounds along with their meanings.

That's how I found the name Calantha, for the main character in my fantasy novel, The Sower of Tales. I compiled a list of possible names, tried them out aloud, pondered their meanings, and this one fit best. Although Calantha means "beautiful blossom" and my Calantha is not beautiful -- oh no, she is dusty, bumbling and plain -- the name fit her. Maybe because the novel is about a world where story pods exist, and so the flower-like connection fits. There's a lovely synergy that happens when you've located your main character's name. Although I hadn't consciously selected this name for its Greek roots, I found myself selecting other names that fit this world, and they all seemed to be of Greek origin too. Even the names I completely invented -- my favourite being Xenyss, the inept Seer in Calantha's village, and one of my favourite characters -- sound Greek.

I found Dilly by searching through the internet for Punjabi names. I had a good sense of who she was, my main character in The Trouble With Dilly  -- wildly imaginative, scatty, impulsive and erratic -- but I didn't know her name. I knew though, that her name would be a diminutive of a longer one, and so I wrote down a list of ones that I thought might fit. Dilbaagh seemed right, as it would clearly be shortened to Dilly. And Dilly was perfect for my character. At a school reading, when I asked what kind of person Dilly might be from the sound of her name, a boy replied, "Tangy." Dilly is just that -- tangy!

Finding Red's name in That Boy Red, was more of a challenge. The book is a middle-grade novel inspired by my father-in law, John's, anecdotes of growing up on a P.E.I. farm during the Depression. I knew I needed to write this as a work of fiction (see previous blogs for the whys and wherefores) so I had to find a name that fit my invented character. It was a slow, circuitous process, discovering my character; he needed to be fictional and not John, so I could be free to weave stories in and around him -- or perhaps let him show me his stories? I made a list of Scottish names and tried several. It wasn't until well after I decided on Red because it fit my imagined character (his real name is Roderick) that someone pointed out how apt it was for a fictional character inspired by my father-in-law -- because John had had red hair in his younger days. Red, now, his hair is brown --durrty bruhn, as Cat-less Granny, Red's grandmother, would say -- but still, that name fits him.

More tips on how to unearth your characters' names in my next blogpost on October 8th.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Character Development Tip -- The Body Repeats the Landscape

"The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other." Meridel Le Sueur

Lately I've been thinking much about landscape, having recognized anew how forcefully and viscerally my landscape is the north shore of P.E.I. There is something at an energy level that ties me to that landscape; it's where I feel most at home, most grounded.

When I discussed this with a dear friend of mine, the fine writer, Deirdre Kessler, she told me of a conference she'd attended in Tasmania, "Sounding the Earth." Australian Aboriginal people have long known this concept -- it has been discussed and celebrated in Bruce Chatwin's book The Songlines. The essential concept is that the people and the land are one: we sing the land into being. What I hadn't understood until Deirdre followed through on this idea, is that the land sings you back.

The land sings you back.

The concept is so heart-stopping, so powerful, I lay awake the night after I heard this, expanded and lost in the beauty of the idea, overcome and humbled by the generosity of the land.

And I came to understand better my connection with my landscape. It's so visceral, it's so powerful, because the land has sung me back. There. In my landscape.

For years now I've collected rocks from the north shore of P.E.I. each time we visited. Small stones. It's been my way of linking solidly to my landscape. Of having a tangible presence of my landscape in my life.

So, how does this apply to writing and character development? Well, developing character is often a subtle process that leaps and darts beyond the obvious biographical data and information -- the facts -- that we accumulate about our characters. To know our characters, really know and understand their inner beings, their souls, we sometimes need oblique, tangential ways to slide in. Sideways glances.

So: what is your character's landscape? Where do they feel most at home? Where do they sing the land, and most importantly, which landscape sings them back, affirming their connection to that place?

When I thought about this, I knew that Red, my character in That Boy Red  lived in his landscape. It was the south-eastern part of P.E.I., where he was born and grew up. It isn't as connected to the ocean; no, his landscape is the gently curved farm land where he lives.

Dilly, now, my character in The Trouble With Dilly her landscape is in part the urban world in which she lives, a bustling, concrete city. But it's also -- and I don't know how or why I know this, I just do -- a desert. A desert with beautiful sculpted dunes, curving and shifting with the wind, and wide open skies. Dilly has never been there. Not yet. But that is her landscape too. I don't know for sure where this landscape is, just that it is her landscape.

For Calantha, in The Sower of Tales, her landscape is the one imagined in the book. It is the world I envisioned, which strangely enough, is much like the hilly landscape of Greece. When I wrote the book, I had never been to Greece. It was a librarian who loved the book who told me that the landscape I'd described was eerily like Greece. When I did go to Greece, I saw it immediately -- it was completely and utterly familiar as Calantha's landscape. But for Calantha, her landscape isn't just the plains in which she lives -- no, it's the top of the Eastern mountain, where the Sower of Tales lives.

So, who is your character? Where is her/his landscape? Is it where she/he lives, or is it somewhere else? Where does your character sing the land? Where does the land sing her back?

Where is the landscape that tugs and pulls through a fine, pulsing, unbreakable link so she must and will find it, and so she must go back?