What’s Your Backstory?

Backstory adds color and shading to a fictional world and characters

Backstory is “a history or background, especially one created for a fictional character in a motion picture or television program” (Oxford Languages, via Google). Backstory is important in fiction, but not necessary. You can tell a perfectly good tale that just stays in the here and now, especially if it’s in a genre that relies heavily on action and/or tension, like horror or thrillers. However, mentioning events that happen before the book begins helps readers to flesh out those bare bones of character and world development; it brings nuance and makes the story part of something bigger, extending beyond the pages.

I “researched’ the subject (and by “research”, I mean I did a brief internet dive) and found plenty of articles and posts on how to write backstory, but very little on what sort of backstory a novel actually needs. And because not all backstory serves the same purpose, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few different types. 

1. The Aragorn Son of Arathorn Backstory: these are the epic ‘big picture’ backstories that shape everything that takes place in a book. This sort of backstory works like a prequel. Think of The Lord of the Rings, and how the War of the Last Alliance and Isildur’s death set the stage for Frodo’s quest. Aragorn is the walking, talking, sword-fighting, horse-riding embodiment of this type of backstory, and his introduction to J.R.R Tolkien’s epic brings past and present together. Tolkien even gives us a backstory within a backstory, with brief mentions of older times, like backstory nesting dolls.

I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar the Elfstone, Dunadan. The heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! 

J.R.R Tolkien, The Two Towers

2. The As You Know Bob Backstory: sometimes, especially with the sort of sweeping worldbuilding you get in epic fantasy and really big space operas, you just need a reader to understand. A skilled author can manage this without making it look like a misplaced lecture (avoiding the ‘as you know, Bob’ trap). This is slightly different from the big picture backstory, as it’s not a prequel, exactly, but more an encyclopedic footnote to make sure everyone knows what’s going on. It’s usually handled discreetly and blends in with the story, but this sort of backstory can become a feature in of itself. Douglas Adams used this masterfully in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

3. The My Name is Inigo Montoya Backstory: these are backstories that serve mainly to add depth and motivation to characters. These are usually drip-fed slowly at the right moments in order to help readers understand, emphasize, and connect with the characters. William Goldman played around with this hilariously in The Princess Bride with Inigo Montoya, a character who is basically just backstory. For less comedic examples, think superhero origin stories (Batman, anyone?), or how Disney took Maleficent and, in the movie of the same name, turned a cardboard cut-out villain into a sympathetic character with a very real reason to be angry at the world.

Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

4. The I Am Your Father Backstory: this one is a subset of the Inigo Montoya backstory, but focuses on a Big Reveal moment that serves as a plot twist. This is the catalyst for a kaleidoscope moment, when everything changes and the picture shuffles around into something quite different. Luke and Darth Vader’s scene in The Empire Strikes Back is an iconic one, not only twisting Luke’s past into something new, but changing the direction of his future — a future where he must not only learn to be a Jedi, but understand why his father lost his way and how he can avoid the same trap. Vader’s classic (and often misquoted) line was beautifully subverted in the 1987 movie Spaceballs, turning an important bit of backstory into something essentially meaningless.

Dark Helmet: I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.

Lone Star: So what does that make us?

Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing!

Spaceballs

5. The Just Like Budapest Backstory: the quirky little mentions that are never really fully developed and could be removed entirely without harming the story, but that hint at a much larger picture than we get a chance to see, adding color and shading. Think of the throwaway mention of Budapest by Clint and Natasha in The Avengers, that wonderfully enticing sliver of their past. I’m actually sorry that we finally got the story behind Budapest in Black Widow. Sometimes it’s nice to just…wonder. This sort of backstory delights in acting as a sort of teaser trailer, allowing us to imagine that the characters have lived a life far vaster than this small part the author is sharing with us. 

The above are some of the main types of backstory you might want to include in your work. Do you need backstory? And how much? That’s up to you, and will depend on your writing style and the type of project you’re working on.

Food and Drink in Sci Fi and Fantasy

When I was young, I was fascinated by mentions of food in children’s books, especially in stories written long before I was born. I remember marveling at World War I-era fare in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (1930-1947) and the endless picnics in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books (1942-1963), which always seemed to include fresh tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, and massive slices of fruit cake.

As a grown-up, I still find mentions of food in books fascinating, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Even commonplace meals gain a strange and otherworldly aspect when tossed into a vast fantasy saga or a thrilling space opera. For instance, take a look at this description of a centaur’s breakfast in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omlette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he tends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing indeed.”

The Silver Chair — C.S. Lewis

But food and drink often move past sustenance and become key plot devices. Countless drops of poison have been administered in handy flagons of ale or goblets of wine; feasts have gathered enemies for slaughter; assassins have burst out of cakes to gun down their targets. And when it comes to politics, mealtime conversation and table manners can cut as sharp and deadly as swords on the battlefield, winning or losing crucial ground for those involved.

In The Martian by Andy Weir, a good deal of the shipwrecked-on-Mars saga revolves around food: how to make it last, and how to farm enough potatoes to survive until rescue. One of my favorite examples of food and drink as a plot device, however, is Arthur Dent’s search for the perfect cup of tea in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Arthur’s desire for a decent brew escalates from amusing side joke to an epic quest that eventually takes over all of the ship computer’s processing power and lands the crew in a spot of hot water, pun intended. 

“No,” Arthur said, “look, it’s very, very simple… All I want… is a cup of tea. You are going to make one for me. Now keep quiet and listen.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams

Sometimes food can help move a plot forward, literally. After all, without the Elven lembas, the intrepid adventurers in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would have to stop to hunt and gather food, slowing down both the quest and the story pacing itself. And the addition of these handy marching rations leads to the running gag of the hobbits’ obsession with proper meals. (You can even make your own lembas: the internet is full of recipes, but this one by Tea With Tolkien looks particularly yummy.)

For a long time, speculative fiction, and especially fantasy, centered on Western cooking. Every inn served stew and beer, every traveler carried hunks of crusty farm bread in their saddlebags. Thankfully, fantasy in recent times has spread its wings beyond the Eurocentric model and now we can feast our imaginations on a whole range of delicious options. I have a critique partner whose wonderfully rich world draws heavily from different East Asian mythologies, and I love it when her badass reaper sips from delicate cups of jasmine tea, or her unruly kitsune gorges on steamed bao and mochi cakes. As for me, I’m working on a short story right now set in northeastern Brazil, where my characters breakfast on fresh bread rolls with Minas cheese and doce de leite, where fear is bitter as pitanga fruit, and joy tastes as rich and sweet as guava jam. 

Whether writers use meals to add color and shading to their worlds, to move their stories forward, or simply as a pause for their protagonists to catch their breath, it’s almost impossible not to include food and drink in fiction. After all, be the characters human or alien, I think we can all agree on one thing: everyone has to eat!

“Boys,” Annabeth interrupted, “I’m sure you both would’ve been wonderful at killing each other. But right now, you need some rest.”

“Food first,” Percy said. “Please?” 

The Mark of Athena — Rick Riordan

Summer 2021 Updates

We’re halfway through summer here in Connecticut, which means it’s time for another round of ‘what’s been happening in my world’…

Short Stories

Kraxon Magazine published another short of mine in April, The End of all Things; it’s free to read, so if you’re in the mood for a light-hearted take on the end of the world, click here to check it out! I have a few other stories published in Kraxon that you can read for free, including Ripped Away which was voted story of the year in 2015.

I have two more short stories coming out in anthologies this year. The first, Moon Under Mangroves, is in Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas (Hex Publishers) and should be out in October. This tale of aging, swamp crabs, and a cursed compass is set in the mangrove swamps outside the city of Santos, in Brazil, an hour from where I grew up. Click here to see the blurb and list of authors!

The other story, Taste of Honey, will be out later this year in a collaborative anthology put together by the women of DISTAFF, a sci fi anthology that was released in 2019. This time we’re turning to fantasy, with a collection of loosely fairy-related fiction called Femme Fae-Tales. I can’t wait to share my own tale of one woman’s addiction to wild magic, set right here in Connecticut. More information on the anthology will be available soon on the DISTAFF main site, here.

Last year, my short story The Sugar Cane Sea was published in Not All Monsters (Strangehouse Books). This year, the anthology made it all the way to the final ballot of the Bram Stoker horror fiction awards—we didn’t win, but it was still amazing to be a finalist! We’ve had some lovely reviews, and here are a few specific mentions for my story, from Goodreads:

“The Sugar Cane Sea” by Juliana Spink Mills will stick with me for a long time. Exquisite. 

The characters were written so well that I was left a little sad that I’d never get to meet them again.

I loved this one so much! I loved the characters, their love for one another, the bravery, and so much more. 

Novels

I’ve spent the past few months sending out queries for my most recent novel. A Perfect Void is about witches in modern day Boston, but with an alternate history past that includes two Witch Wars that shook the USA and the legacy that my main character, an aura reader and university professor, has to live with. I love this story so much!!! But I’m well aware that this is a tough time to query, with both agents and publishers dealing with the backlog of work that 2020 left behind. Still, I plan to keep going, and hopefully someone will love my witchy professor’s tale as much as I do.

Currently Working On…

I’m revising a short story that marks my first real dip into magical realism. It’s set in a small coastal tourist town in northeastern Brazil and includes pottery fish and soul stealing magic. I’m excited to start submitting this one, as it feels very close to my heart.

I’m also in the planning stages for a novella set in my hometown of São Paulo, inspired by the now-defunct tram lines that once crisscrossed the city.

Blog

After trying and failing to keep to a two-week blogging schedule, and then a few months of very sporadic posting, I’ve been focusing on a roughly three-week schedule which I’ve actually been managing to maintain. Two weeks was just too much, and a month between posts felt like a lot, so let’s see if three turns out to be the sweet spot! Three’s supposed to be the magic number, after all, right?

New Author Photos

I cut my hair really short, and you know what that means? New author pics! I’m very pleased with this latest batch of photos, and hope to use them for a good while before I need updates.

Personal

We recently took our vaccinated selves on a couple of mini family breaks. First up was Rhode Island/Cape Cod in June, and then in July, Salem and Boston. It felt so nice to get away for a little bit!

A Good Start

A good opening will tempt the reader to step into your world

Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.

There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:

  • Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
  • Establish the genre and/or target audience
  • Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
  • Introduce the setting
  • Give the reader a taste of backstory
  • Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.

You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.

Here are some examples:

Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)

I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.

This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. 

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Naomi Hughes, Afterimage

Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist. 

Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words

My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.

Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.

Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:

1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?

2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities. 

3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)

Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.

You Are Valid (and so is your writing)

I’m querying a fantasy novel right now, and anyone who has been through the query trenches knows how tough this is. It’s easy for our writer brains to understand in theory that rejections aren’t personal and are NOT a reflection on our writing skills, but our little writer hearts have trouble with this notion.

It’s not personal. But it feels personal. And that leads me (us) to some of the common traps that creatives fall into.

1. The My Work Is Bad trap. I mean, it might be? But it probably isn’t. If you’re serious enough about your craft to be looking up blog posts on writing, you’re most likely ahead of the game. And if you’re at the querying point, you should have revised multiple times, sought out feedback, and done your best to make your work as shiny as can be.

To get out of this trap, step away for a while. Go read other people’s work, and then come back and read a few random scenes from your own. I guarantee it’s probably way better than you remember!

2. The Imposter Syndrome trap. Guess what? You’re not alone. Pretty much everyone in the writing world suffers from Imposter Syndrome to some extent, no matter how successful they are. It’s that horrible feeling that you’re out of your depth, that you don’t belong, that you have no idea what you’re doing. So I repeat: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

There are so many ways to write and to publish, so many different people playing at this author game, so many forms of knowledge. The truth is, there is no truth. Just people who love writing getting along in life as best as they can. Your knowledge, your writing, your entire self is just as valid as Person X with twenty-five published novels. Trust in who you are, trust in your own truth, and trust in your place in this vast world of publishing.

3. The Everyone Is Doing Better trap. Seriously, brain? Seriously? This one is just pathetic. Terrible attempt at self-deprecation, zero stars, do not recommend. 

To escape this particular trap, there are two main tactics. The first is to gently remind yourself how far you’ve come as a writer. If you have published work, take a moment to bask in the glow of past achievements instead of getting stuck on the now and the future. If you haven’t published yet, look at feedback from critique partners and compare to feedback on early work. See how far you’ve come? (If you don’t have a critique partner yet, have a look at this post and this one.)

The second tactic is to remember how long it took some of your favorite authors to get published, or how hard some of your writer friends battled to get there. The publishing world would like us to believe in the myth of the overnight success, but the truth is that most writers travel a path littered with terrible drafts or trunked first novels, rejections, and horrible amounts of self-doubt. Even those who sold their very first novel may have spent years writing, revising, and pitching that novel. Take heart!

4. The I Am Not Valid Unless Someone Else Says So trap. Agents. Editors. Reviewers. Yes, we’d all like that stamp of approval that screams: ‘pro level publishing acknowledges this work’.

Yeah, this is a tough trap to get out of. Especially when you’re querying or on submission and it feels like your work is worth nothing without this approval. This, in fact, was the trap that got me started on this particular blog post. So I’m going to share what I did. Maybe it will help you—it certainly made me feel better.

Read through whatever it is you’re working on right now. Not the whole thing; maybe a favorite page or scene. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the rhythm and flow of words. Let it wash over you. Feel it in your heart. Feel it in every part of yourself. And repeat after me: I do not need anyone’s opinion to validate my work.

“But,” you say, “Juliana, what about rejections? What about critique feedback?”

Feedback is there to improve your work, not to invalidate it. Rejections do not invalidate your work, either. You validate your work. You are valid, you have worth, and so does your writing and your creative process. Take a deep breath. Believe. Now keep on writing.

Thank you, fortune cookie!

Recurring Themes in Writing

Your writing may vary wildly in style and scope. You may find yourself jumping genres or target audience, veering between contemporary and sci fi, or middle grade and adult. But if you take a moment to stop and have a good look at your writing projects—all of them, published or unpublished, polished or abandoned—you’ll most likely find a common thread. A theme (or two, or three), winding through all of those different projects and connecting them back to you, heart and soul.

About a month ago, I tweeted the following:

It was a jokey post, obviously, but there was a grain of truth in there, nevertheless. Who am I? Pretty much everything I’ve ever written contains something about identity and our place in the world. It could be literal, like in my YA novel Heart Blade, where my main protagonist has no memory of her previous life and is trying to find out where she fits into her new one. It could be a more subtle approach, such as in my short story The Sugar Cane Sea (Not All Monsters anthology, Strangehouse Books), where the main character is on the run from her abusive and demonic husband, and won’t be able to make a life of her own until she’s free.

Identity and belonging have always been recurring questions in my own life, ones that bubble up every few years but are always there, waiting under the surface. In my case, this was due to being a child of two cultures, born in one country and then, at the age of eight, moving to a different one, vastly different to the first. Of course, years later I complicated matters by moving to the USA and having a whole new set of identifiers thrown at me…

And so, even without meaning to, I find those questions echoed in my writing.

When I mention recurring themes, I’m not talking about that elusive thing called ‘author voice’. That’s something separate, which has to do with writing style more than anything. But themes in writing and author voice are, at the same time, entangled to a certain extent. Just as you can usually recognize your favorite author’s way with words (even when they cross the genre streams or write for a different market), you can probably pick out certain themes you’ve learned to associate with that author, and which emerge time and time again in their books. And often there’s a sweet spot where the author’s voice and their themes meet to create a unique brand that’s all their own.

No one has to have recurring themes in writing. But I don’t think most of us plan these things. They just happen, as our words on the page draw upon the subtleties of our innermost thoughts. Chances are, you have certain themes that crop up over and over in your own work, too. So take a moment to think back on some of your writing. Dig beneath plot and message to get at the bones of the work—the underlying themes that color the story. And if you find you have a few (or many) in common, weaving their way through your different projects? It won’t change your work, or writing style. But it just may help you come a little closer to understanding who you are—not as a writer, but as a person.

X marks the sweet spot between theme and voice

Goal Setting for Writers

We’re a couple of weeks into 2021, and by now we should all be ready to take a closer look at those enthusiastic New Year’s Eve declarations and put some thought into realistic goal planning for the year.

First of all, let me outline the difference between dreams and goals, because sometimes I think the distinction gets a little blurry. Goals are things we can control and influence, like finishing a draft of a novel, or writing a picture book manuscript every month of the year (as proposed by the 12×12 Challenge). Dreams, on the other hand, are things we wish would happen but are ultimately outside of our control. This includes ‘getting a publishing deal’ or ‘making the NYT bestseller list’. You can direct your goals towards your dreams, for example, committing to learning how to write the best agent query letter you can. But actually landing that agent? That’s a dream, not a goal.

In the Writing Excuses podcast (episode 15.05), author Victoria Schwab proposes an exercise she calls the 1-5-10: what do you want to achieve in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years? Where do you want to be? I really liked this exercise, as it helped me think about immediate goals, as well as about the changes I’d like to make in the near-future and the challenges I’d like to set for myself. On the other hand, the 10-year goal is about shaping careers, and for those who plan to be a career author (as opposed to writing that one book that haunts you and calling it a day), it’s good to take a moment to imagine where you’d like to be several years down the line.

Although I found the 1-5-10 exercise useful in terms of long-term planning, I came up with another way of organizing my personal goals that speaks more to the immediate year ahead. My oldest child is a high school senior, and in the middle of his college application process. This has been a steep learning curve for us, as non-Americans trying to navigate the US college system. One helpful exercise was dividing his applications into what we’ve heard called ‘Safety, Match, and Reach’ schools. I decided to apply that notion that to my personal writing goals.

Goals can range from tiny bite-sized amuse-bouche achievements (write 100 words a week) to an entire multi-course banquet (finish the novel you’ve been working on for 10 years!). We all need goals we know we can accomplish, because setting ourselves up to fail is a recipe for disaster (to continue the food analogies). But sometimes, we need a push, too. So, to use the Safety/Match/Reach analogy, try to come up with:

  • Safety Goals: A few achievements you can complete without having to try too hard. These will help you feel a sense of accomplishment on the hard days/weeks — and yes, we all have them! This might be something like an easy minimum word count target, a daily journal entry, or writing a small flash fiction piece every month. Having a safety goal to tick off can help when nothing else seems to be going right.
  • Match Goals: Achievements that follow your ‘usual’ pattern of production. This sort of goal keeps things moving by, for example, encouraging you to write your customary weekly average of words, or to set aside your usual amount of writing hours each month.
  • Reach Goals: Push yourself! Set one or two difficult targets — not completely impossible, but things that are definitely a challenge. If you make it, awesome! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it: these goals were always going to be a stretch.

At the end of the year, take some time to reflect on how you did, and don’t forget to count those Safety Goals, too! Being able to look back and see positive achievements, no matter how seemingly small, can make all the difference between keeping going or giving it all up. 

Here’s to a wonderful 2021 — I wish you all the best with your goals, and with your dreams too!

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 2

Click link for Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person.”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Now you’ve had a while to consider your world in general, it’s time to put some thought into your main character(s). What feel do you want people to get when they meet them on the page? Do you want readers to immediately emphasize with them, or will your characters have to work for appreciation?

Sam, for instance, is usually a ‘nice guy’ name. Think Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Sam Winchester from Supernatural (discounting the whole ‘soulless Sam’ phase…). Or bar owner and shapeshifter Sam Merlotte from Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. If you name a character Sam, readers are signaled that this is probably NOT a villain.

Names have nuances, shades. This doesn’t mean they belong exclusively to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, but names can be a good indication of personality. Think Maggie Stiefvater’s Ronan Lynch, from her Raven Cycle books. There’s a sharp name if I ever saw one, and it suits the shaved-headed street-racing Ronan perfectly. Another sharp name, also with an ‘R’ coincidentally, belongs to private investigator Rojan Dizon, the world-weary main character in the fantasy trilogy by Francis Knight that starts with Fade to Black.

Names can play off each other, too. In Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity YA duology, the narrative is shared by two main characters: Kate Harker of the knife’s edge smile and August Flynn, the heart-of-gold monster with the soft gray eyes. Hard vs gentle in the names, and hard vs gentle in their personalities, too. A perfect combination.

If you’re writing a story set in the real world (whether sci fi, urban/contemporary fantasy, or other subgenres), you have some serious decision-making to do with regards to classic vs trendy names. In Part 1 of this post, I already mentioned Scalzi’s option to use long-lasting names like John and Susan. In my Blade Hunt Chronicles books, I have a vampire — Alex — who’s almost 1000 years old. I wanted a name that could have plausibly been in use and yet still felt current, and I figured that Alexander was a timeless choice. The problem with trendy names is that they can date quickly, so if you want something a little different, think hard about which modern names feel as if they may have lasting power.

This brings us to the kid lit names vs adult names conundrum. If you’re writing for teens or preteens, you’re going to need names they can relate to — whether you’re dabbling in real-world sci fi/fantasy or far future/secondary worlds. Unless you’re setting a story in the 1980s, Tracy is probably not a good choice for your female lead (though it may be perfect for an older supporting character like a parent or mentor!). Rick Riordan is great at names that are fun enough to appeal to his middle grade and YA readership, while at the same time escaping the ‘trendiness trap’: think Perseus ‘Percy’ Jackson ( a nod to the Greek and Roman mythology that most of his work is based on) and others such as Annabeth, Leo, Jason (another nod to mythology), and Nico. 

Hot tip! Use your own kids or borrow one from a friend to test your names on. I bounce YA character name ideas off my teen daughter, and her feedback is priceless.

When it comes to stories that are not real-world based, there’s more leeway. But you still need to take youth appeal into consideration. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ main character Katniss is named after a plant. However, variations of names with ‘Kat’ in them are common enough (and another of those timeless classics) for the name to feel relatable. This is a great name, by the way: the hard K sound suits Katniss’ hard-as-nails personality, and the sibilance of the ending evokes an arrow let loose. So good!

How about where to source names? Baby naming sites are, of course, a fabulous tool. There are so many of these sites nowadays that you can add search words to narrow things down. For instance, ‘Celtic baby names’ might help with your sword-wielding fantasy heroine; ‘unusual baby names’ may lend a sci fi vibe to your blaster-toting wise-cracking space mercenary. There are sites that let you narrow your search down by number of syllables, and you can always look up names with a particular letter if you know the vibe you’re going for.

There are specialist sites, too; I once spent a pleasant afternoon looking up names used in Britain around 1000 CE for my coven of ancient witches. And you can also search surnames; there are several sites that will help you find the most common ones to fit your character’s background, or surnames that have been around for centuries — handy if your thing is urban fantasy and your detective just happens to be the heir of a long line of demon slayers. But don’t discount looking closer to home… My kids’ school directories and yearbooks are a great resource for first and last names. The same goes for town Facebook groups or the local newspaper. 

Hot tip! Keep an ongoing list of interesting names you come across, even if they have nothing to do with the story you’re writing; someday you’ll thank past you. I keep a list on my notes app and update as I use up names or find new ones, and I’m very thankful for past me!

And, finally, we can’t talk character naming without talking diversity. We live in a beautifully diverse world, and hopefully your work will reflect that, even if you write second world fantasy or far-flung sci fi. If you’re writing in a contemporary setting, as I tend to do, then naming is where it all starts. Your work has an entire cast of major and minor characters, so please put some thought into what identities you choose for them.

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

“Names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, since things come first and names afterwards.” 

Galileo Galilei, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo

So you have a cool idea for a story. You’re ready to start writing. But, wait! What’s your main character’s name? And what about the best friend/love interest/mentor/talking animal sidekick? If you’re anything like me, you need that perfect names to move forward. But deciding a character’s identity isn’t quite as simple as pulling up a bunch of baby naming sites. (Disclaimer: I love baby naming sites!) First, you need to do a bit of homework…

Before anything else, take a moment to think about your story’s world. I’m not saying you need to write up a 50-page document on your universe (unless that’s part of your process), but it’s worth doing some brainstorming, even if you’re a ‘pantser’. Is your story set in contemporary times? In the future, but still on Earth? Is it set in an alternate history past? In space, centuries from now? In a completely new fantasy world? 

Doing a little worldbuilding before you name your characters (yes, even the ones with minor ‘walk on’ roles) is crucial as names add layers and texture to your story. If you’re writing in contemporary times or in a near enough real world past/future to be relatable, it’s also a way to bring in diversity by way of first and/or last names. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, for instance, which is set in a not-too-distant future, character surnames include Martinez, Ng, and Kapoor.

What if your story is set further in the future; will completely new naming conventions and trends have set in? John Scalzi gets around this in his Old Man’s War universe by using classic names that have been around for centuries and will most likely endure — John, Harry, and Susan, for example. Not only does this make historical sense, but it also serves to give us an initial familiarity that goes on to be turned on its head once the characters arrive in space and their entire lives change. After that, the soothing weight of his ‘Harrys’ and ‘Johns’ becomes a tether to a life left behind. In contrast, the different alien peoples his characters encounter all have unique naming conventions depending on their languages and biology (in terms of vocalization). 

In Pierce Brown’s Red Rising universe, set on Earth’s colonies within our solar system, names have moved on from contemporary choices and naming conventions are according to social caste. The upper class, for instance, leans heavily on Latin names from the Roman period: Virginia, Pax, Titus, Adrius, Nero, etc. It’s a nod to his characters’ Earthly origins, but also helps underline the importance of the military and the separation between classes.

If you’re writing sci fi with no Earth connections, you have a little more freedom. But it helps to give the main characters names that at least feel familiar. In Star Wars (a galaxy far, far away), we have Luke and Leia to anchor the story. In Jo Zebedee’s Inheritance Trilogy space opera, key characters like Kare and Ealyn sound like they fit right in with Zebedee’s Northern Irish background. The same goes for secondary world fantasy. Of course, you can go as wild as you want with character names. But if they feel like names we might see in our day-to-day, it’s easier to relate. Elspeth Cooper’s Gair (The Wild Hunt) and Peter V. Brett’s Arlen and Leesha (The Demon Cycle) come to mind — they’re different, yes, but not so much that we can’t imagine them in our lives. Of course, a well-known trick in secondary world fantasy is to use variations of everyday names, lending instant familiarity. In this category we have characters like George R.R. Martin’s Jon Snow, Jaime Lannister, or Benjen Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire). 

Once you know your world, it’s time to pick it apart a little and set a few naming standards to help readers navigate your fictional universe. Do your dystopian future rebels use military-style callsigns? Do your fantasy working class characters tend to be named after the saints in your fictional religion? Do the northerners and southerners in your world have distinct histories so that names have regional variations?

Robin Hobb is a great example of this in her Farseer books. The nobility in her Six Duchies is often named after a virtue. Members of the Royal Family include Chivalry, Verity, Patience and so on. Flower names tend to appear amongst the commoners — Laurel and Nettle, for instance. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien also uses flowers as girl names among his hobbits — Sam Gamgee’s daughter is named Elanor after the golden blossoms of Lothlórien, and his wife’s name is Rose. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, many of the kings seem to follow a naming pattern, too: see Caspian, Rilian, and Tirian. And in her Seven Realms/Shattered Realms books, Cinda Williams Chima has a cool convention for the Royal Family of her Queendom of the Fells: Raisa ana’Marianna is daughter to Queen Marianna ana’Lissa and mother of Alyssa ana’Raisa. 

You don’t have to over-complicate your character naming, but having a few standards in place to help readers understand things like nationality, class, alien species, or religion is a relatively simple way to build richness and depth into your story (and it can be lots of fun, too). It means that, instead of a random mishmash of names, your readers will be able to identify a consistency that adds realism to your fictional world and brings it to life.

These aren’t the names you’re looking for…

See Part 2 for my thoughts on individual character names, as well as a brief look at differences between names in stories for children/teens and adults. Also: sources!

Summer 2020 Updates

I’m back after a long summer hiatus. I also took a much-needed Twitter break, only dipping in every few days for a peek. Sometimes, taking a step away from some of the things that make our life busy (however much we may enjoy them) is a breath of fresh air!

So, what have I been up to since my last update post?

First of all, as you may have noticed, I have a new website banner. The gorgeous artwork is by the talented Olívia Guidotti ­— she takes all sorts of commissions (portraits, original artwork, etc.) and can be contacted via her Instagram page. I figured my site was overdue for a new look, and nothing better than Olívia’s fun art style to show a little of who I am and what I write.

Art by Olívia

In writing news, I have a short story out called The Sugar Cane Sea. The fabulous full color special edition of the NOT ALL MONSTERS anthology (Strangehouse Books, edited by Sara Tantlinger) came out in April, and the general release edition on Amazon comes out in October. This collection of stories by ‘Women of Horror’ is so good! And it includes gorgeous artwork by Don Noble.

There’s more anthology news! The wonderful women from the SFFChronicles.com forum who banded together to bring you DISTAFF in 2019 are back. Our latest project is the fantasy anthology FEMMES FAE-TALES, with a tentative release date of February 2021. I can’t wait to share my own story, Taste of Honey, about a woman who seeks peace and refuge in the hills of northwestern Connecticut from the mess that is her personal life, but finds something dark and addictive instead. Keep an eye out for upcoming artwork, TOC, and author bios at DISTAFFanthology.wordpress.com.

As for longer work, I’ve stepped away from YA for a bit. I spent nearly a year working and reworking a YA novel that kept going in all the wrong directions. I decided to take a break and fell into an adult urban fantasy novel that I’m having all kinds of fun with. This is my first time writing a full-length novel NOT aimed at teens, and honestly, it’s been refreshing. I’m about halfway through the first draft, and really excited about it.

Outlining and plot wrangling, with puppy photobomb

The COVID-19 lockdown with all its social distancing rules has been an interesting time. No more in-person meet-ups… On the other hand, the sheer number of offerings of online events has been almost overwhelming. For writers, there have been craft webinars, author interviews, panels, readings, book launches, and everything else under the sun. A couple of highlights among the events I’ve attended have been a great conversation between Victoria Schwab and Neil Gaiman, brought by Tor, and the all-day reCONvene convention, offered by the lovely folks of NESFA who run Boskone every year.

On a personal note, we’ve now been in the USA for seven years! It’s gone by so fast… Of course we miss our friends and family back in Brazil, and São Paulo is and will always be home for us. But we love our life in green and leafy Connecticut, and this is the country that saw all of my writing milestones take place: first story publications, first novels, first event panels, and so on. They say that the number seven marks the end of first infancy, and the start of the next period of personal growth, and I hope to see that reflected in my work, and in our lives here in general!

I know these past months haven’t been easy, and that a lot of us have been finding that our creativity took a hit, especially in the first weeks after the pandemic went global. So here’s to a positive second semester for 2020: wishing you all the brightest of creative sparks, and the energy and time to follow your star.