Tag Archives: characters

What’s in a name?

I should probably make a confession.

If I don’t like you – and by that I mean you have somehow earned sufficient demerit points to enter the Zone reserved for the utterly loathsome and grudge-worthy – then there’s a (slim) possibility I might name a character after you.

It will probably be a villain. Or a victim. You know the type. The kind of character that gets one bitchy line in a horror movie and then gets slashed in the next scene. That type of character. Expendable.

Indeed, I find it amusing when authors offer readers the chance to be a character in their next book as a ‘prize’ in a competition. What responsibilities rest with that offer? Is the winner guaranteed a character that is healthy, wealthy, wise and lives in a tropical paradise? Is the author ethically bound not to mess with the character’s fortunes?

It’s not an offer I’m likely to make because I don’t always know how my characters will fare during the course of a story I’m writing. I’d hate to inform you that you’re a winner only to write a chapter where I discover your character contracts a terrible disease or crosses paths with a serial killer. It wouldn’t seem fair. Unless you’re a resident in the aforementioned Zone…

So, back to naming conventions. I’m regularly asked where my characters’ names come from. Sometimes the answer is as simple as, “I like the name”, “It sounds right,” or, “It’s easy to type”. Other names can involve actual work.

I check baby name books and websites for the meaning of monikers, mainly because I want things to gel. Unless I’m deliberately trying for humour, I wouldn’t want a scrawny, pacifist character to have a name that means ‘bloodthirsty, musclebound, axe-wielding warrior’, for instance. These things matter. Wherever possible, I strive for names that mean something in relation to the character’s personality or the plot.

In the manuscript I’m currently working on I was considering calling a Japanese character, ‘Asami’. I looked up the meaning and found it defined as ‘beautiful linen’, which didn’t match my plot at all. Then I met an Asami and politely asked why her parents would choose a name with that particular meaning. After she finished laughing, she said the name also meant ‘strength and quality’ … and that the Kanji character used to write her name could also mean ‘marijuana’.

Handy to know, right? As a result of that conversation, the character I have in mind is now called ‘Michiko’, which means ‘beautiful, wise child’.

Being of tabloid journalism origins, I am attracted to pun names, too. ‘Dan’, from my novel Five Parts Dead, was originally named Stu – in part because he’s a worrier. He stews a lot, geddit? Sigh. My publisher didn’t like it either and quite rightly suggested I seek a name with a more contemporary feel. I opted for Dan not so much for the biblical meaning (God is my judge) but for the story of Daniel in the lions’ den.

I also keep an ear out for accidentally memorable names – like Reverend Blood, Doctor Death and my all-time favourite, Cardinal Singh (pronounced Sin). I’ve read of a Collingwood supporter’s daughter being christened Victoria Park and been told of a Vietnamese-Australian family naming their first-born Donald Duc. I don’t know that I’d ever deliberately use a real name (although my subconscious chose one once and I almost dug myself a very deep hole) but it’s good to reserve the right to go with an outrageous option once in a while.

As for those special folk in the Zone, well, I wouldn’t use your names outright, either. There are laws against that sort of thing. I might take a syllable from a name and merge it with part of another odious acquaintance’s name. The end result would be a hybrid and very fictitious name – matched to some truly despicable character traits. Authors need some semblance of power, after all.

No one would know the origins but me. And I think that’s for the best. Luckily for all of us, I very rarely hold a grudge.

Dreaming of sushi

I’m back to writing. Not as often as I’d like but at least keys are being pounded and ideas recorded.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’d been considering writing my next story as a graphic novel, partly because I love stories told this way (everything from Tintin to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. I took a masterclass in writing comics and graphic novels last year and came away inspired but somewhat intimidated by the concept of writing in such an unfamiliar form. As a result, I procrastinated way too much.

So, while I can see the next book as a graphic novel, I’m going to write it in novel form first. Having made that decision, I’ve started sketching characters, scenes and more. I love these early stages of assembling a story.

The idea I have in mind is essentially a love story, but one concerned with fathers, sons and the links between generations. Which brings me to the title of this post.

A friend invited me to this documentary today and I really enjoyed it. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi has an 85-year-old sushi chef as its central character – a man whose alcoholic father died when he was seven. Jiro has worked for 75 years and is considered the best sushi chef in the world. He has no plans to retire, which feeds into the stories of his two sushi chef sons. It’s slow-burning, exquisite stuff.

And mouthwatering if you enjoy sushi. You can get a taste of the tale here:

Things she wants to say

Every morning on the train the same thing. The thin guy, all angled limbs like a praying mantis, doing his best to discretely ogle her chest. She thinks she really should tell him she’s a wake-up. Wonders how would he’d react if she raised her voice and labelled him a perv in front of the whole carriage.

On the station platform, where Joanna buys her 8am latte, the same woman always pushes to the front of the queue. Ferret-face, Jo calls her. In her mind. The routine is so familiar Jo has taken to stepping sideways as the woman burrows into her peripheral vision. It’s the only way to avoid the bruises dispensed by Ferret’s bolstered shoulder bag.

In the office, umpteen emails announce yet another procedural review or a new subcommittee to probe the nuances of a report commissioned by a sister panel. Departments with increasingly overlapping empires burgeon like mistletoe, sucking the life out of the host.

Jo rolls her eyes at yet another communique announcing that external consultants are surveying staff about job satisfaction, morale, workplace efficiency and employee retention. She’s tempted to speak her mind this time, to give it to them with both barrels. Tell them that good ideas and genuine initiative are suffocated beneath mountains of bureaucratic manure and drowned out by the snarls of territorial middle managers. She won’t say it though. Her rebellion goes no further than selecting the neutral button that signals neither approval or disapproval. She gives them nothing.

During her lunch break, Jo goes to the same cafeteria every day. Even though they know her by name and greet her with Mediterranean ebullience, they continue to load her salad roll with onion, despite her repeated requests to the contrary. Jo has stopped reminding them. Instead she sits at a corner table, forking out allium slivers and flicking the pages on a magazine nine months out of date. It passes the time.

At home, she tries and fails to make eye contact with her 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. Nathan rarely lifts his gaze from his gaming and Bianca only communicates by texting. Jo despairs that her children are so conditioned to constant electronic and social media stimulation that they’re effectively suffering from ADHD. If she denies them their screens at mealtimes, they don’t know where to look. Hey, in their minds, converse is a trade name, not a verb. They’re bored in 30 seconds. They lack the imagination to generate their own fun. Flick the news on and they complain, apparently devoid of curiosity about the galaxies beyond their own immediate orbits.

Tonight though, trouble is brewing. She asks for the fourth time for help setting the table and mashing the potatoes. Nothing. Nathan responds by placing headphones over his ears. Bianca keeps messaging her mates. Jo doesn’t bother speaking again.

Leaning over the couch, Jo snatches Bianca’s phone and throws it into the pot of boiling spuds. Then she strides across the living room and unplugs the television. The invective hurled at her barely registers – apart from Bianca’s, “I hate you, Mum!”

As Jo grabs the dog’s lead and slams the flywire door behind her, a wondrous thought occurs. Perhaps Bianca is capable of speaking her mind after all.

Short stuff

For a writer, I’ve done very little creative writing this year. I can list numerous reasons/excuses but none of these change the outcome. Slack. On the up-side, there are stories percolating nicely in my cranium (although the constant bubbling can be a major distraction from other tasks). My goal for 2011 will be to lock myself away and write some of them down.

One thing I have been working on recently is a short story I’m submitting to an anthology. I have a lot to learn about the short story form and capturing a snapshot of the characters’ lives. The title character is an extroverted hopeless romantic and, I have to say, I like him enough to wonder what will happen to him beyond the splinter of time captured in this story. Maybe there will be further adventures for Jack of Hearts.

I’m unsure if the story will be accepted but I’m polishing and re-polishing (seven drafts so far) to give it my best shot. If it doesn’t make it, you can count on it getting an airing here.