Choosing character names; formatting a manuscript for online submission
Published: April 13, 2010
Q: Usually a character’s name just comes to me, but that’s not happening this time. I don’t know where to start. What should I do?
The pairing of name and character can seem like a mysterious process, even to the writer who hasn’t struggled with this in the past. The perfect name may simply appear with character or it may come while drafting the fiction. While such gifts can be lovely, you’re not out of luck if you have to start a search.
Name choices need as much believability as every other detail in your fiction. Think about your character’s background and ethnicity. What name would your character’s parents have chosen? The son of a miner in eastern Pennsylvania probably won’t go by the name Percy. He’s more likely to be a John or a Nick. That twenty-something socialite born to money on the Upper East Side of Manhattan? Perhaps Vivian or Serena. (And don’t forget last names. Astor or a Mortimer might work for that socialite.)
Names roar in and out of style. Check the Social Security Administration’s Web site to see choices—both popular and not—based on the year of birth. Any list of names can be great inspiration. There are plenty of books and online databases for parents-to-be that writers can explore, too. (A quick search of “baby names” will bring up hours worth of links to browse.) Phone books and company directories are other good sources.
Also, consider your character’s personality. You don’t want to be too straightforward: a blissful character named Joy, a botanist named Daisy, a runner named Rush. Underlying meaning isn’t always the best choice either. Sometimes the writer invests more in this than the reader. Still, a hearty, practical name like Jane might fit a character with the same traits.
While we can’t choose what our parents name us, we can certainly have our say after the fact. The same is true for your characters. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby features Gatsby, a man with a past. The name Gatsby rings with just the right sense of adventure and upper crust living he’s spent much of his life scheming to attain, certainly more so than his given name, James Gatz. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” the main character is dour. She legally changed her given name, Joy, to Hulga, a name that makes her mother think of “the broad blank hull of a battleship.” And some characters go by nicknames. In Nelson Algren’s novel The Man With the Golden Arm, Frankie Majcinek is called Frankie Machine because of his skill at dealing cards.
Think of some of the great character names in fiction: Randall McMurphy and Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Spiros Antonapoulos from Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the title character in Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A touch of flair can make a name truly memorable.
Q: I know that submitting a hard copy requires beginning the story halfway down the first page. Should an on-line submission be done the same way?
There’s no need to change format when submitting online. Prepare your manuscript using industry standards just as you normally would when submitting through the mail. These formatting quirks aren’t just for fun; they make the manuscript clear and readable and help editors quickly find information. Knowing and using these standards also signals that you’re professional about your writing.
So, what is the standard manuscript format? Prose manuscripts should be double-spaced with margins of an inch to an inch and a quarter. Don’t get fancy with the font. Stick with something common, like Times. The first page of the story should include your name, contact information, and the title. (That’s the short answer. For more details on the particulars of preparing submissions, see the past column on manuscript formatting.)
Of course, if a journal’s guidelines stipulate different expectations, make sure to follow them. Standard rules always come second to any special directions from the journal itself.
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Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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