Counting the ®Evolution: Who Are These People?

I’ve said a number of times over the past few months that I have yet to really wrap my head around the fact that I’ve now written a trilogy: an arc of three substantial and self-contained novels, a coherent and completed vision. A BIG vision. It’s so big I haven’t quite felt like I could see the edges of it.

I assumed it would hit me in August, when Regeneration is published; but I have in fact just now started to grasp the scale of the thing. It’s all Nicola Budd’s fault. One of her (many, many) jobs as editor at Jo Fletcher Books is to prepare the ebook editions; and one of her strategies has been to elicit bonus content from authors, special little Easter eggs that will come packaged in the ebook. I was still bogged down with the actual writing when she first broached it to me, and in a state of desperation and quite possibly insanity suggested that, as Regeneration would conclude a series that has boasted a large and complex cast of characters, I could produce something along the lines of a dramatis personæ for the entire ®Evolution.

She said that was an excellent idea! … At which point I realised that I didn’t actually know how many characters I had created over the years; nor did I have a definite sense of how to break them down into primary/ secondary/ tertiary levels of importance. I would have to work that out, and I’d have to decide who to include in the cast list for Nicola. But I didn’t want to just cherry-pick the obvious characters; I wanted to know who was being left out. So, with Regeneration edits, copy-edits and proofreads completed and this just about the last task I have to accomplish prior to publication, I decided to conduct a census.

That was two weeks ago.

I went through each book, plus an as-yet-unpublished short story, and created a comprehensive (I hope) list of characters. I determined who were the main drivers of the plot, and defined them as primary. Those with whom they interact in ways that clearly impact the narrative have been dubbed secondary, and those whose role is more textural are tertiary.

Then I had to create a combined list of all three, and work out the categories for that – because some characters who are secondary in one book are primary in another, and some never have a major role in terms of plot but are nevertheless key to the actions of other, more central characters.

Based on that logic I came up with a list of fifteen ‘core’ characters – the ones without whom there would be no story – and have just finished writing the promised cast list, complete with short descriptions for each of them. They’re 40-80 words long, about the same as the standard author bio you’ll see accompanying a review or a guest post. They contain key facts about the character and the role they play in the ®Evolution, including major events across all of the books.

Being able to do that for fifteen characters may not sound terribly impressive, and indeed it isn’t. But according to my census, there are ninety-one named characters in the ®Evolution (and many more who aren’t); and I could write a similar bio for every single one of them. I know the backstory and basic personality traits of nearly a hundred fictional people. I know why they’re in my stories and what they get up to there. Many of them – most of them – quite possibly all of them – could carry stories of their own.

I am finally starting to grasp the scale of this thing.

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Creating smart characters

I’ve been procrastinating this morning by browsing writing questions on Quora. Someone wanted tips for creating a character who is smarter than they are, and I was struck that most of the answers seemed to assume this must be a very difficult thing to do. Suggestions ranged from role-playing; to the Arthur Conan Doyle method (have a character of normal intelligence, i.e. Dr. Watson, describe the character of greater intelligence, i.e. Sherlock Holmes); to making the character confusing and incomprehensible; to not even attempting the task.

Now I write a lot of very smart characters, some of whom are definitely smarter than me, and I don’t find it that hard at all. You don’t need to make every line they speak or every action they take redolent of their greater intellect, unless you are actively trying to present their cleverness as the only interesting thing about them and the only reason they are in your story. Instead give them a quirk, some character trait that suggests quick thinking or the kind of specific intelligence you want to convey.

For instance: I’ve created a character who likes wordplay and aphorisms. He tends to drop them into conversation, either to amuse the friend he’s speaking to or stump someone who’s annoying him. The rest of his conversation is intelligent in an unintimidating way, but just four or five of these zingers scattered throughout the novel is enough to give the impression of a really big brain at work. Another possibility would be a prodigious memory, someone who remembers the details of things they read or saw long ago. Or you could give your character a facility with numbers – have them add things up in their head before the person with the calculator or cash register can give them the total, for example.

How you do it will depend on the type of story you’re telling and the purpose of the character in it, but think about the things that make you form an impression of someone’s intelligence in real life. It will rarely be because they suddenly start spouting the laws of particle physics or deduce what you had for breakfast from the stain on your tie. It’ll be the way in which they speak, what they do for a living, the esoteric subjects they seem to know a lot about, how insightful they are. Utilise those kinds of naturalistic cues in your writing and it will be easier to make your character’s intelligence believable.

The hidden code of character names

I’ve been thinking a lot about names recently, as anyone who read my recent post about the tribulations of trying to name this blog will know. It reminded me of an online conversation I participated in some months ago, about examples of books in which character names provided powerful subliminal messages about the world and events of the story, and indeed about the characters themselves.

I was in the midst of writing my first novel at the time, and in the earlier planning stages had been struck by how much easier it was to write my core characters once I’d figured out what their names were. I seemed, suddenly, to know them better and to have a more profound understanding of their significance to the story and each other. Their names have meaning; they are part of the DNA, the hidden code that underpins the structure and themes of the story.

Going through this process myself made me think about other books I’ve loved wherein names have provided a subtle, subconscious signal about who and what the characters are. Two of my favourite examples, which I contributed to that online conversation I mentioned, are The Lord of the Rings and The Silence of the Lambs.

As I read and reread The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how Tolkien constructed names that ‘fit’ each of the races in his story, managing somehow to encapsulate the entire cultural identity of a character in their name. They are internally consistent in terms of the syntax and structure of language for that people, and are instantly evocative. The Hobbits are small, straightforward, simple country folk given to hearty jokes and earthy pursuits, and their names reflect that – Bilbo, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam. The Elves, with their grandeur, magic and ancient heritage tend to have long, lyrical names – Elrond, Galadriel, Legolas, Arwen Undomiel. The Men (humans) are somewhere in between, and their names tend to reflect their degree of nobility, which in the mythology of the book is indicated by how “close” they are to elf-culture; so Aragorn, noblest of all, could be an elf-name, while Boromir, Faramir and Denethor are almost elf-like but starting to have harder consonants. The names of the people of Rohan – Eomer, Eowyn and Theoden being the most famous – repeat the ‘eo’ syllable and so have that sense of family identity, helping to reinforce that while also ‘noble’ humans, they are something of an offshoot. The pattern holds true for the other subgroups of Men, the Dwarves, the Orcs and so on.

The Silence of the Lambs is a bit more obvious, but no less effective for that. I’ve always thought that the names of the two main characters tell you everything you need to know about who they are and what they mean to the story. ‘Hannibal Lecter’ combines a legendary king who was almost superhuman in his ambition, daring and appetite for violence with a surname that sounds like ‘lectern’ or ‘lecture’ – intellectual, dry, a bit pedantic. ‘Clarice Starling’ evokes clarity, innocence, and a vision of something wild and yet vulnerable. It combines a sense of integrity with a sense of striving – taking to the air, reaching for the stars – just like the character.

How about you? Has anyone out there struggled to find just the right name for a character, something that would quietly capture their essence without being too obviously symbolic? Do you have any really good (or bad) examples to share from published books? I’d love to hear from you.


  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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