General

What’s in a Name: How to Name Your Characters

Harry Potter. Blanche DuBois. Count Dracula. No, this isn’t the guest list for a really niche dinner party – what these characters all have in common is their names. They’re great! One look at those names and you come away with a strong impression of who the characters are before they’ve even spoken: the everyman hero, the Southern belle, the dastardly villain. A good character name will suit the character on loads of different levels and prime the reader for the kind of role they’ll be expecting them to play in the story. If I asked you to pick out the everyman character from that list I doubt that any of you would land on Count Dracula, boy wizard.

giphy running
Go, Forrest! Write that fanfic! (image: giphy.com)

But how do you choose a good name for your character? How do you pick something that suits their personality, the setting, their role in the story and just doesn’t sound daft?

Guess who’s got a list for that!

 

  1. Consider the character’s role in the story

The first thing you want to consider when naming a character is their role in the story. Of course, it’s likely that you already know what their role is when you’re trying to come up with a name, so yay for you, you’re ahead of the game!

There are some names which lend themselves to certain types of characters more than others. For example, if you’re trying to name your damsel in distress you might choose a name which ends in ‘-elle’, ‘-bella’, ‘-ette’ or ‘-ina’, as these are a selection of suffixes used in traditionally feminine names. Similarly, if you’re trying to name a villainous character you might go for a name which has lots of sibilant sounds (because it sounds like a snake and snakes are spooky) or one which has lots of hard consonants (because all the short, spiky sounds makes it sound like you’re mad at me). Have a go at picking out the villain name from this list:

  • Mark Bowman
  • Alistair McBride
  • James Carpenter
  • Victor Gresley
  • Adam Mulaney

It’s Victor. Look at all those sharp consonants and the spooky sibilance, Victor is clearly a bad man.

giphy nosferatu
But he seemed so normal! (image: giphy.com)

But this works both ways. If you want to have a character set up as a bad guy who is eventually revealed to be on the good team, one of the easiest ways to do that is to give him an extremely sinister name. (Looking at you, Severus Snape.) The audience is primed to expect dastardly things from a character like Victor Gresley, because even his name is twirling a sinister moustache. When that’s subverted, it carries that bit of extra weight because the audience is now having to reassess impressions they believed from the very moment that good old Victor was introduced, even if it was only on a subconscious level.

 

  1. G&T (Genre and tone, don’t get excited)

Genre also has an effect on the kind of names you should give your characters. For example if you’re writing fantasy, people might not bat an eye at a character named Kerrion Brightflame. However, if the detective that strolls in to solve the murder in a secluded country house is named Kerrion Brightflame, your reader is probably not going to buy that. Bear your genre in mind when coming up with the names but don’t let it rule you – if your sci-fi names sound futuristic and your Regency romance names sound suitably historical, you’re on the right track.

Tone also has an important part to play. If you want to write something which is very realistic and serious, the kinds of names you give your characters need to reflect that. In stories like that you’d want to keep your villainous signposting to a minimum, otherwise it would start to sound ridiculous. A name like Victor Gresley might be a bit too much for something super-realistic, so for those stories I might downgrade him to a Roger or an Ernest and keep the mildly spooky surname. However, if I was writing something incredibly silly that was set up to make fun of everything it came across, then I would dial it up to eleven and rename him Victor McNasty-Doomington and, of course, give him a black cape and an evil moustache.

 

  1. Where do they come from, where do they go?

WHERE DO YOU COME FROM, COTTON-EYED JOE

…I digress. Before I got distracted by dancing angels, this section was going to be about the character’s background. This should, of course, factor into their name, because it’s important to remember that while characters are named by their author, in-universe they’re named by their parents, guardians, or robot caregivers. The kind of culture that the character is from is absolutely going to have an effect on the kind of name they get, so as an author you have to do your research.

This point is particularly important. People are more concerned about cultural appropriation in fiction than ever before, and one of the easiest ways to spot it is when an author has been lazy with a character’s name. JK Rowling got a bit of flack for this around the character Cho Chang – Cho is supposed to be from a Chinese background, but as was pointed out in a video that went viral in 2013, both Cho and Chang are actually surnames which could be either Chinese or Korean, and the name doesn’t fit with established Chinese naming conventions. There’s been a lot of discussion about this and I found a really great article if you want to know more but basically, a lot of people think that Rowling didn’t put the same level of thought into naming Cho as she did for the rest of her characters.

What this means for you as an author is that if you’re writing a character that comes from a background you aren’t familiar with, you absolutely must research naming conventions before you put pen to paper. Getting a cultural naming convention wrong is one of the quickest ways to flag to your audience that you haven’t put in enough time or thought – especially seeing as it’s so easy to find this stuff out online.

The other thing you need to consider is how the character responded to the context they grew up in. Maybe your character was raised by hippies and given the name Rainbow Storm Moonchild – how do they feel about that? Do they embrace Rainbow Storm Moonchild proudly and wear a flower crown to work every day, or do they get embarrassed and tell everyone they’re just called Rae? Does the name they’ve been given fit with how they see themselves and if not, what do they do to change it?

 

  1. It’s all about personality

Consider how your character’s name fits their personality – or what personality traits might be suggested by a particular name. An action hero called Hubert Pumdringham might sound a bit weird, and no-one’s going to believe your fusty old professor is actually fusty if his name is Chase Gable. Long names can suggest a certain amount of fussiness, names ending in ‘-y’ or ‘-ie’ can suggest that the character is quite childish, and some contractions of women’s names can suggest that they’re a tomboy, like Sam or Jo.

photo-on-13-12-2016-at-19-30
Wait a second…

This kind of ties in with my point about how the character responds to their background in the previous section, so I won’t go into much more detail, but it’s important to consider that a fully-fleshed out character will have an opinion on their name, just like real people do. A good character will seem as if they have shaped their own identity, rather than having it all laid out by the ineffable hand of the author.

 

  1. Location, location, location

I’ll give you a quick recap so you don’t have to scroll back up to point three: cultural background is very important, so do your research. This is reflected in their name as much as everything else about a character.

However, setting also plays a part too – and I don’t just mean that in terms of a culture or country. You have to consider where your character is spending the bulk of their time too, as this will affect what people will call them. For example, if your character is a soldier, pilot, action hero or police offer they might only be referred to by their surname, as this is a common shorthand to show your reader how super tough and cool your main character is. If your character is a secret agent, they might only be referred to with a code name. If your characters are all at high school, they might have a daft nickname which everyone calls them instead. Just make sure it matches – it’d be weird if your drill sergeant started yelling at ‘Private Katie’.

This can also be used to reflect back on the setting. Take, for example, a school environment. If the teachers and pupils all refer to each other by their first names, that says something about the setting – that it’s informal, relaxed, and perhaps also quite modern. If the teachers and pupils all refer to each other by their surnames, that tells you the exact opposite – that it’s a very traditional place and probably quite strict. A good author can use this to create a distinctive voice for their narrator and to set the scene in a few easy strokes.

 

  1. Horrible History

If only there was a song that let me make a joke which tied in to my overall theme but also this particular point in my argument…

We’ve got to talk about time period, guys.

If you’re writing anything historical you’ve got to make sure your names will fit with the time period or people won’t take you seriously. You’ll have to pay attention to the way historical naming conventions worked as well, and if you’ve got anyone with a title in there then strap in for like ten different forms of address. A mistake in a name with historical connotations will completely catapult your reader out of the story and it’ll just make you look lazy.

I’m not suggesting you have to have a list of the most popular baby names in 1473 (although if you do, can I see it) – you’ve just got to make sure that you aren’t writing about a Regency lady named Britney or Chardonnay. As long as you’re vaguely within the right period you should be OK, although do bear in mind that certain names have a longer shelf life than others. If, for example, you were writing about a woman named Patience, she could fit in anywhere from the 1500s to the end of the nineteenth century. If, however, she was called Smite-Not-the-Righteous-Lest-Ye-Be-Judged – Smitey to her friends – I’d have a lot of trouble accepting her as anything but a seventeenth century Puritan.

However, it’s not just historical accuracy that you need to bear in mind here – it’s also what your readers are going to expect. Some names were actually in use in historical periods as completely ordinary names but now, sound so modern or so outlandish that you can’t actually use them as a writer, because people would think you’re being daft. This, my friends, is the Tiffany Problem. The crux of it is this: there were real-life Medieval people called Tiffany, but if you write a Medieval character called Tiffany everyone is going to think that you’re wrong because now the name is associated with breakfasts and one of the Trump children.

 

  1. The Internet is your friend

Always, always, always google your character names before you get attached. If they’re already attached to another fictional character, or to a real-life person, change them. You might have written the most heart-breaking and beautiful love story in the world, but if your female lead is called Margaret Thatcher then it’s not going to go anywhere.

Also, if you’re making up names for a fantasy or sci-fi story, do yourself a favour and put your made-up names into Google Translate and set to ‘detect language’. You will save yourself a lot of embarrassment. This point is brought to you by my twelve-year-old self, who once named a fantasy character Katar because I am very bad at geography.

 

  1. Say my name, say my name

Always make sure you can pronounce your characters’ names. Always make sure that other people know how to pronounce them too, particularly for made-up names in fantasy settings. Fantasy as a genre is terrible for this because there’s so many characters with odd combinations of vowels and random apostrophes in the middle of names. If your beta readers don’t know how to pronounce your characters’ names – or you realise that it sounds exactly like a word for something else – then you’re going to have to change them. If you get to the point where you’re wondering if you need to include a pronunciation guide, then I’d recommend taking a step back.

This point is also brought to you by my twelve-year-old self, who once named a mystical elf Deirdre because I’d only ever seen the name written down and thought it looked cool. Don’t be like me, guys.

 

  1. Keeping it in the family

Just like you would look at your character’s cultural background and setting before deciding on a name, you should look at the names of the character’s family too. It’s important to remember that these are the people who would, in-universe, be the ones actually naming your character. It gets really obvious that the authorial hand is at work if your main character’s name is Hephaestus and his brother’s name is Bob. If nothing else, the reader immediately knows who the favourite child is. The best example of a good group of family names that I can think of is the Addams Family: Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley and Pubert. They’re all very strange names but they’re strange together.

It’s also important to bear in mind how your character’s name relates to other characters in your story. Let’s play a game. Guess which one of these is the main character:

  • Alice Cartwright
  • Jack Waters
  • Mary Havisham
  • Xanthippe ‘Xan’ Brightwater
  • Bob Child

WHO COULD IT POSSIBLY BE.

giphy pooh
Nope, gonna need another minute. (image: giphy.com)

I’m not saying that you can’t have a character with an unusual name. You absolutely can! Just bear in mind, though, that if there’s only one and nobody ever, ever comments on it, it starts to look a bit like authorial favouritism. It’d be like if the Harry Potter series changed every character’s name to Alice or Bob, apart from Daedalus Diggle. When you first met that character, it’d be really jarring because it wouldn’t fit with the established pattern and you’d constantly be wondering if they were going to pop up again, because they have such a significant name.

 

  1. Search your feelings

Just pick one you like!

No, really. If you come across a name and think that it’d fit your character then by all means use that. Check it out first to make sure you aren’t pulling a ‘Deirdre the elf’, but sometimes that really is all you need to settle on a name. If you find one that works, go for it!

 

And that’s my full list of things to consider when naming a character! That turned out long. Hopefully this will be helpful for anyone stuck on how to choose a name for a character – or anyone who’s really, really stuck for baby names.

Book Recipes

Book Recipes: How to Write a Country House Mystery

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at the country house murder mystery. Let’s hope we live through all twenty steps.

 

Ingredients:

  • A big old spooky house
  • An assorted group of debonair guests. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The Ingénue
    • A crusty old man
    • A prim and proper widow
    • A bounder and a cad
    • The Femme Fatale
    • Loveable newlyweds
    • The idle rich
  • A sinister butler
  • Storms
  • So much alcohol
  • Unreliable phone lines/roads/Wi-Fi
  • Dark yet slightly sexy secrets
  • MURRRDERRRR.

 

Method:

  1. All your characters have been invited to a big country house, for plot reasons. They make small talk like they aren’t going to die.
  2. There’s a big storm! Better gather everyone in one room. It’s not important. I’m sure it’ll be fine – oh, all the lights have gone out.
  3. AND THERE’S A MURDER.
  4. Some of your guests try and leave, but they can’t! Those unreliable phone lines are down, or the road is flooded, or maybe someone has just Lemonade-ed over all the cars.
  1. Gather your guests in one big room, along with any servants you might have lying about the place. One of them is a MURDERER.
  2. Decide that the best thing to do is wait until morning in one big group. That way no-one will –
  3. JUST KIDDING GUYS LET’S SPLIT UP!
  4. Pick a character who will survive until at least step 18 and follow them around for a bit. This one is almost certainly not the murderer, but you never know.
  5. Pick your first suspect. You’re going to want to choose someone who is ridiculously suspicious because –
  6. Oh, no, looks like they’re dead. Never mind.
  7. Okay, obviously it wasn’t suspect number one. Who else could it be? Have your main POV character ponder this for a bit while they wander spooky corridors.
  8. Have another big meeting with the remaining characters. Someone is acting suspicious…

suspicious-gif-18
Hmmm… (image: gifimage.net)

  1. Settle on suspect number two. This should be less obvious than suspect number one, but still not something you’d really have to reach for. Someone who your main character has seen sneaking off down a corridor, or having a –
  2. Oh, no, they’re dead too. My bad.
  3. Some more murders happen and everyone is very distressed. First to go is anyone who decides to leave and get help, so your best bet is to keep your main character hidden behind the sofa.
  4. You have found A Clue. Oh boy! This sure takes your mind off all those murders.
  5. We’ve narrowed it down to our third and final suspect. All the clues point to them. There’s no-one else it could be. Gird your loins and get ready to confront the –
  6. Oh, they’re dead as well. Huh. So the real murderer must be…
  7. IT WAS THE BUTLER DID IT ALL ALONG MY GOSH
  8. The butler explains his evil plan for the readers’ convenience and advances on the main character. But just when he’s about to do another murder, we reach the end of our twenty-step guide and he’s arrested.

THE END. Serve with tea and flickering lights.
Tips:

  • This one comes with an alternate ending! If you’re feeling especially bleak, just have your butler kill everybody and waltz off into the sunset with all their stuff. Make sure he still explains his plan though, that part’s important.
  • Detectives are optional. Feel free to invite one along, but just be aware that in steps 1 and 2 they’re going to have to earn their keep by deducing where people went on their holidays.
  • Make sure to choose the right kind of dark secrets. They can’t be too dark or you’ll put the guests off their champagne. The best ones are sexy and melodramatic.
  • Always include at least one hysterical woman, and one man who thinks the first murder is an elaborate prank.
  • No-one ever, ever suspects the butler.

giphy spanish inquisition
You all knew I was going to make this joke. (image: giphy.com)

  • Choose your setting carefully. The past is your best bet, because Wi-Fi and working phone lines can really ruin a good murder mystery. Nobody likes a detective who relies on Google.
  • Don’t make your creepy house too creepy or the genres will get muddled. Also, don’t make it gross. Nobody wants to bleed to death on a grubby floor.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

“I expect you’re all wondering why I called you here.”

The guests were in the drawing room, settling into chairs with coffee. The butler, Stabbington, moved discreetly round the room, topping up glasses of port. Alice Sinclair placed a hand over her glass and sat up straight. It was awfully fun to be asked to join the adults.

Her host, Sir Jeffrey Spishous-Mann, had got to his feet. The room fell silent. Apart from the howling wind the house was quiet. Crumbleigh Place was on top of a mountain, swathed in snow, and was only accessible after a three-day journey through a dark and creeping forest. Alice thought it was jolly exciting. The house reminded her of a Gothic novel, or one of those perfectly thrilling horror pictures she and the girls had snuck out to see at Bletherleys. If Bunty could have seen her now, she would have thought her terribly sophisticated.

Stabbington took a discreet step forward and murmured in his master’s ear. Sir Jeffrey frowned. “What? Now?”

“I’m afraid it cannot wait, sir.”

“Very good.” He turned back to his guests. “Do serve yourselves, gentlemen, ladies. Stabbington will be in the kitchen sharpening his knives. Where was I?”

An old man who’d been introduced to Alice as Major Edmund Blakely-Smythe spluttered in his chair. “Eh? What?”

His aged sister leaned over and patted his knee. “Sir Jeffrey was just about to tell us something, Edmund.”

“What? Speak up! Get him to speak up, Agnes.”

Sir Jeffrey cleared his throat again. “As I was saying. I expect you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here…”

There was a sudden bang. Alice flinched. Her neighbour – a tall young man wearing an ascot and a predatory expression – laid a hand on her arm.

“No need to be afraid,” he murmured, offering her his hand, “I shall protect you. Jonty Framlingham-Piggott, at your service.”

Alice shook it, blushing. She wished she was wearing lipstick. “Alice Sinclair. Absolutely super to meet you.”

He took a drag on his cigarette. “Isn’t it just. Cigarette, Miss Sinclair?”

“Oh, I –”

Stabbington came back into the room, smoothing his hair back into place and brushing snow off his shoulders. “I do apologise, sir. The cleaning gun went off.”

Major Blakeley-Smythe squinted at him. “Eh? What’d the butler chap say?”

“He says the cleaning gun went off, Edmund,” Agnes yelled into his ear.

“Damn shame,” the Major said. “Happened in India once. Chap never did get it back. Last saw the damn thing swimming in the Ganges.”

Sir Jeffrey took a deep breath. “Anyway. Now that you’re all here, I shall reveal to you…”

Jonty leaned forward and whispered in Alice’s ear. “Frightfully dull, isn’t it? Let’s slip away for a moment. I’ve picked up a few things on my travels I’d be delighted to show you.”

Alice blushed. Matron hadn’t said anything about this. “Souvenirs, do you mean?”

He flicked the ash off his cigarette and smirked. “Of course, dear girl.”

Sir Jeffrey was counting to ten. “As I was saying…”

Stabbington bustled over to the drinks cabinet. He knelt down, fussing with a little packet of powder, and saw Alice looking. “I beg your pardon, Miss.”

“Is that…rat poison?”

Stabbington shoved the powder into his pocket. “Yes. For the rats.”

“In the drinks cabinet?”

“…Yes.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose they can be very clever little fellows.”

Stabbington straightened up, and Alice saw a flash of brass by every one of his knuckles. He had an awful lot of rings, for a butler. “Very clever indeed, Miss. Do excuse me.”

He left the room. Sir Jeffrey set down his glass. “As I was saying…”

“Eh? What?”

“He’s about to tell us something, Edmund…”

Sir Jeffrey stood on his chair and yelled “I’m very rich and I’m about to die!”

There was a long silence. Snow whirled against the glass; wind howled down the chimney. The guests all stared at their host, who climbed down from his chair.

“Good,” he said. “Now that I have your attention –”

All the lights went out. Then, there was a scream.

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: How to Use the Test

Since I started this blog I’ve had a few questions about the test from readers. I tried to answer them as best I can but never had time to properly go through the test when I was running the series. Well, that’s what I’m going to do now.

Here’s a run-down of how I answered each question on the test, with a little bit of background as to how I came up with them. It’s by no means definitive – I’m 90% sure that two people could put the same character through the test and get different results – but hopefully some of you will at least find it helpful when examining characters – or even writing your own.

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

One of the key problems that female characters have had to deal with is passivity. Historically, women haven’t always been portrayed as active characters – just look at all those stories about princesses waiting to be rescued from towers. It’s the first question for a reason, as it’s both a long-standing and an important problem. Essentially it boils down to this: is she in control of her own life?

It kind of overlaps with question 8, but this is how I differentiate the two. This question is a ‘big picture’ kind of question whereas question 8 is much smaller-scale. Look at the character’s overall journey through the story: is she being propelled along by other people, or is she making her own decisions? Does she get to where she wants to be? If so, is it because she’s worked for it or because chance has worked out for her? If not, why not?

You can have a lot of fun talking about ~*Fate*~ and ~*Destiny*~ with this question as obviously, it would be a bit unrealistic if literally nothing else influenced the course of a character’s life. Background and setting are important here. A character who always does what she’s told can be pretty boring. But if the character has grown up controlled by a totalitarian government and would be executed for stepping out of line, that’s a pretty good excuse, and it makes her much more interesting. This is also something that you should always bear in mind for historical characters, as they were likely written with a completely different idea of what constituted as acceptable behaviour for women.

dog
Although apparently whatever she’s doing to this dog is allowed. (image: the-toast.net)

Try and keep small stuff out of the question here and look at the overall story arc for the character. Look at her motivation and the society she comes from. Bear all of these in mind when reaching your decision, as they all have an impact – and if you’re stuck, give her a half point.

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

This question is really designed to work out whether a character is properly fleshed out. Ideally, a well-written character should have all three.

  1. What does the character want? It doesn’t have to be something she’s actively working towards, and it doesn’t have to be something that’s always relevant to the plot. She’s just got to have them – even if she’s only saving up for a girls’ weekend in Lanzarotte.
  2. What does the character believe? How does this affect her decisions? Is she in line with, or opposed to, any significant beliefs mentioned in the plot? You should be able to state an opinion belonging to any well-written character. It’s a reflection of what and how they think, so this is really vital.
  3. What does the character do for fun? How does she choose to spend her free time? This often falls by the wayside for many characters, particularly when they’re in a very fast-paced story which doesn’t have many slow moments. But it’s a very easy way to make a character seem more realistic, which is often overlooked.

These are often interlinked with both each other and the wider elements of the plot, but that doesn’t matter. As long as a character has all three, she’s well on her way. It’s important that these are properly followed through, though – it’s no good saying that a character loves reading if you never see her crack a book open. The best characters’ goals, beliefs and hobbies are reinforced in their actions. Just look at how many times Hermione mentions Hogwarts: A History.

hermionebooks
It’s her favourite, much like all these other books. (image: stoppingandsmellingtherose.wordpress.com)

It’s also important that a character’s goals, beliefs and hobbies are truly her own. Personally, I really dislike it when a female character meets the male lead and promptly changes her entire worldview to fit his. That’s not to say that a character should be static: just that if her goals, hobbies and beliefs are going to change, this development should be treated with care. We should be able to see the change and understand what this means for her.

This is a question where it helps to imagine the character as a real person. Put yourself in their shoes as much as possible and answer these questions:

  • What do you want?
  • What do you believe?
  • What do you enjoy?

If you have an answer for all three, you’re doing well – but this is only half of it. Then, you need to pull back and look at things more critically. Are your answers backed up? Can you point to specific incidents where the character is shown working toward goals, living by what she believes, or just doing something she enjoys? Did these things suddenly appear right after she met a male character, or can you show that she’s been consistent regardless of who she’s met? If you can answer all of these questions she’ll probably pass this round.

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

All characters should be consistent, and female characters are no exception. Essentially, what you are looking for here are moments when the character isn’t acting like herself (with no explanation given). Has a tough-as-nails badass suddenly become helpless? Is a brilliant scientist completely stumped by a simple problem? It’s that kind of thing.

Skills can often be a problem area for female characters. I’ve found that this happens quite a lot in action movies: a woman is set up to be a total badass, regularly kicking baddies in the face, but then in the final third of the film she gets captured by the villain and the heroes have to jump in and save her. It happens so often that TV Tropes has a whole page about it – grab her by the upper arm and our heroine is powerless.

On the other side of the coin, you want to make sure that any skill or personality developments are realistic. If our character decides she wants to learn kung fu and gets to black belt in a week, she’s very firmly in Mary Sue territory. I’ve talked about this on the blog before, so I’ll just leave a link and summarise. Mary Sues are ridiculously perfect characters, usually overpowered, gorgeous and drowning in potential boyfriends. The label isn’t usually applied to male characters (the counterpart, or Gary Stu, is much less common) and, if I’m honest, I do wonder if that isn’t because of the whole gender thing. But that’s a post for another time.

EbonyWay
One day… (image: myimmortal.wikia.com)

To sum up – a character should be recognisable as herself both at the beginning and the end of the story. Characters can and should change; it would be daft if they didn’t. But this should be handled realistically, and should also be dictated by the character’s own actions and experiences, rather than because there needs to be a good way to finish off the final act.

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

This one is pretty straightforward. I came up with this question to weed out characters who’ve only been included to fulfil the very limiting roles of ‘love interest’ and ‘eye candy’. It was originally only going to be appearance and love life, but I added ‘strong female character’ after reading this excellent article.

The crux of the question is this – female characters shouldn’t be limited. If all you can say about them is that they’re pretty, or strong, or someone’s girlfriend, then someone’s not trying hard enough. Male characters get to be complex, intelligent, difficult, demanding, intriguing, damaged, determined – and there’s absolutely no reason why female characters shouldn’t get the same treatment.

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

I included this question to differentiate between well-rounded characters and characters that have been introduced just to be the love interest. I’ve found that this can actually be a bit of a controversial one, as some people think that what I mean by this is that all love stories are automatically bad. OK, I’m over-simplifying here, but you get the gist.

I don’t think that love stories are rubbish by default. That would be a dismissive and blinkered point of view which is steeped in gender bias of its own – sadly, a lot of the reasons why people tend to assume that romance books are rubbish is because they’re ‘for girls’. However, that’s not to say that the genre is without its flaws. Romance stories can often make use of some very tired old gender stereotypes, some of which can be harmful. For instance, there’s a marked trend in romance fiction for ‘alpha male’ heroes – and some authors illustrate this ‘alpha’ behaviour by having their heroes stalk, kidnap, or rape the heroine.

giphy ian
Would you, Sir Ian? (image: giphy.com)

It goes without saying that such behaviour is unacceptable and should not be romanticised – but it is. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all tied up with the ideas surrounding traditional gender roles in relationships, and traditional ideas about both masculinity and femininity. This question is essentially a litmus test to see if any of those ideas could be present.

As a very broad rule of thumb, I’ve often found that when female characters are only ever influenced by their love lives, they usually end up falling prey to some of the more problematic gender stereotypes. But when these characters have something else in their lives that influences their decisions – be it a goal, an interest, or the influence of another character – they tend to avoid them. Allowing a female character to have a life and interests outside of her boyfriend is not only more realistic, but it makes her more well-rounded and it makes it easier to avoid unfortunate implications. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but I’ve found it works in nine cases out of ten.

To sum up: in real life, women aren’t defined by their relationships to men, so this shouldn’t be the case in fiction.

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

This is a question that can be applied to pretty much any character, regardless of gender. Character development is a hugely important part of any story. It adds so much – everything from emotional attachment to increasing the tension of the plot. It can reinforce both the strength of the character’s personality and the impact of the things they go through, so I think it’s a pretty crucial element.

How I scored characters on this question depended on a few different elements. I’ve listed them below:

  1. Do they develop at all?
  2. Is the change in their personality gradual or sudden?
  3. Is it proportional to the events of the plot, and the importance the character placed on them?

The first question is the easiest to answer. If a character doesn’t develop at all, then they’ve obviously failed this round. Experiences have impact, and that’s just as true for fictional characters as it is for real people.

The second question requires a broader focus – here, you want to be looking at the story in a larger sense. Look at the character’s overall story arc, taking the plot into account, and try and work out where and how the change took place. If it’s a snap change with no build up you might not do so well; if it’s a more gradual change, odds are it’ll be all right.

The third question is arguably the most important. Context is everything and this is no exception. If, for example, a character discovers a dead body, you might think that this could trigger a dramatic change in her personality – but this wouldn’t necessarily apply if she was a police officer on a murder investigation. Conversely, if a character didn’t get elected to the yearbook committee in high school, you might think that this wouldn’t be a big deal – but this might not be the case if it was something that, say, she really needed for a university application. It should all be relative – not just to the character but to the events of the plot. If our police officer was getting upset about not getting to do the yearbook, that might seem a bit out of place.

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BUT I WAS GONNA DO THE PICTURES (image: vogue.com)

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule – minor events can have significance for characters who go through very serious circumstances, and characters can ignore major events because it may be easier in their current circumstances. But as a general rule this usually works. Character development should be present, planned, and proportional – try saying that with a mouthful of crisps.

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

When I was first thinking up the test this question seemed a bit disingenuous for a blog about Strong Female Characters. But I soon realised this was crucial – and not just to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue.

I talked about this a little bit in question four – how male characters are allowed all kinds of interesting flaws, but female characters are just described as ‘strong’ and left at that. This is neither realistic nor fair. People have flaws, and so fictional representations of them should, too – and female characters should be treated with just as much complexity as male ones.

But this question is an interesting one, because this can often be a place where traditional and modern gender stereotypes connect. It’s all to do with the types of flaws a character has, and whether they actually affect her.

It goes without saying that all characters should have flaws. It makes them more interesting, more relatable, and more realistic. But when it comes to female characters, the question of flaws can get pretty complicated. If you go back – and I mean right back, into the realm of fairy tales – women tended to be boxed up as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ characters. I’m over-simplifying a little for the sake of argument, but as a general rule the mark of a ‘good’ character was their absence of flaws, and the mark of a ‘bad’ character was the sheer overwhelming number of flaws. These were not so much characters as examples for women to follow – illustrations of how they should and should not behave.

women-300x191
…and thou shalt not let thine cow lick another animal’s butt, for that would be weird. (image: historylearningsite.com)

As fiction began to develop the idea that good women don’t have flaws took on a different form. Women were allowed to have flaws, but they weren’t really flaws that held them back or made them unattractive. They were often described as too pure, too innocent, too kind for their own good – essentially, flaws that made them more appealing to their audience and rarely had any negative consequences. It wasn’t a coincidence that most of these flaws were ‘fixed’ when these characters married. Now, we’ve swung the other way. People are often keen to avoid writing female characters with tangible flaws because a) writing any character with a serious flaw is difficult and b) a lot of people are convinced this will make their characters less likeable. But they also don’t want to write a fragile little flower who’s completely helpless without a man. The result is characters who are so efficient, well-adjusted and confident that they don’t really have any problems at all – and this is where the Mary Sue comes in.

So, how do you judge a female character’s flaws? I did this in two ways. First, you look at how it interacts with gender stereotypes. Is her fatal flaw that she’s so innocent, pure and naïve that she cannot recognise a bad situation when she sees it? Then you’re off to a bad start. But this isn’t completely unredeemable.

What really clinches it is how it actually affects her life. A character’s flaw should have a tangible impact on both her life and her relationships. It’s no good telling your audience that a character is a compulsive liar if we don’t see how no-one trusts her to tell the truth. It’s no good telling your audience that a character has trouble forming meaningful relationships if she immediately starts a happy and healthy relationship with the first man she sees. As long as you show the evidence of this, you can pretty much write any flaw you want. So it’s perfectly fine for a character to be so unbelievably naïve that they cannot recognise danger – but only if this has real consequences. If they blithely wander off, skipping happily towards a field of bear traps just in time to be saved by a lantern-jawed hero, then yes, she’s not going to pass this round. But if her naivety gets her into a situation where she has to directly confront the consequences of her actions, then we’ve got something much more substantial to work with.

For me, this is really exemplified by the contrast between Snow White and Sansa Stark. Both start their stories in a reasonably similar position – both innocent, naïve young girls who find themselves caught up in royal intrigues that put them in serious danger. But whereas Snow White is saved by the timely intervention of a handsome prince, Sansa has to get herself out of trouble. She realises how her naivety has led her to delude herself about people’s true motivations, learns how to survive in a brutal court, and actively tries to work against her flaws.

To sum up, these are the questions you should be asking. Is the flaw a cliché? Does it have real consequences on the character’s life? Look at how this flaw is presented, and how we see it in action. If the two match up, you’re on the right track.

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

As I said earlier, this question can overlap with question 1 – but the key difference between the two is that this question deals with events on a much smaller scale. You’re not looking at the overall plot here – this question is for smaller events, like individual scenes or chapters.

Essentially, what you’re really looking for here is multiple instances where the character makes a decision and that decision has a direct impact on the events of the plot. They don’t have to be huge, monumental decisions but they do have to be made.

What often lets characters down on this question is the idea of passive influence – which is why I included the ‘captured or killed’ caveat at the end of this question. Unfortunately, this tends to happen to a lot of female characters. They’re either kidnapped and the plot revolves around other people trying to rescue them, or they’re killed and the plot revolves around other people trying to avenge their death/deal with grief. If a character’s only impact is that she isn’t there and other people are sad about it, that doesn’t exactly speak wonders for her.

But these aren’t the only two ways in which passive influence can be seen. I’ve looked at quite a few characters who don’t do much of anything and the plot revolves around them. This is often related to things they have no control over – such as their social position, or the effect of some ~*Great Prophecy*~ that marks them out as special. In this case it’s not so much what they do but what they are that drives the plot forward – and that doesn’t count. I disqualified this because you can apply exactly the same traits to an inanimate object.

What a character needs to pass this round is pretty simple, which is why most of them tend to do well on this question. All you need is a couple of instances where you can show that her decisions – not her position – has a direct impact on the plot, and you’ll pass this round.

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

This was the question that tended to read most like a gender studies essay, liberal use of gifs aside. This is par for the course, considering what you really need to answer this question properly is a strong knowledge of tropes and clichés. I included this question because stereotypes are still pretty commonplace in fiction, and still have an affect on real women’s lives. It’s not just lazy to build a character using only stereotypes – it can have a very negative impact on how real people are perceived.

Look at how the story draws on traditional stereotypes. Your first step should be to see if there’s any present (and there usually are). These can take many different forms including character traits, story arcs and motivation. Is your character a pretty, shallow high school girl? Is your character a princess waiting to be rescued? Is your character’s only purpose in life to find and marry a nice man? Any one of these three is a stereotype, but they all relate to different aspects of a character’s role within a story. To properly look for stereotypes you’ll have to look at all aspects of the character and see how they compare to traditional beliefs about women.

Having identified your stereotypes, your next step should be to look at how the story treats them. If they are just repeated verbatim, then odds are the character won’t pass this round. But if the stereotypes are used subversively you’re in with a better chance. Subverting tropes can be a really interesting way of commenting on traditional roles and expectations, and there’s no better place to do this than in fiction. Does the shallow high school girl use judgemental behaviour as an outlet for her insecurities? Does the princess waiting to be rescued end up manipulating her captors? Does the woman trying to find a husband have to marry to save something else she cares about? All of these undermine traditional gender-based narratives. By allowing characters to break out of these boxes, writers can not only produce more original content but also create more interesting characters.

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Go, kitties! Be free! (image: giphy.com)

It’s also very important to consider the character from an intersectional point of view. It would be naïve to assume that all female characters are subject to the same stereotypes, so it’s important to bear any other stereotypes which may affect them in mind. When I was writing these posts I often had to supplement this with extra research – I’m a young, straight white woman, so I didn’t have direct experience of some of the clichés I was writing about. Race, sexuality, disability and age all have direct affects on how real women are perceived, and so these affects need to be noted when you’re looking at fictional characters. In some cases they can completely change the meaning and implications of stereotypes. For example, you might think that a woman who spends a whole film waiting for her husband to come and rescue her would fall prey to some pretty old-fashioned gender stereotypes. But this is essentially the role of Broomhilda in Django Unchained, and Kerry Washington makes the point that this is quite subversive, as the role of damsel in distress has historically been denied to black women. Washington, who studied slave narratives at university, makes some very eloquent points on how race can affect a character’s role, and I would really encourage you to read her article.

To sum up: check for stereotypes, see how they’re treated, and always bear intersectionality in mind. And prepare yourself for a lot of head-scratching.

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

As most of you guessed, this question is based on the Bechdel Test. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test was invented in 1985, and originally only applied to movies. There’s three rules: the film must contain two female characters, who must talk to each other, about something that isn’t a man (or boy). There’s also a handy cartoon:

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)
Ta-dah! (image: en.wikipedia.org)

The test has been widely used and discussed ever since then but the basic principles remain the same. I adapted it slightly for my version, because as many people have pointed out over the years, you can still pass the Bechdel Test and be sexist. Your first step should obviously be to see how many other female characters your character interacts with. Obviously, if there aren’t any other female characters then that’s an automatic fail.

A general rule of thumb is the more female characters you have, the better. In recent years there’s been a trend to include two female characters in a group instead of just one. This is a step forward, but if there’s only one other female character that can lead to problems of its own. What often happens is the two female characters are used as a contrast: the tomboy and the girly girl, the party animal and the stick in the mud, the innocent virgin and the temptress. This is something that should really be avoided. It reduces women into one of two groups, and depending on how one or the other is treated, can reinforce some pretty old-fashioned ideas about women. Take a look at one of the many Dracula adaptations. There are two named female characters, Mina and Lucy. Lucy is almost always portrayed as a flirt, and Mina is almost always shown to be shy and demure. Mina gets to escape death and lead a happy life – Lucy pretty much always dies horribly and then has to get staked through the heart. It’s not hard to draw some pretty unfortunate conclusions from a story like that. The best way to avoid falling into this trap is to include more than one other female character.

Next, you should look at how the characters interact. If they spend the whole story fighting over a man, or getting jealous of each other’s dresses, then you’re probably going to fail here too. But if they interact in different ways depending on each other’s actions and motivations, you’re probably onto a winner. The best relationships between female characters take this into account. The ideal would be something like Buffy, where there’s a range of different female characters. This allows for different kinds of relationships to be displayed – everything from friendship to enmity to romance – and the characters’ actions and decisions have a direct impact on the tone of these relationships. They grow with the characters, and that’s what makes it work so well.

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That’s it Xander, just stand at the back while I make my point. (image: avclub.com)

So there you have it! That is how to use the test. Hopefully some of you will find it helpful. If you tweak the questions slightly, you can also use the test for male characters too. I’ve found that leaving out questions 5 and 10 and changing the pronouns for the rest will usually cover most characters fairly well.

And that’s it for my Strong Female Characters series. But it’s not the end of this blog. I’ll be starting up two new series: one where I’ll talk about general trends in fiction and storytelling and another, sillier one called Book Recipes. There’ll be a new post every two weeks, so watch this space!

I’ll kick things off with the first Book Recipe – How to Write a Military SF novel. Bring your lasers.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters

The Problem with Strong Female Characters

It seems like I can’t go two steps without tripping over an ad for the latest instalment of The Hunger Games movie franchise. Granted, this may be because I still haven’t mastered the ability to avoid tripping over my own feet, but the point still stands. The Hunger Games is everywhere, and Jennifer Lawrence – playing the famously strong-willed heroine, Katniss Everdeen – scowls out from every poster with a determined look on her face.

Katniss's SRS BSNS face.
SRS BSNS. (image: screencrush.com)

This got me thinking. Since the book’s release, Katniss Everdeen has been widely acknowledged as a Strong Female Character. When critics point to examples of her strength, most of the evidence they present is based around the scenes that show Katniss kicking ass and taking names in the arena. This is by no means a trend that is limited to The Hunger Games – more often than not, the characters praised for being Strong Female Characters are the ones who can grind their enemies into paste.

But does this actually make them strong?

We live in a world where feminism is becoming more and more acceptable, and where writers, directors and artists are making more of a conscious effort to include women in their narratives. The easiest way to do this is to put a token woman in a team of male heroes – I’m looking at you, Avengers – and to make her really good at fighting.

This is not characterisation. We need more well-developed, realistic female characters in fiction, and martial arts skills are not a substitute for a personality.

So how many women in fiction are well-developed, well-rounded characters, and how many just have a really good right hook where their personality should be?

Well, I’m going to find out.

I’m going to be starting a weekly series of blog posts where I look at popular female characters in fiction and determine whether they’re really as developed and well-rounded as everyone says they are. To help with my analysis, I’ll be subjecting each character to the following questions:

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
  2. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
  3. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
  4. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
  5. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
  6. Does she develop over the course of the story?
  7. Does she have a weakness?
  8. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
  9. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
  10. How does she relate to other female characters?

If they get more than eight out of ten, they’ll have passed my test. If they don’t, I’m going to sit in the corner and cry.

Let’s get started. Katniss Everdeen, I’m coming for you.