Unwritten Rules

In my writing I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rules.

Not the long lists of rules explaining what to do or not do… there are plenty of opinions from every corner of the writing world on that. I’ve been wondering about the unwritten rules we face as people. You know, the “walk left, stand right” rule, the “let people off the elevator before getting on” rule, or the “don’t take the last cookie without offering” rule.

I suppose these examples reflect a culture or an etiquette. They may be particular to a certain place or group of people. They’re subtle. Simple even. We almost don’t notice them — until someone breaks the rule. Then what?

I believe interesting things start to happen.

In my previous work in progress, my character travels to a new city unlike anything he has experienced before. Figuring out the unwritten rules becomes a major part of the story, as there are cultural differences that he just doesn’t understand, and consequences when he breaks the rules.

In my current project, the slightly cantankerous protagonist has his own set of rules not necessarily shared by others, and so he gets bent out of shape when someone else doesn’t follow them.

These varied practices may be small, but they have a big effect on the characters in my work.

So what are the unwritten rules that you encounter every day? How many are situational, or particular to a certain place? How do you figure them out, and inevitably, when you break an unwritten rule, what are the consequences?

Now what unwritten rules do your characters face?

Hello, My Name Is…

Blank name badgeAm I the only person who is terrible about naming characters?

I have more than a few projects that include such place holders as “____” and [insert name here], and so on. It’s lovely. Really. Very engaging.

Sometimes I know right from the start who my character will be, and what he will call himself; so not all of my projects are this way (lest you think I have a whole drawer full of dejected, nameless characters… how sad!). Sometimes it takes me awhile before I know one of my character’s names. And yes, there are those few who are still waiting for inspiration to strike. But from where?

Part of my day job is working in events. I regularly print up attendance lists and name badges for various functions, and it can be pretty amazing to see the diversity amongst what people call themselves, or the names they’ve inherited. Whether given names, or the occasional nickname, there are so many fascinating combinations that just scream for you to take notice. So why is it so hard to decide on a name for a character? There is no shortage of options.

Names say something about your character. Before we spend pages and pages getting to know him, we first know his name. It’s a first impression. A name can be reflective of the character’s traits or personality, or it can be a complete misnomer, like a chihuahua named Bruiser. A name sets expectations. It can be symbolic; it can reveal something about a character’s culture. Alternately, a name – and a character’s reaction to it – can tell us something about his family or his past.

For me, I think it boils down to indecision. Naming a character just seems so final, so decided. But, I know as I continue working on these various projects, the names will come.

Where do you find inspiration for naming your characters? Is it a struggle, or do names come naturally to you?