First name, last name, or both for characters?

Coming up with a name for characters can be one of the hardest tasks for a fiction writer. Once you’ve got the first name picked, do you stop there? Do your characters need to have last names? What about middle names? Names are one of the little writing speed bumps (they slow you down, but don’t stop you like writer’s block).

For me, a name is part of the holy trinity of elements I need before I can start drafting a story. The other two parts are the main character’s identity and what goal they have to accomplish. The name is usually the last part I come up with. It sets the tone for the character and his or her story. Because of that, I give all major and secondary characters first and last names. Minor people in the background tend to have one or the other, depending on how their reference in dialogue.

First name only

A character’s first name is probably going to get the most use. Friends and family will use this name in dialogue. It’s the name readers will forever associate with your story, for better or for worse. Best case: they name their pets after your character. Worst case: a red flag goes up in their head whenever they see or hear the name again. The latter might not happen if you use non-traditional names or make up your own.

Let’s say you visit an etymology website to find a real name. If you choose a first name based on its meaning, root word, or region of origin, those elements contribute to the character’s identity. It’s a little thing not every reader will search on their own. Those who do will feel like they’re part of an inside joke with the writer.

The Office inside joke meme; switzy thoughts first name blog

You might stop there. If it never makes sense for anyone to refer to your character by their last name — out of respect or derision — that could be a good idea. But before you move on, consider what else a last name could define about the character.

The lack of a last name could even be plot related. If your character is searching for their identity (for some form of catharsis, or to solve a story-relevant bout of amnesia), the revelation of a last name would be one of the pieces of the puzzle.

Last name only

Without tags or titles like Mr., Mrs., Dr., Duke, or Supreme Overlord, the lack of a character’s first name could be lost on readers. In and out of dialogue, using only the last name functions much the same as using the first name only.

If the character belongs to a famous or infamous family, their last name becomes name, identity, and reputation all at once. When other characters refer to this character by their family name, they assume he is just like the rest of them. It’s a good source of conflict if the character is the black sheep of the family, but a first name becomes almost necessary then. He’s not just a Lannister; he’s Tyrion Lannister.

The lack of a first name could also be part of the quest for identity I mentioned earlier. A character who is always referred to by their last name might search for something to set them apart. If the name comes from their occupation or station, the first name is how you pick out Jon and Ramsay from the rest of the bastards in the north.

leeroy jenkins, jon snow, battle of the bastards, game of thrones
The North (and the internet) will always remember. Source: Imgur

First and last names (middle optional)

Together, a first name and a last name create a unique title that refers only to your character. It also offers you an opportunity to characterize relationships by which name other characters use. Harry and Draco aren’t chummy, and it shows in the clipped way they call each other “Potter” and “Malfoy.” But Draco tends to use last names even for his friends.

Continuing the Harry Potter metaphor, I’ll point out that Draco’s use of last names only is different from the way most people refer to the Hogwarts staff by their last name. In conversation with the staff, students use the respectful title “professor” before the last name. In more casual conversation, they don’t use the first name because it’s not part of the identity they associate with their interactions with that person.

harry potter, minerva mcgonagall, hogwarts
Source: Wikipedia

If that sounds complicated, try thinking about your own teachers or college professors. Despite having a more personal/friendly relationship with some of my professors, it’s uncomfortable using their first names. I either use their last name, their full name, or — when talking to them directly — try to avoid using any name at all. When all else fails, I resort to simply calling them “professor.”

But that’s a real-life example of how a character’s use of another’s name defines the relationship. By giving a character a first name or last name only, you miss out on this layer in your writing.

Perhaps the most famous story to make use of the importance of both first and last name is Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s not exactly subtle, either:

‘Tis but they name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.

[Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Act 2, Scene 2.]

How do you use a character’s first name and last name within your story?

Writing Wednesday: An excerpt from The Thieves of Traska

I’ve been working a lot lately on developing one of the side characters in The Thieves of Traska, and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. For Writing Wednesday Thursday this week, I wanted to share part of Claire’s first conversation with her rival, Travis Sharp.*


She felt behind her for a moment before locking the door. “I figured we might bump into each other again, so I wanted to know exactly who I’d made an enemy of.”

“Not me, that’s for certain. Why don’t you have a seat?” He gestured to a plush sofa with velvet cushions. She sank into it, hoping she would leave some dirt behind. Or at least a lot of blood if he kills me while I’m sitting on it, she thought, fighting to suppress a smile. Fortunately, the dark-haired rogue thought it was for him. “See? No reason we can’t be pleasant.”

“Didn’t you mention selling me as a slave?” she asked dryly.

“I’ve been known to have questionable judgement when I’ve been drinking. Then again, that’s how I’ve met all my best friends.” He gently touched the edges of a gash over one blue eye, wincing slightly. Even with his face sliced and swollen, his easy smile threatened to put her at ease. She steeled herself against it, refusing to forget for even one moment that her life was in danger. “Where’s that fellow you were with earlier?”

Claire looked down at her feet, as if her muddy shoes could provide her with a lie. Surprisingly, they did. “He drowned in the river. I thought he could swim.”

She peeked up at him, but it was impossible to tell whether or not he believed her. Her heart sank as he closed and locked the window behind him, then sat across the room from her on a cushioned stool. From his indulgent smile, she knew he wasn’t fooled. Strangely, he didn’t press the matter. Instead, he asked to see her hands.

“Why?” The change in subject caught her off guard, her mask of calm slipping.

“I’d feel better knowing if you’re hiding a knife.” Letting him know she had nothing to give her an edge was the last thing she wanted to do, but there was no real alternative. Sighing, she held both hands up, flashing the backs and her palms until he nodded. “I was surprised the Messenger came to rescue you. Not many redheaded girls among his lot, and I’d never seen you before.”

“And you know every redhead in Traska?”

He laughed, resting his elbows on his knees. The indulgent smile was back. “I know you’re not with him or the Crows. See, they’ve all got this mark on their hands.” He pinched the skin between his forefinger and thumb, showing were the mark would be. She felt the blood drain out of her face with the realization of how much she’d given away. Perhaps revealing she wasn’t with this man’s enemies would be enough to save her life.

“I’d bet my left hand that boy came to help you for a reason,” he continued. “And I’m sure he’s the reason why you’re here, giving you a little test. I’m thinking he wants to recruit you. If you’ve caught his eye, maybe I ought to get to know you a little better.”

“Not interested,” she said flatly. “I don’t like people who threaten me.”

“There’s no need to take it personally. We’re on opposite sides of the board, but we’re just pieces. The moves aren’t up to us.”

*This scene is new to this draft, so will likely see many changes in the future. Any and all feedback is appreciated.

Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?

I’ve been looking around for The Abomination to continue my series of posts heckling my first attempt at a novel, but I misplaced the manuscript while cleaning this summer. Like most objects of extreme evil/stupidity, it’s bound to turn up. However, I did find a detailed critique from the one person who actually read the first draft of my second novel attempt. One of the points of what was wrong with it was “Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?”

This story had very few side characters. Good, bad — zilch. The few it had only existed as long as they were in the main character’s line of sight. Out of sight was out of the novel.

Aside from creating a few logical flaws (a large ship should have a skeleton crew at the very least, not just the only two people in the world opposed to mass genocide), it got boring. The whole thing became about the main conflict between the main protagonists and antagonists — dramatic, to be sure, but overbearing without side characters to provide well-timed distractions.

Side characters are a great source of conflict. In a perfect (or halfway decent) novel, no one gets along perfectly. Real people don’t, either. There are love triangles all over the place. Not all are the traditional sort:

Fighting over affections. With any blend of genders, you can have two people in love with the same person. Whether they started out as friends or enemies, everything from personal hygiene to physical prowess becomes a competition.

Fighting over attention. Not all triangles involve love. Maybe you have two candidates for a promotion and both want to impress their supervisor. Maybe the sorcerer from Over the Mountains needs a Chosen One and he’s holding tryouts.

Fighting over Object of Power. Everyone and their second cousin twice removed was after the One Ring — no shortage of conflict there. And how many people wanted to get the four stones in The Fifth Element? A lot. Or maybe the Object of Power is a floppy disc or a cell phone.

Fighting over property. Take your pick from large and small scale: land, livestock, jewelry, keys, pens, staplers, seats in the cafeteria… As a bit of a possessive freak, I can assure you that even touching something someone has claimed can begin a duel to the death.

Fighting over nothing. Ever disagree with someone just to spite them? They might be right, but damned if you’ll admit it! Your characters can be that way, too. Maybe that guy slept with your hero’s sister’s gardener and now the hero hates that guy no matter what he does. Or he just doesn’t like people who smell like chicken and have beards.

A well-placed diversion from the main plot gives depth to all your characters — readers see them in a less critical situation — and a breath to your readers. It might even add tension to the main conflict. If your character’s embezzlement scheme is about to be discovered, she really doesn’t want to argue about all the pens she borrowed and never gave back to that guy in the office who will not let her leave until all his pens have been returned.

Just make sure you’ve set it up throughout the story and have her dump all her stolen pens into a safety deposit box or something. Then it will make sense.

Reader-response time on The Thieves of Traska excerpt!

As I mentioned earlier this week, I wrote a brief scene in The Thieves of Traska that has me conflicted. While writing it, I didn’t go into too much detail because the action and violence wasn’t the focus. But that little editor voice we all have in our heads won’t let me proceed until I figure out whether it reads like it should, or like the writer downed too much coffee too late in the day and just blazed through before bed. And it also shouldn’t read like I’m putting Claire through the wringer just to win some sympathy points.

That’s where you all come in! Please read through the scene and leave a comment!


A shadow moved through the light seeping through the cracks around the door, and before Claire could reach for it, the door swung open. With his arms crossed, the muscles built by years of hard labor bulging ominously, Reed filled the doorway. His lips were pressed together in a thin line, his face almost as red as his hair.

A lump formed in her throat. Had she really hoped he wouldn’t already know what she’d done? Stupid. Reed always knew what she was up to.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

Cold fear trickled down her spine. She almost wished she was back in the windowless cell. “I came home.” She winced inwardly; she sounded weak even in her own ears.

“You think I’d let a lying thief sleep under my roof?” He crossed the distance between them in three strides and took her by the shoulders, shaking her. “Do you?” She shook her head mutely. She knew where she’d be sleeping tonight. “Filth like you belongs in a gutter.”

She closed her eyes when he drew his hand back. She felt each stinging blow, felt the blood on her face, and eventually the cold ground under her cheek. One eye cracked open, searching for Reed’s blurred outline in the darkness. He was there, one hand around her ankle as he dragged her to a nearby tree. Without a word, he propped her up against it and tied her hands on the other side of the trunk. It was always the same whenever he caught her stealing; he’d make her return whatever it was, then she spent the night tied to this tree. In the morning, she’d go back to work in the fields.

She rested her head against the tree, clarity slowly returning. “Reed,” she croaked. “What happened with Garrison?” Silence stretched on so long, she thought he’d already gone inside. Then she heard his voice right in her ear.

“I told you he was arrested.” He paused. “Did you see him while you were in jail?” She nodded weakly, wincing at the bark grating her face. “I would have thought they’d hanged him already.”

“Tomorrow,” she said. “The jailor said he’d hang tomorrow morning.”

“Good. There’s a rope for every mangy thief in the world. I’m glad he’s found his. And if you ever try stealing anything ever again, I’ll put the rope around your neck myself.”

She heard quiet footsteps and sighed in relief that he was leaving. Darkness was starting to drag her under, and she welcomed it. Rest called to her, and not even the pained cries and sounds of fighting nearby would keep her from it.


Writing Process Blog Tour

Dave Higgins invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour (and, incidentally, wrote the best bio paragraph of me I’ve ever read). I greatly enjoy Dave’s writing and his input, and I’m glad he’s given me this opportunity to ramble on about my writing process.

What am I working on?

The main focus of my efforts is The Thieves of Traska. I finished the first run-through two months ago and am currently filling in gaps and fixing plot holes.

Last week, I started a side project called Asra the Shade. It centers on one of the side characters in The Thieves of Traska, and was originally going to be a webcomic to help promote the full novel. However, since the all the sequential artists I’ve contacted have fallen through, I decided to turn the story into a novella.

My self-imposed deadline for The Thieves of Traska is fall 2015, but I fully expect to have Asra the Shade done first.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I tend not to peg a genre first. Sometimes it’s obvious (Alien invasion? Smells like science fiction!), but other times I just work with the idea and figure out the genre later. With The Thieves of Traska, I wasn’t clear on what genre it fell into at first. It’s certainly an adventure and it has action, but the locations are all made up. It’s currently resting in fantasy, but I’m a bit hesitant to call it that.

Our protagonist is, as the title implies, a thief. Her successes are all based on breaking laws and doing bad things. Even so, she has a strong moral compass. She still steals things and gets into fights—and doesn’t feel guilty about any of it—but she’s dedicated to doing the right thing for the other thieves, even if they’ll resent her for it.

Why do I write what I do?

I like the antiheroes—the people who do bad things for a (relatively) good reason, but also have something to gain. It creates tension between selfishness and selflessness that’s fun to play with.

With The Thieves of Traska, I really wanted to write about a thief. Instead of having her realize the error of her ways, give up thieving and do something for the greater good of humanity, I wanted her actions to be for the greater good of bad without being “evil.” I spend a lot of time thinking about morality and where the line is in various situations. It’s something I like to put my characters through and see what compromises they make.

How does my writing process work?

Each project begins with some random little inspirational nugget (if you’ve ever had a bug fly into your eye, it feels pretty much like that). After a couple hours, I usually have a name for the main character or some basic idea of who they are and what the main conflict of the story is. Hopefully I have a title, but I’m seldom that lucky.

For The Thieves of Traska, the first half of that inspirational nugget was the name Mackinley. I had a roommate last year with that name, and I really wanted to name a character after her. The second half came when I was walking home from my fiction writing class. I’d been plotting a short story about a thief for my next assignment when it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried writing a full-length novel about a thief. It was kind of mind blowing since I love thief characters.

There’s a lot of writing in my notebook after that. I get a basic outline of the beginning, an idea of where it might end, and I’ve probably changed the main character’s name a few times. (Fun fact: Claire’s name used to be Adelaide. It changed after I read the first chapter aloud and discovered how much I hate saying “Adelaide” repeatedly.)

From there, I just write the scenes in order. I tend to skip over a lot of setting description and the “breather” scenes between plot points. Once I get to the penultimate chapter, I stop writing. I let it sit for a couple weeks, then start revising.

This is when I fix the plot holes, add in descriptions, set up the mood of scenes, add filler bits, etc. Once I’ve gotten through that, I can write the ending.

Hopefully this insight has got you curious and not sent you running for the hills. Time to hand it over to some other writers:

 Jordanna East – Journey of Jordanna East

Jordanna East is a wonderful person and author of the infuriatingly delicious thriller books Blood in the Past and Blood in the Paint. She’s something of a role model for me, and I sincerely hope you’ll mosey on over to her blog and check out the latest with her.

Cassidy Frazee – Wide Awake But Dreaming

Ms. Frazee identifies herself as a Roleplaying God and a bit of a nut, but what writer isn’t? She has delightful posts on her blog, and she can also be found frequently posting in the NaNoWriMo Facebook group. I’m looking forward to seeing what great things she brings us.

Tristan Lueck – The Aberration

old-manTristan is a fellow SCAD student from the writing department, as well as my future roommate in the fall. She’s sent me a bit of her novel-in-progress and I can say I like where it’s going (but I won’t spoil any of it for you!). Blogging is a new practice for her and she’s still getting into the hang of it, but her posts are well worth the wait.

The Thieves of Traska Giveaway Winners!

The giveaway has ended, and I’m happy to announce that Hannah Jones is the winner of the prize package! And since the giveaway only got 89 entries, that means there is a second-place winner. That is Meagan Corrado! She is going to get three customized Molskine journals, featuring some of the characters from The Thieves of Traska.

Thank you to everyone who entered! For those of you who didn’t win, don’t worry. I’m already planning the next giveaway and assembling the prizes.

In the meantime, thanks again to everyone who participated and to all my readers!

Another Thieves of Traska Excerpt (and a giveaway update!)

Have you entered my giveaway yet? If not, don’t panic! There’s still plenty of time. For those of you who have entered, I have two things to say to you. 1) I’m blown away by the amount of entries already. Truth be told, I expected maybe 25 total by the deadline, but it’s more than double that. Thank you so much! 2) Please don’t be a party pooper and click that you commented on the giveaway post when you really didn’t. I and the rest of the world can see who actually commented and whose pants are on fire.

On to the excerpt! Some of you had a chance to read the previous excerpt long before I posted it, so here’s something new to the second draft!


Claire chewed her lip. She was in enough trouble as it was; did she really want to dig herself a deeper hole by breaking out of jail? When Garrison started coughing again, she revised her question: Did she want to let him die even if Reed wasn’t responsible?

“What do I need to do?”

In hushed tones, he instructed her to pull two thin strips of wood from the walls and break them into short, sturdy lengths. Her hands shook the entire time. She slid her hands back through the bars and inserted her makeshift picks into the lock on the other side. Garrison kept quiet while she worked, allowing her to focus.

She held her breath, making slight adjustments with every sound at her fingertips. Her arms ached as she worked, growing heavier as the candle burned lower and lower. Sweat gathered at her scalp. She pressed her face against the bars, thankful for the cool metal. The refreshing chill it sent down her spine crept into her fingers, revitalizing their deftness.

A satisfying click and the lock gave.

“Sounds like a job well done,” Garrison said cheerfully.

“Not quite,” she whispered back. She withdrew the picks and pushed on the door gently, a thrill of excitement going through her as it opened. Pulling it shut again, she put as much misery in her voice as she could muster and called out to the guards. “Do you have any more water in there?”

Some grumbling came from the next room before the door swung open again. It remained open, as it had before, the sudden light painful to her eyes. When the familiar outline appeared in the doorway, she looked past it to the other guard. At least there were only two.