Tag Archives: writing advice

How I Name My Characters, Part Three: Using Names to Serve the Story

So, if names that fit too well distract readers, why even try to match names to characters? One reason is that a good name can enhance a story beautifully. Making good art isn’t about avoiding risks. It’s about taking risks, and learning which ones pay off. While a bad name can be ungainly, and weigh a story down, a good name can accentuate a story’s strongest aspects. And that doesn’t just apply to characterization, though that’s certainly a good place to start.

Character

The first impulse, when naming a character, is to find something that goes with their personalities. That’s not a bad impulse. Some of the most memorable characters have names that neatly match their most noteworthy traits. Scarlett O’Hara, for example. The color red in nature either signals something highly alluring, or extremely dangerous. The shade we call scarlet is especially intense, yet sophisticated, all of which sum up the power of Scarlett’s character.

What some writers don’t realize, however, is that a name that contrasts with a character can be just as effective. Consider John le Carre’s most famous protagonist, George Smiley. He’s not smiley. He’s not even slightly happy. In fact, he’s fairly morose. But the the interesting thing about him is how well he keeps it under the surface. He has no shortage of reasons to be actively, dramatically depressed, but he isn’t. He minds his own business, does his duty, ignores the various jabs people send his way, and, when life gets the better of him, lets it out with quintessentially British subtlety. The name Smiley draws attention to the depths below his facade. The problem with subtle, even keeled characters is that they can feel like an uninspired author’s default, rather than a character’s honest choice. Smiley’s name helps him avoid this fate, by drawing attention to what he is not.

Contrasting names are different from arbitrary names. Near and far are opposites, because they both exist on a spectrum of distance. Neither is the opposite of green or apple. In the last post, I talked about How I Met Your Mother has Lily, a feisty mother bear whose namesake flower normally symbolizes gentleness and purity, and, Barney, a suave player with the least suave name imaginable. It wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable to name them Jill and Aaron.

I think it’s also worth noting that a fitting name can feel generic when it corresponds to a trait the character shares with nearly everyone. One character on 30 Rock is named Frank. Frank arguably fits his name; he always speaks his mind. But so does everybody else. The cast has a nice pile of entertaining quirks and flaws between them. Bashfulness isn’t one of them.

Setting

I’ve already mentioned in both previous posts that you should choose a name that fits the setting. Every society has naming conventions. When you’re writing in a real world setting, a little research into these adds authenticity, especially if you’re willing to use names that are decidedly unfashionable nowadays, as they do on Downton Abbey. When your setting is invented, it’s a good idea to come up with a few rules for names, as well as guidelines for how class, gender, occupation or ethnicity tends to affect people’s choices. It enlivens your worldbuilding and can also communicate the values of your culture. The Hunger Games, Battlestar Galactica and Lord of the Rings all do this very well.

Because who we are is often shaped by our environment, this is a great place to go for names, in order to avoid excess of names that sound too much like the namesake. It can also be a quick way to communicate conflicts between cultures, or between an individual and their culture.

  • The scene where Finn is named in The Force Awakens, establishes the difference between the First Order, which sees people as tools, and Poe Dameron, who refuses to dehumanize Finn with a serial code.
  • The book Good Omens (which everyone should read) has, among other things, a Satanic nun mistaking an ordinary Englishman for an ambassador, and giving him the Antichrist to raise. She attempts to convince him to give the baby a traditional name, like Damien or Wormwood. He goes with Adam.
  • Even a subtle change can speak volumes about a character, as in Anne of Green Gables, where she insists that if she must have a name as plain as Anne, it absolutely must be spelled with an e.

But when a name completely breaks from established rules, it can be jarring. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup explains that it’s tradition on their village to give babies undesirable names (this is based on a real tradition in many cultures; exact explanations vary, but it’s sort of like telling actors to break a leg). If a character isn’t named for some bodily function or piece of refuse, it’s something that sounds just as bad, like Stoick, Hoark or Phlegma. Then, there’s Astrid. It’s not a word, it doesn’t sound gross, and it literally means “beautiful goddess.” Every time someone said her name, it reminded me that this isn’t a real place, but a human invention whose creators can ignore the rules at their convenience. Either that, or her parents hated her.

It also weakened the character. Astrid is great, and I loved her, but there is an obvious reason why they didn’t follow the rules. She’s the love interest, and they didn’t want to disrupt her beautiful image with an ugly name. Her name is a signal that, because she’s the pretty girl, she could be badass, but they weren’t going to let her be injured or dirty her up. It was more important to preserve her desirable image than make her someone who organically fit the world. I think they should have gotten over that. They could have come up with something that sounds beautiful, but fits the established rules of the setting, like Bramblethorn or Stormcloud. Or they could have just embraced the comedy gold of having Hiccup breathlessly talk about the most beautiful girl in the village; Crabgrass.

Plot

Here we get into tricky territory. As I explained in the last post, naming characters for which tropes they fit in the narrative just draws the audience’s attention to cliches, not originality. Foreshadowing in names can also be hard to do with real subtlety. Nobody was surprised that Remus Lupin was a werewolf. But, as I said, writing is sometimes about taking risks.

I just finished reading Warm Bodies, and I loved it. If you look closely, several characters have names that reference Romeo and Juliet; not just R for Romeo and Julie for Juliet, but also M for Mercutio and Perry for Paris. These names work because they are buried. They make sense in-story, they are surrounded by names that don’t reference Shakespeare, and the plot is willing to break the formula just often enough that the parallels aren’t dead giveaways. I knew the hints were there, but I was so swept up in the story I forgot about them until I closed the book. It was perfect.

Misleading audiences is also perfectly good use of a name. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho relies on twists, and those twists are still emotionally effective when you know what’s coming, because of how much he commits, on every level, to luring you into a false sense of security. This goes all the way down to Norman Bates. Look at that. He is practically named “normal man.” Bastard.

 

These two techniques can also be used to play off of each other. In the original Star Wars series, we first meet Han Solo… who always travels with a partner, and comes back to help the rebels in the end. Solo is the image he tries to project, but the man inside is more complicated than that. This red herring created a smokescreen over other hints; the alliteration of Luke and Leia, or the fact that Vader is Dutch for father.

Theme

This is a the hardest one to use well. Most of the time the only authors who even try are attempting to make a painfully obvious allegory, as in Pilgrim’s Progress. And hey, if allegory is your dream, there’s a market for that. You do you, more power to you, etc etc.

That said, I can think of two cases where a writer pulled thematic names off. First is Hope, from the series Jessica Jones. I don’t even know how to explain this one without spoiling the entire show. All I can say is that she absolutely symbolizes Hope, but the writers were willing to do things with the idea of hope that I’ve never seen before. Second is Calvin and Hobbes. Yes, the comic strip. Both protagonists were named for philosophers who had a cynical view of human nature. John Calvin came at it from a religious perspective, and Thomas Hobbes from a political one. In between skipping school and making killer mutant snow goons, Calvin and Hobbes spend a lot of time walking through the woods, talking about human nature and everything we as a species just can’t get right. Two things make the references work. First, it’s not like the strip is named Plato and Nietszche. The references are a bit obscure and the names sound like real names. Second, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t parroting their namesakes. At most, they are interested in similar questions. They are their own people, having their own conversations, and instead of lecturing us they are being bewildered along with us.

The worst thematic name I could think of was Veil from The Outcast of Redwall. Redwall is a series of animal novels that I loved as a kid, but their biggest weakness, in my recollection, was the simplistic species based morality. Mice, moles, otters, badgers and hares were always good. Rats, stoats, ferrets and foxes were always bad. In The Outcast of Redwall, a ferret, is raised by the good creatures of Redwall. The book keeps acting as if it’s about to discuss nature vs. nurture, but then slams the door on the question with some pointless act of cruelty. His name is an early example of this simplistic approach. Supposedly, his name is Veil because there’s a veil over his past and his future, but early on somebody points out that veil is an anagram of both evil and vile. Oh dear, what an omen! The author never really wanted to examine the question of morality and upbringing, and the name just draws attention to that.

You can think of words in a story existing on a spectrum, from the little words that usher the readers along without calling attention to themselves (the, said, it, come, was) to the ones that pop out and define the story. On this spectrum, the words that call the most attention to themselves will be the names. Audiences will actually put in work to remember your character’s names, so they can keep track of the people driving the narrative. It’s worthwhile to put some thought into them.

How I Name My Characters, Part Two: Character Names That Don’t Sound Like Character Names

In the first part, I talked about where names get their associations. Next time I’m going to talk about various ways to use those associations to enhance a story. But first, I wanted to share advice on making sure those names don’t sound so literary that they distract readers from the story. An arbitrary name isn’t nearly as fun or evocative as one that really suits a character, but one that fits too well draws attention to the fact that a writer constructed this world.

Beware of Tropes

As I mentioned in the last post, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted. It often works very well to give your characters a name that matches up with some, but not all, of who they are. There are many directions you can take this, but the absolute worst is to name a character for the trope they best fulfill. Nothing screams “this is a story” like naming everyone for where they fit into the narrative.

There are three exceptions to the avoiding tropes rule; one-scene characters who will exist just long enough to need a name but then disappear from the story, stories with a comic, self-aware tone, and characters who initially fit a trope but then subvert those expectations. Jane the Virgin uses both of the last two criteria. Her love triangle is between Michael, the stable boyfriend of two years, and Rafael, the rich playboy who broke her heart. Except, as the series goes on, Michael gets increasingly hard to trust, and Rafael seems more genuine and pure in his intentions. This role reversal combined with the loving-parody-of-a-telenovela vibe makes the names perfect.

And if I’m totally off base, I’m only halfway through season one, so don’t tell me, okay?

Don’t. Tell. Me.

But that said, there’s a difference between an homage and a replay. Several years ago the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got my hopes up. It promised to be tribute to classic 1940s adventure stories, and it was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really anything else. It was a restitched series of familiar tropes and twists; it had no heart of it’s own. The names they chose had the same problem. Joe Sullivan, Polly Perkins, Dex, Totenkopf. Which of those is  the reporter girlfriend, the heroic pilot, the villain, the sidekick?

Yup. You got it.

Don’t do that. Write characters, and name them for who they are as people, not who they are as pieces on the chess board.

Be Aware of the In-Story Reason

I loved Juno, both the film and the character. But I must admit, it always irked me that she had such a conveniently quirky name, to go with her character. We didn’t get to know her parents very well, but they didn’t seem like the type of people to pick a name like Juno. They seemed like the sorts to name their girl Hailey or Kimberly. The quirky name for a quirky protagonist thing worked a lot better in Easy A, where Olive’s parents are named Rosemary and Dill, and it’s quickly established that the only thing they like more than a joke is a running joke (her little brother’s name is Chip).

Names say things about the person who picked them. They reflect hopes, expectations, values and personal tastes. When a character’s name doesn’t sound like the kind of thing their parent (or other namer) would have chosen, it points back to the author.

If your heart is set on a type of name that your character’s in-story namer would not have chosen, there are no shortages of ways out. In both fiction and real life, people change or adjust their names all the times. Whether they choose an appropriate nickname, like Jo from Little Women, or they are given a name that reflects how others see them, like Fat Charlie in Anansi Boys, or whether there’s a subtle consensus to reshape the name into something more appropriate, like Pepper from Good Omens, it’s a perfect way to make an on the nose name sound natural. It feels right because it happens fairly often in real life, as well. Names shape people’s expectations, and when those expectations don’t fit, their bearers often seek something more appropriate.

Vary Why They Fit

As I mentioned last time, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted, and names can fit in ways that are unexpected. A perfect way to make names feel appropriate without being contrived is to have them fit different characters for different reasons.

One of my all-time favorite shows didn’t do well with this; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, Cordelia, Willow, Xander… each name fits perfectly, on an individual level. But they all line up with their namesake’s personalities so well that, collectively, it’s clear they have been named by some omniscient author. Especially when the British librarian introduces himself as Giles. Later on, as characters evolved and others were introduced, this problem gradually went away.

On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother got this right from the start. First, three characters have names that fit, both on the level of sound and meaning.

  • Ted, the old fashioned romantic nerd. It conjures up images of your old, safe stuffed bear, and that’s the kind of lover he tries to be; the kind who makes you dinner and always returns your calls right away. As a diminutive, it also indicates that he has some growing up to do before he’s ready for The One.
  • Marshall, the gentle giant. Its soft sounds give Ted a serious challenge for most huggable name contest. At the same time, the law enforcement gives it a little backbone, and he does have a surprisingly tough and mature side, when needed.
  • Robin, the mercurial beauty. She is feminine, but with an androgynous streak, and like her namesake bird she sometimes needs to fly away.

But then you have Barney and Lily. A lily is a delicate flower, commonly used as a symbol of purity. Barney conjures up either a hay chewing hick or a purple dinosaur. Lily’s personality is half den mother, half scrappy hellion. Barney is a smooth city player.

These two names that break the pattern have an effect of naturalizing the entire cast. What coincidental appropriateness? Clearly we are just five people, named by five sets of people who had no idea how we would turn out. And sure, some of us did end up like our names, and that happens. Nature and nurture and all that. But sometimes you get a wild card, and look at us. Wild cards. Totally didn’t end up anything like our parents thought. Nope, our names and our personalities have as little to do with each other as you can imagine.

It’s a big lie, by the way. Barney and Lily’s names still signal something; they signal it by contrast, rather than emphasis. But I’ll get into that in the next installment.

How I Name My Characters, Part One: Finding a Name

God, I haven’t done something purely writerly in a while. I’ve been a bit distracted lately. I dunno if you’ve noticed, but our country is desperately backpedaling from the cliff’s edge while an orange troll yanks our handlebars forward, muttering “fake news media claims thousand foot drop may cause injury or death. SAD.”

Anyway, it’s nice to do a post on one of my favorite aspects of writing. I don’t think naming is the most important part of character design. My favorite show, Parks and Recreation, sounds like they wrote common names on slips of paper and pulled them out of a hat; Tom, Ron, Chris, Ben, Andy, Ann, April, Donna, Larry/Gary/Jerry. The most evocative name in the whole cast is Leslie. But I do think a well-chosen name can enrich a character and help the reader keep track of your cast. Also, I personally have an easier time connecting to my characters once they have been named. It’s like, in my head, an unnamed character is a quantum particle, potentially one of many things, and then it’s only when I’ve named them that I’ve properly seen them, and snapped them into a single, solid reality (feel free to explain to me how badly I just botched quantum mechanics). So the only real hard and fast rule I have is to choose a name that works for me.

That said, names are not blank slates. They come pre-loaded with associations, and picking one that will help the reader connect as well as me is always a plus. That’s the real challenge of picking a good name. There are many things that give names their public associations; famous namesakes, fashion trends, or use in slang or idioms, for example. Everyone has their own private associations as well. I, for example, have color-grapheme synaesthesia, and I like to match the colors of a character’s hair, eye or favorite clothes with the first letter of their name. That said, there are four things that I think authors in general should be mindful of when choosing names.

Pure Sound

We’ve all repeated a word until it stops sounding like a word. When that happens, it’s easy to notice how, regardless of their meaning, some words and phrases sound good (cellar door) while others just don’t (moist).

Just as there seem to be some universal mathematical underpinnings to visual art, and some universal wiring behind our basic facial expressions, there does seem to be some human consensus about which words sound pleasant or feel nice to say. If you are want to go down a fun linguistic rabbit hole, google phonaesthetics. Tolkien was a fan; it’s how he designed Elvish to sound ethereal and sophisticated, and the Black Speech to sound gutteral and snarly.

The science there is still fairly fuzzy, but anyone can say a word or name aloud, over and over again, and see what it really sounds like, apart from any meanings or cultural associations. When you do that, you start to notice things that help you match them up with a character.

    • Your tongue clicks through both Tristan and Keiko, but Tristan rolls into a clean ending with the “n” while Keiko bounces off of it’s final vowel. To me, both feel like young, active characters, but Tristan wears ties and shakes hands, reserving his fun side for his close friends, while Keiko laughs freely and has a touch of ADHD.
    • Short names feel simple; Dean, Hope, Anne, Ron. They get right to the point, and fit characters who are humble or practical. Long names feel complicated; Nicodemus, Gwendolyn, Roderick, Cordelia. The attention and time they demand from you suggests sophistication, or perhaps intellectualism, or possibly just arrogance.
    • Names almost can’t help sounding nice when they are mostly rs, ls, ms and vowels. Oliver, Leilani, Eleanor, Lamar, Amelia. I like using these for especially attractive characters.
    • Hortense twists your tongue so much you almost gag. I would never use this for a character; I would hate her too much to end up making her interesting. Honestly, can any of you come up with an uglier name, I will name you Lord/ Lady/Gender-ambiguous High Commander of the comments. 

My favorite thing about this is you can use it without making a name sound contrived. The risk of putting too much thought into a character’s name is that it could end up sounding like the author put too much thought into it. Just like everything else in a story, a good name has a purpose that enhances the story, but feels like it naturally belongs there.

Meanings

This is the part of names that we obsess over the most, but fairly often, they don’t actually matter. Take Armand and Bob. Let’s suppose I was going to pick one of those for a suave, successful businessman whose face you see on magazine covers at the checkout stand. The other one is an army sergeant from Kansas. It’s pretty obvious which name fits which description. But Armand means “soldier”, while Bob means “bright fame.”

Names have meanings because they come from words. Robert comes to English name books from the Normans. It’s composed of the old Germanic elements “hrod” and “beraht.” Beraht turned into bright when it came to words but “bert” when it came to names, and somewhere out there is a very smart linguist who can tell you why. That person is not me. Armand also came from the Normans, but took a detour in France, where it picked up a Parisian flair. It has the same roots as Herman (“hari” for army and “man” for, well, man). When names travel circuitous routes like these, their original meanings become overwhelmed or lost completely.

On the other hand, some names stay close to the words they came from. On the opposite end of Robert and Armand are common word names; Rose, Pearl, April, Joy, Melody, Robin, Gray. In addition to the sounds and cultural associations, these are names inevitably flavored by their literal meanings.

This isn’t a tidy binary between word names and everything else. It’s a spectrum. One tick down the scale from Grace and Faith are names like Viola. A viola is a musical instrument, and also a plant closely related to the violet. If you aren’t much of a musician or gardener, you might not know that, but you don’t really have to. It sounds something like “violet” or “violin” and invokes the beauty of strings and petals, regardless of whether or not you  know that connection is literal. There’s a whole class of names like that which do technically have meanings, but because they are jargon, or regional, or archaic, the names feel like names first and words second; Felicity, Mason, Cooper, Bonnie.

Next comes a whole band of names that are no longer words, but have visible roots with their origin. Sometimes they only drift one letter away, as with tailor and Taylor. Other times, you might need a large vocabulary or a second language to see the connection. Amy shares a root with “amiable” and “amity,” but as we learn these words later in life the association isn’t nearly as visceral. Perdita comes from Latin for “lost.” In English, the most common influence is “perdition,” which doesn’t quite mean the same thing anymore. But it also ties into the common Spanish verb “perder,” so to a Hispanic person it might feel more destitute.

The last degree brings us to misleading similarities. Timothy doesn’t mean timid. The connection between Jean and blue jeans is completely coincidental. Melanie is not a variation on Melody. Yet, Timothy sounds like a shy person, Jean is practical, and you can easily see Melanie singing, dancing or playing an instrument. Or at least, that’s how I’ve always seen them.

In brief, a name’s meaning makes a difference, when the meaning is still kept alive in the reader’s language. But that connection isn’t a direct line. It is subject to the whims of history, as well as the reader.

Cultural trends/origins

I think it is useful to think of your character’s name not only from the perspective of the author, but from the perspective of the person who named them in story. Usually this is a parent, but, depending on the story, they could choose it themselves, or it could be the nickname their older sister gave and that just stuck, or perhaps in their village the astrologer names every child, based on what is lucky for their birthdate, or maybe they were named by the scientist who grew them in a lab. Wherever it came from, it will break suspension of disbelief if the name is something the namer would never have come up with.

The point of caution here is not to over-rely on a character’s cultural background. There are so many names out there that are stereotypically the Hispanic name, or Black name, or French name, or baby boomer name… A good character is informed by their cultural background, not defined by it. The same goes for their name.

Namesakes

Namesakes are powerful associations. The problem here is that, like wasabi, they can be too powerful. It can be too obvious that a character is named for someone else, and they can feel like copies instead of homages. There are a few ways to get around this though.

  • Make a more obscure reference. If your heroic mutant with superstrength is named Hercules, it’s obvious what you’re going for. If his name is Jason, you’re still referencing a mighty hero of Greek mythology. It’s just less of a neon sign, more of an Easter egg.
  • Disguise the name. You could the character who conquers your dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape Caesar, but your audience will probably roll their eyes and think, “gee, I wonder what the writer is trying to tell me about this character.” Julian or August, on the other hand, wink at the reference without drawing your readers out of the story.
  • Disguise the reference. It’s one thing to name your character Merlin because he’s an elderly magical mentor of your chosen one. But what if he’s a clairvoyant child, constantly disoriented by his visions? What if he’s a mentor, but is in his thirties, clean shaven and never seen without a perfectly knotted tie, and is teaching the protagonist the fine art of insider training? What if he is a crotchety bastard who lives in a trailer and initially refuses to help the heroes, an anti-Merlin in every respect except age, then, after your readers have come to associate Merlin with “trailer park asshole” and not “King Arthur’s teacher”, he gradually comes to like and guide the protagonists? In other words, let the name be a reference to a facet of your character, not their entirety.

I’ll go more into background and namesakes in part two, where I talk about how to use names in a way that serves your whole story. In the meantime, here’s some helpful links

  • Behind the Name – each name has a ratings tab where you can see other people’s impressions of a name. Many names sites allow people to rate names, but this one lets people break down their impressions into fourteen categories, including intelligence, strength, formality, and humor. It also has a section that sorts names by thematic meaning, a name translator in case you need the Dutch version of Margaret, a surname themed sister site… basically it’s my favorite online resource
  • SSN baby name records – perfect for checking the real world history of popular names in the United States
  • Nameberry – the official site of Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, the queens of baby names. Their books are essential for the writer learning to think about the images popularly associated with baby names. While their target audience is parents, and some of their advice must be adjusted accordingly, there is probably no one else on Earth right now who knows more about names. 

Happy writing!

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and writing, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been planted in one of those tea candle holders. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

How to Come up with Diverse Protagonists

A couple years ago I wrote a post titled What to do When All Your Characters are White. I liked it, but in retrospect, it describes short-term solution. Panicking about representation partway through planning a novel is not exactly the ideal situation. It’s better to have character ideas that naturally run across a spectrum of identities.

Some might argue authors have no control over what inspiration they are struck with, but I disagree. Personally, I have gotten better at this over the years, although it’s still a work in progress. So, as a follow-up to that old piece, I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me avoid the problem of whitewashed casts in the first place, instead of just patching it up at the last minute. I’m focusing on race, because that’s the area where I’ve needed the most improvement, but I think these tips can apply to any kind of diversity.

1. Honestly identify your comfort zones.

This was a tough one for me, but it was an important step. It’s uncomfortable to tell yourself something like “I’m more nervous to write Black characters than any other race,” but when I did I could work on it, and it’s not a problem in the same way any more. I think white people have a sort of collective don’t ask don’t tell policy when it comes to worries about race. None of us are supposed to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, or stereotypes, or anything of that ilk. But if you aren’t willing to recognize what needs to be worked on, you’ll never improve.

The Chaos
The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson: a weird, fun novel about confronting your inner demons.

2. Research pro-actively, not reactively.

Something I’ve noticed about research in general; last-minute research works best for details and side characters. The quality of your story improves if the main elements draw on subjects you are already familiar with. This means you should never wait for a story idea before researching something of interest. If you want to write mysteries, make it a habit to read about crime, the history of police work, law, forensics etc.

By the same token, if you realize at the last minute that your 1930s Chicago crime thriller needs more Black people, and you only have superficial knowledge of race relations in that time and place, you might have to decide you don’t have the expertise to write more than a few minor characters. But the more time you spend educating yourself about race relations and other cultures, the easier it will be to write more and more significant characters from all backgrounds. This also applies to educating yourself about racist tropes and what people really want to see more of. It’s easy to stumble blindly into a problematic trope. Educate yourself by reading media criticisms written by POC, and awesome blogs like Writing With Color.

Saving Face
Saving Face: an wonderful comedy that wouldn’t have worked without the author’s intimate knowledge of Chinese-American culture.

3. Re-imagine your favorite stories with diverse casts.

Writers are inspired by other writers. I think this is a major source of the ubiquitous white man protagonist. Sherlock Holmes inspires House. Clark Kent creates a genre for Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to be born into. King Arthur creates a trope of Secret Royalty with Epic Destiny, and sets the default to “straight white teenage boys.” What happens if you take your favorite white characters and make them Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc? Do they actually change? Does it bring up new issues that could be fodder for an interesting story? Would this story be too challenging for you right now, and if so is there something you can do to bridge that gap? See point two.

sister-mine
Sister Mine, also by Nalo Hopkinson: fits into the Gods-on-Earth subgenre, but with loads of Afro-Caribbean mythology

 

4. Remember that everyone around you is a protagonist.

As writers, we love talking about gaining inspiration from all around us. But is that unadulterated inspiration? Or are we still influenced by the narratives around us? The think often we are. The interesting looking white guy gives us an idea for a main character. The story our Uber driver tells about growing up in Cameroon just inspires a scene where that white guy gets in a cab with a Cameroonian driver.

We all know everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But I’ve found it helpful to actively look at everyone around them and imagine the story where they are the main character. Some of these are stories I couldn’t write. One Uber ride didn’t give me enough material to capture all the nuances of Cameroon. That’s not the point. The point is getting into the habit of seeing everyone as equally protagonist-y.

Little Mosque
Little Mosque: a fantastically funny show where the Muslim community gets the spotlight.

5. Read and watch work by non-white creators.

Saved for last because it’s the most important. First, as I said before, art inspires art. This could be a whole post of it’s own, but short version; I’ve grown up in a world that mostly puts white artists in front of me. This means that my inspiration for non-white characters has largely come from white artists, who themselves were copying other white artists, who were inspired by other white artists… This process can’t create original, lifelike POC characters who represent the diversity that’s out there. If you want a fresh outlook, go straight to the source. Find musicians, actors, comedians, directors and yes, writers who aren’t white.

Second, while I think white people have a responsibility to undo some of the damage our ancestors have done, it’s important to not go so overboard that we talk over POC. You need to respect the actual voices of the people who you are trying to represent. You need to elevate their voices directly, not just borrow them. There are also plenty of reading lists on the internet. Also, every book/film/TV show pictured on this post was written by someone who isn’t white, so if any of them appealed to you, there’s your starting point.

Warning; if you follow this advice, at some point you will be angry because all these authors with their awards and their amazingness and yet I’ve never heard of them why????!!!!!

BloodChild
Octavia E. Butler: you are so wonderful. Where have you been all my life?