Self-Myths in Character Building

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgYesterday, I wrote about self-myths and the “I’m not” sentences we sometimes blithely—and other times insightfully—use to describe ourselves.

I joked that I’m not good at math. My neighbor, a pediatrics ICU nurse, uses algebra all the time at her job. She likes numbers, and I’m glad she does. You want someone who enjoys algebra calculating your meds. Someone who is not me. Continue reading “Self-Myths in Character Building”

Who wants what? A character exercise

RamonaGravitarWhat does your character want? This is one of those helpful—or irritating—questions writers are asked at workshops or by editors. The question is meant to make you, the author, dig deeply into your character’s soul to discover what drives him/her to do all the crazy things they do in their fictional world.

You created this character, so answering “What does he/she want?” should be a snap, right?

Ha ha.

Continue reading “Who wants what? A character exercise”

7 Maladies That Will Sicken Your Writing

RamonaGravitarThe body is a temple, a key to the soul. In fiction, a character’s body can reveal emotion and habits, but this can go awry. Below are seven body functions that can creep into writing in clichéd, ineffective, and colorless ways to weaken your prose.

Continue reading “7 Maladies That Will Sicken Your Writing”

How To Test a Character’s Character

What is character? According to Merriam-Webster online, one definition of character is: the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation <the character of the American people>

In fiction, as in real life, character is demonstrated by actions and choices. In my ongoing pretend novel, Bad Sale, a man’s character is put to task when he is tricked by a childhood friend into performing an almost illegal act. His instinct is to be law-abiding and honest, but just as strong is his instinct to help his troubled friend. Continue reading “How To Test a Character’s Character”

A Person of Value*

A couple of years ago, at our annual neighborhood holiday party, I reached across the crab dip and said hello to my down-the-street neighbor Max.

“Max!” I said. “I never see you and Rhonda anymore. How are you enjoying retirement?”

Max shoved a cracker into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and then frowned at me.

“Who are you?” he said. Continue reading “A Person of Value*”

A Hero Named Sue

The story hero is rich, charming, and handsome, with a tragic past: his parents eloped and died young, so when we meet him, he’s a lonely orphan being raised by a stern grandfather.

To his good fortune and our delight, he is adopted by a neighbor family full of girls, who treat him as a playmate and pseudo—brother. As he grows up, we see he can be shy at parties, but will happily dance away from the crowded ballroom; he is a scamp and a lazy student, but in turn can be considerate and brave. He has a mercurial, musical side that comes from his Italian mother. All in all, he’s a wonderfully written character.

When he is old enough, he falls in love, but alas! The young lady of his choosing turns down his proposal. Broken-hearted and bitter, he runs off to Europe to flex his inner dilettante. Eventually, his true self – the good boy – emerges again when he falls for another young lady—his first love’s baby sister!

As we have seen throughout the story, despite our hero’s many attributes, nothing comes easily for him. His new love insists he prove himself worthy, mature, and steadfast. Again to his good fortune and our delight, he does, and marries her, and returns to her family, where he has always belonged.

He sounds like the perfect romantic hero, doesn’t he? He’s got it all: tragedy, potential, redemption. If there is one thing wrong with this hero, it’s his name.


In case you have not already guessed, Laurie is short for Theodore Laurence, the romantic boy-brother-lover of Little Women.

When I read Little Women as a young girl, I fell in love with Laurie. I’d already fallen in love with Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables, and would soon fall in love with Marius Pontmercy of Les Miserables, so my penchant for falling for good boys was firmly entrenched.

But while Gilbert may not be the most testosteroney moniker around, and Marius is, well, French, neither gives a modern reader quite as much pause as Laurie.

Because, face it—Laurie is a girl’s name. In 1868, when the first half of Little Women was published, perhaps a feminine nickname for a male character was acceptable. Jo sometimes called him Teddy, which was slightly better, I suppose, but for the most part, he remained Laurie.

This makes me wonder. In 2012, can a male hero have a girl’s name?

Think of the last novels you’ve read. What is the hero’s name? Jake, Jack, Russ, Dave, Joe, Moe, Mike, Mick, Nick, Will, Jim, Luke, Walt, Ranger. One syllable (except for Ranger) and a manly man’s name.

There are times when I open a novel and see one of the above names, and I am reminded of the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Gus introduces his nieces and nephews: “Anita, Diane and Nick. Anita, Diane, and Nick. Nick, Nick. Nicko. Nick. Nicky.”

I have nothing against Jake, Jack, or Joe, or Nick, Nicko, and Nicky, but wouldn’t it be great to have some two syllable names in there? Even, gasp!, an occasional Laurie?

There’s an old Johnny Cash song called “A Boy Named Sue.” Sue’s dad abandoned him and left him with a girl’s name, which seemed like an added cruelty. Salt in the wound. Poor Sue had to fight his whole life: “My name is Sue. How do you do? You’re gonna die!”

It made for a cute song, but it made Sue strong and tough. Would he have been so resilient if he was called Mike?

If we are interested in challenging a male hero, think about the extra challenge of being saddled with a girl’s name.

So, I’m curious. Must your manly hero have a manly name?  Would you be okay with a tough guy named Laurie? Or Sue?


Officer Heck? Yeah!

Over the weekend, I had a fun little discussion with my pals at How Many Pages Did You Write Today? about character names. We tossed out ways to find good names (baby name books, spam files, newspaper stories) and how a character’s name may reveal something about the person. In the course of the discussion, I mentioned my character name pet peeve.

My character name pet peeve is the cop named Mike.

Mike must be the go-to name when inventing a police character because I run across fictional Officer Mikes all the time. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Following the idea that a name tells about the character, the abundance of Officer Mikes make sense, in that the patron saint of police officers is Saint Michael the Archangel.

St. Michael the Archangel is usually depicted with wings, a sword, and holding scales of justice. If you are raised as a Roman Catholic, you are taught this is because Michael is the sworn enemy of Satan and the leader of the Army of God. He is one of the angels present at the hour of death to protect the souls of the dying. On Judgment Day, Michael weighs a person’s record of good deeds. He is a guardian and protector of the Catholic Church.

Add all of that up–sword, scales, guardian, protector–and no wonder a child named Michael might grow up to be a cop. It may be a chicken and egg kind of thing–the classic self-fulfilling prophecy–and this is why I see so many manuscripts with Mikes running around protecting and serving.

But maybe it’s time to give Officer Mike a rest. I’d like to propose a new go-to name for cops.


Heck? Officer Heck? Are you laughing? Rolling your eyes?

Think about Sheriff Heck Tate, as portrayed by the character actor Frank Overton in the 1962 film, To Kill A Mockingbird.

In Harper Lee’s novel, Heck Tate doesn’t get a lot of page time. When he does appear, his actions are pivotal. It is Heck Tate who brings Tom Robinson to the next county to await trial, which shows how well the small town sheriff understands the mood and prejudices of the citizens in his jurisdiction.

It is Heck Tate who arrives with Atticus Finch when a mad dog is in the street. In this scene, Heck Tate acknowledges who is the better shot and asks Atticus to take down the dog. He puts aside whatever macho pride or male ego he may possess when he hands over that shotgun. He even teases Jem that didn’t he know his father was the best shot in Maycomb County–an important moment that lets the son see his father as an autonomous man, not just as a parent, for the first time.

It is Heck Tate who ultimately exercises what modern law enforcement calls officer discretion. Sheriff Tate has lived in Maycomb all of his life. He knows everyone in town. He obviously knows how to read a crime scene, even when his witnesses are an unconscious boy with a broken arm; a grown man hidden away for so long, he’s become mute; a scared little girl in a ham costume; and a dead man on the ground.

It is Heck Tate who knows what limelight would do to a shy fella like Boo Radley, and so it is Sheriff Heck Tate who fulfills his duty to protect Maycomb’s mockingbird.

“I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife.”

Let the dead bury the dead, is Heck Tate’s advice. Wise words, right? I wonder if this level of officer discretion would be possible today, or if Heck Tate would be the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation by the time the credits rolled?

But I digress.

If St. Michael the Archangel made Mike a good name for cops, Heck is no slouch in the meaning department. I will be a little presumptive here and assume Harper Lee meant Heck as a shortened form of Hector.

The name Hector is Greek. It means “holding fast.” In mythology, Hector was a fearless warrior prince, the older brother of Paris. Hector’s death during the Battle of Troy was a terrible blow to the Trojans, not only because he was a brave and fierce fighter, but because Hector was wholly honorable. After Hector was killed, Achilles, who killed him, dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot for twelve days in an attempt to shame and humiliate the noble Trojan prince, but even the gods admired Hector. They took pity on him in death and protected his body from abuse.

Eventually, the Trojan War was halted for twelve days so that the people of Troy could serve Hector with proper funeral rites. He is remembered in art and literature as one of the Nine Worthies.

Today, when a police officer dies in the line of duty, legions of his fellow officers participate in public, traditional funerals meant to honor the fallen officer for making the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know that this tradition goes back to the mythology of Hector, but it seems right.

So, Officer Heck. A fierce fighter whose name means “holding fast.” A person infused with honor. Someone prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. I would feel safe with such a man protecting my town. 


No Fair, Helena Bonham Carter!

If you watched last night’s Golden Globe Awards, you’ll probably agree that Helena Bonham Carter is a character.

What a quirky actress. I remember her as the young Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View; Ophelia in Hamlet and Olivia in Twelfth Night; the naughty Schlegel sister in Howard’s End; and Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove. That’s two Shakespeares, two E.M. Forsters and one Henry James.

Maybe that filled Helena’s quota of the classics, because then her roles got darker: Marla in Fight Club; Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd; and the darkest of them all, Bellatrix Lestrange.

Continue reading “No Fair, Helena Bonham Carter!”