How to Name a Hero, with Alex Bledsoe

Author Alex Bledsoe

Today’s post comes to you from novelist Alex Bledsoe. He has been a reporter, editor, photographer, and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Today he’s the proud author of  the Eddie LaCrosse series, the Memphis Vampires series, and The Hum and the Shiver (the text of which I reviewed here, and the cover of which made my list of favorites for 2011). His website is AlexBledsoe.com.

A character’s name is one of the most important things the writer has to discover. The way a name sounds, the way it looks on the page, even the way it’s spelled can make the difference between forgettable and archetypal. Sometimes the name seems inevitable, while for other times, the character may go through a half-dozen before finding one that fits.

Ian Fleming took the name “James Bond” from the author of an ornithological guide lying around his Jamaican home, because he wanted a bland, forgettable name, one perfect for a spy. Indiana Jones (originally “Indiana Smith”) was named, not after the state, but after George Lucas’s dog. In both cases the names already existed in other contexts, but the writers recognized that they fit their fictional characters. The same thing recently happened to me: in my upcoming novel Wake of the Bloody Angel, I realized author Rhodi Hawk’s name perfectly suited a character. I changed the spelling, and of course asked if the real Rhodi would mind. Luckily for me, she was delighted.

Sometimes you can work with the wrong name for a long time without realizing it. Margaret Mitchell’s heroine was called “Pansy” until almost the last minute, when she changed it to “Scarlett.” Luke Skywalker was originally the far more martial “Luke Starkiller.” In my own case, my hero was named “Devaraux LaCrosse” for over a decade’s worth of unpublished drafts, until I was suddenly struck by the idea that he needed a normal, everyday name and he became “Eddie” for his debut, The Sword-Edged Blonde.

Many heroes have names that conform to a system. In Superman mythology the initials “L.L.” are far more prominent than they would be in real life: Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, Linda Lee. I mean, really: what are the chances of one guy having two girlfriends, and an arch-enemy, with the same initials? The absolute master for naming within a system was undoubtedly J.R.R. Tolkein: for example, the people of Rohan are expert horsemen, and so their names (Eomer, Theoden, Eowyn) incorporate “Eo,” the Anglo-Saxon prefix for “horse.” In my novel Dark Jenny, the setting and many of the characters were based on Arthurian legend, so I sought names that evoked, even if only tangentially, their origins. Lancelot, for example, becomes Elliot Spears (lance, spear, get it?); Morgan becomes Megan; Guinevere becomes Jennifer, and so on. I kept a couple of names as-is, but used them as surnames with normal first names (“Bob” Kay and “Ted” Medraft).

And on occasion, the naming gods simply smile on you. The characters in The Hum and the Shiver were named with very little forethought, with the only criteria being that they had to have Celtic origins. But it turned out that the names fit the personalities better than I ever realized. The protagonist’s name, Bronwyn, means “dark and pure.” The impulsive youngest child is named Aiden, which means “fiery.”

But the real master for names, hands down, just celebrated his 200th birthday. Charles Dickens came up with names that both sounded great and conveyed their bearers’ personalities: Ebenezer Scrooge, Noddy Boffin, Bob Cratchit, David Copperfield, and Martin Chuzzlewit, to name just a handful of his best known.

There are as many approaches to naming as there are characters to name. I’m currently working on a novel that takes its basic plot dynamics from Shakespeare, which of course means I can raid lists of Shakespearean names. Another work in progress takes place in a particular geographic area, so it’s off to find out what family surnames are found in that area. One day, I might even create a character as archetypal as James Bond or Scarlett O’Hara. Heck, maybe I already have, and I just didn’t get the name right.

If you appreciated Alex’s post, be sure to pay his blog a visit.

Eye-Catchers: My Favorite Covers from 2011

I haven’t analyzed a cover for a long time (not since Mira Grant’s Feed), but before the first month of 2012 passed I wanted to share with you my favorite covers from 2011 and why I think they work.* My top three are Blackdog by K.V. Johansen (illustration by Raymond Swanland), Embassytown by China Miéville (illustration and design by David Stevenson), and The Hum and the Shiver (photographs by Valentino Sani and Marilyn Angel Wynn). They all have excellent lines to draw the viewer’s eye and serve as compelling introductions to the stories inside.

Blackdog: A Study in Eye Movement

Blackdog by K. V. Johansen

There are a lot of things I love about this cover, but all of it hinges on the spectacular illustration from Raymond Swanland. The color scheme is striking even though it isn’t flashy, because Swanland has a nice contrast between the lights and darks that adds flavor and variety without having to be extreme; the image packs a lot of elements in without feeling busy; Holla-Sayan (the guy in the foreground) is compelling.

But the thing that strikes me the most about this cover is the motion. Everything is moving. The owl is in a dive (as are the other shadowy birds), and that dive moves in the same direction as the ribbons of cloth coming from Attalissa (the girl in the center). The contrast of the bright circle in the center with all the darker elements draws your eye, but then it’s easy for your eye to flow around the rest of the cover elements following the motion lines. Then you get caught up in the intersection where Holla’s hand and his sword meet, you move up to his face, and you get hit head-on with the fact that he’s looking out from the cover. His face is the only element that isn’t synchronized with the upper-right–to–lower-left flow, and because of that it strikes a strong chord.

This cover is a study in the power of eye movement. The movement sucks you in, and the illustration has enough detail to keep you captivated for a while. Definitely long enough to decide you want to buy whatever is behind that cover. (As a nod to whoever did the text, the title color contrasts well with what’s behind it, but harmonizes with the existing illustration. It’s placement also defers to the illustration, which is smart considering how strong the illustration is.)

Embassytown: Room for Imagination

Embassytown by China Miéville

The first think I like about this cover is the color scheme. You can’t get more contrast than between black and white, and red is my favorite accent color. It’s a striking scheme that never seems to get old (for me, at least; I’m sure other people are sick to death of it).

David Stevenson uses the red judiciously: he only uses it for the author name, which is a lightweight font compared to the title typeface, so the red remains an accent, but not the note that stays with you. Where the Blackdog cover had a lot of diagonal motion, this cover is strictly top-to-bottom. The contrast of the black and red (or the black and white, depending on the viewer) draws your attention to the top. Then your eye filters down through the inverted pyramid of the jumbled letters and finally to the city, which is made up of vertical buildings.

The space between the title and the bottom of the cover is the part I like best about this cover. The jumbled letters give you an idea that words are important to the city below. It gives you hints; it gives you an impression of what Embassytown, the city, is like; it gives the city both a glow and a shadow. Those hints and impressions and contrasts are interesting, and they’re ripe for a viewer to start creating a story of their own with the image, a story that will compel them to read.

The Hum and the Shiver: Simple Can Sell

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

This cover is different than the other two because it relies on two images instead of on a specific illustration (if you’re a self-publisher thinking about a stock-photo cover, take note).  Neither photo would make as compelling a cover alone. The landscape image is full of beautiful color. The yellows and oranges in the sky catch the eye, and they do so all the better because they’re bordered by the unobtrusive blue of the mountains below.

The shape of the mountains draws down in a V that guides the eye to the central figure (the other image). Like the city and the jumbled words of the Embassytown cover, this figure lets you, the viewer, start to tell yourself a story. Here is a woman, partially transparent, holding a stringed instrument. Because she’s nondescript—you can’t really see her face, you don’t know exactly what she’s feeling—you have the freedom to fill in the gaps.

This cover is simple: the contrasting colors draw your eye, and the solo, nondescript figure lets you tell yourself a story. It’s powerful from an emotional sense, and it sets a beautiful tone for the book inside.

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*Remember, I’m not extensively skilled as a designer. I’m decent with typography and word-based design, but not stellar when it comes to creation. I leave the illustration and design to my more able colleagues. You don’t have to be able to create awesome stuff to love awesome stuff and to be able to say why.

Leaflet Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music—hints of their true nature buried in in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless “haint” lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.

With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds. …

The Hum and the Shiver had me excited: it has an interesting premise, an interesting context, a killer title, and a visually appealing cover (can you believe it’s just straight-up photo-manipulation?). My little brother sent it to me for Christmas, because he is an awesome brother, and I read it in about two days.

Delicious Tidbits

The book has plenty of things going for it: an interesting take on contemporary fantasy (it’s definitely not urban, and none of the characters are cliche); the main character grows into a unique type of inner strength; the worldbuilding elements are delightfully fresh (music-based magic in rural Tennessee!). The elements of mystery surrounding the Tufa draw you through the book, and the cast of characters is very dynamic.

One of my favorite characters in the book was Craig Chess, the Methodist minister who has recently moved to Cloud County to work among the notoriously nonreligious Tufa. He’s awesome. He is a man who acts on his faith, who suffers fits of temper and temptation but always finds a way to deal with it, and who, although he earnestly wishes others to find the truth he holds dear, doesn’t need you to be in his congregation for him to wish you the best. He stands in stark contrast to the likes of Dwayne Gitterman, Bronwyn’s ex-boyfriend, who really doesn’t wish anyone well but himself.

Hangups

So I enjoyed the book. But I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. The book’s charm very much hangs on its milieu—the unique setup, context, worldbuilding, and small-town characters. In my opinion, the plot was not particularly masterful. Some of the conflicts, like Bronwyn’s inability to play music when she first returns home, are solved with surprising ease. The viewpoint is almost confusingly omniscient (to be fair, I haven’t read an omniscient POV since I read Dune, so my distaste for this technique could just be because I’m out of practice reading it). Plot-driven readers may take issue with a character or two who have more page time than their plot purpose warrants.

After reading the last page, I put down the book and said, “Really? Really that’s how you end it?” The ending didn’t resonate with me in a meaningful way. For a book that has so much heart, it felt surprisingly hollow.

Even so …

I still enjoyed it. Knowing what I know now, I’d still have read it. It’s a rich and textured novel with plenty in its pages that will please. Its heroine has a very interesting growth trajectory that I found satisfying. Alex Bledsoe recently announced that there will be a second book in the same world called Wisp of a Thing, and I’ll likely read that book as well. It’s not a perfect piece, but like I said, it has a lot of heart, and I’m glad I had a weekend to spend on it. If only for Bledsoe’s beautifully imagined Tufa culture and folklore and they way he put magic into the mundane, I’d gladly read the book again.

Content warnings: Language, sex, discussions about sex, mature themes, some violence (but not much).

Weekly Roundup: 9/17–9/23

Seanan McGuire: Across the digital divide.

Author Seanan McGuire wrote a post that takes a different look at the e-revolution in publishing than I’ve heard before: she looks at how it makes reading an exclusionary luxury. I’ve thought about this sort of thing before myself. (Probably because ever since I moved out of my parents’ home I’ve been a few steps behind every technological advance—except in the case of required professional software like Adobe Creative Suite products and Word.)

In response to the argument that even those who don’t have an e-reader have a computer (something I have heard), I know people who can’t afford to have a home computer either. Those people would have to rely on places with free computers, like libraries, but library computers aren’t the sort you can sit at for hours and hours because they’re in high demand (not to mention the decrease in library funding). The issue of making electronic reading as democratic as print reading is one that hasn’t been satisfactorily addressed for me. The ease of moving a print book from one owner to another is one reason I’ve been happy to keep buying print books even though I have an e-reader.

Thomas Baekdal: Infinite Choices and a World Abundance vs. Supply and Demand.

Thomas Baekdal explains why supply-and-demand rules do not apply to the abundance of ebooks. This is a follow-up to his article called “The Myth of the 99 Cent Book.” In both articles he emphasizes why 99 cents is not a sustainable price for books to trend toward and why it’s a bad way to go. He suggests that you stop focusing on making your book cheap enough that people won’t fight about having to give you money; instead, make your content into someone of sufficient quality that people will be clambering to give you a fair price.

Baekdal’s reasoning is why I’m so happy with publishers and authors who are dedicated to making their ebooks into quality products instead of subsidiary aftereffects (Pyr, for example). When you put out a quality story and you present it in a quality way, with attention to detail and quality, you can maintain a sustainable price point and readers will pay it willingly because they know it’s worth the money.

Writers Beware: PUBSLUSH Press

There have been a lot of crowdfunding projects cropping up across the internet, and one of the newest is PUBSLUSH Press (they’re technically still in beta). Writers Beware posted a critique of PS’s publishing agreement and noted some things to be aware of. These crowdfunding organizations are another option and venue for writers, but it’s best to go into anything—from traditional publishing to doing everything yourself—with your eyes wide open to the opportunities, risks, and sticky bits. PUBSLUSH has quite a few sticky bits.

The Rook by Daniel O'MalleyDaniel O’Malley: Chapters 1 & 2 of The Rook

The Rook is a book that piqued my interest at some point in the past, though I’m not quite sure when or where. (I may have heard about it through Publishers Weekly, but I’m not sure because I don’t record where I find things when I put them on my “to watch” list.) There is a two-chapter teaser for the fantasy novel available now. Yes, I’ve read the teaser. After I read it I was tempted to pre-order the novel (which doesn’t come out until January 2012). I haven’t because my birthday and Christmas happen between now and its release, and I tend to get wonderful gift cards to bookish places on one (or both) of those occasions. That and I still haven’t finished the stack of books next to my desk and I’ve cut off my book spending until it’s been devoured. And The Hum and the Shiver comes out next week, and that’s another book I’ve been watching.