The Writer’s Toolbox: Character Development

Do you need to name a hero or heroine? Plan your heroine’s pregnancy? Determine the color of a child’s eyes? I do, too! Let’s go misuse the interwebs, shall we?


Name characters with writing tool Behind the Name from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

I suppose most people use naming sites to name their real children, not their imaginary ones. But we authors name more people than Octomom on a fertile day, so we need a site for power users. At Behind the Name, you can search names by letter, gender, derivation, usage, history, meaning, keyword, length, syllables, sound, and more. Its historical popularity tables include all of the Social Security administration’s data for American names. And, if you find something you like in Spanish usage, for example, it will give you every possible related name in other cultures. It even has a family tree for names. Moreover, you can ask it to randomly generate a name according to your criteria. The “submitted name” feature even allows you to browse the latest monikers that are not “official” in any country’s lexicon, keeping you ahead of the trends. There is a surname section, too! It is a very powerful tool, and I have used it in my Sugar Sun series from the very beginning. (I also browse names in cemeteries, which I cannot recommend highly enough, especially for historical fiction. You can bring those names back and read about them on this site.)

Edited to add: I took a class with Piper Huguley at #RT17, and she had two more great sites to share. Nameberry.com has amazing lists of names: from “Antique Baby Names Ready for Restoration” to “Steampunk Baby Names.” Themeaningofthename.com has name compatibility tests, a numerology calculator, a name day calendar, and more.


Random number derivation for character details in writing from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

Okay, now you’re confused. What do random numbers have to do with fiction writing? Well, if you are a little obsessive about your characters, then…everything! I determine birthdays, anniversaries, number of children a couple has, how much a bribe costs, and more through the use of truly random numbers. Need to flip a coin, but don’t have any change on you? Random.org will do that for you, too. It will also pick your lottery numbers, practice your jazz scales with you, and randomly generate short prose. These last few features I cannot guarantee.


Calendar feature for character development for fiction writers from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

And, speaking of calendars, timeanddate.com is very powerful. You can quickly search the calendar of any year in any country. Wait, Jen, isn’t the calendar the same in all countries? No, there are many alternative calendars—Chinese, Islamic, Hebrew, Mayan, and others—all of which are on this site. But, more importantly, even though most countries have adopted the Gregorian calendar for civil use, not every country has the same weekend or holidays. This site has them all.

How about moon phases? If you write a night scene, don’t you want to know how much light there was outside? The site also has a sunrise, sunset, eclipse, and seasons calendar. (If you need tides, I like Tides4Fishing, which has historical data back a few years.)

I also frequently use the date duration calculator to figure out exactly how old my character is on a particular day. This is helpful when writing a series that spans several years. It will also tell you what years have the same calendar as the historical year you might be using. You can find out, for example, that 1815 (if writing Regency) or 1905 (my Edwardian series) both share the same calendar as 2017. This means that more limited internet calendar tools—like those below—can now be used with success. Just use the modern year that has the same calendar as the year you really want.


Menstrual period tracker good for character development in fiction writing from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

“Whoa, Jen! That’s an overshare! We don’t need to know about your menses.” No, I don’t use this myself. I mean, I could, but I’m not that organized about my own life. But I will find out every detail about my heroine’s ovulation, cramps, and menstruation. This kind of woman-centric focus is why I dig romance. In fairness, contemporary romance may gloss over periods of “indisposition” or “women’s troubles” because we have tampons and ibuprofen, thank the heavens. But in historical romance, I want to know when my characters are going to be inconvenienced—even if nothing is mentioned in the book. (Yes, I’m a little obsessive.) Now, thanks to Tampax’s Period Tracker, I know all: PMS time, heaviest flow, post-period, and peak ovulation. For people who don’t exist. I’m so messed up.


Pregnancy conception and baby calendars to use for character development for fiction writers from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

My characters screw like bunnies (ahem, romance!), and since they live in a Catholic country in the Edwardian period, conventional contraception is hard to find. So my ladies do get preggers. And since I, the author, have no children, what do I know about pregnancy? Very little. So I have Baby Center. Their due date, conception, and week-by-week pregnancy calendars are very helpful. You can also chart your heroine’s cycle with them, but it is a little more detailed than the Tampax site, and there is discussion of mucus, so enter at your own risk.


Determine color of eyes for character development for writers tool box from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

The Tech Museum of Innovation and the Stanford School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics did not create this eye color site for authors, but it is a brilliant tool for us. It is a part of a larger online exhibit on genetics. The scientists behind the site would tell you that their model is oversimplified, but since I have not had to take a real science class since high school, I think it’s perfect. But they also walk you through adding a little complexity to the model with these instructions.

You can either examine your results through numerical probability or through a random selection of six children produced by the model. In my work-in-progress, Sugar Moon, the heroine Allegra has a Spanish, blue-eyed biological father. Even though her mother was Filipina-Chinese, and despite Allie and her mother having brown eyes, she and her blue-eyed hero, Ben, have better than a 1 in 3 chance of a blue-eyed child. They could even produce a green-eyed baby (about a 13% chance), since Ben’s mother had green eyes, and his sister, Georgina, has green eyes. Are we having fun yet? I could play with this stuff for days.


Skin color tone guide for character development in writing toolbox from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

Speaking of color, descriptions of skin tone can get offensive quickly. Using food is fetishizing, cliché, and worse. If you have questions on this premise, read more from Colette at the Writing with Color blog. Here, though, let me direct your attention to part two of this series where Colette gives many wonderful suggestions, clarifications, and resources to help you decide what to use. It is not just about sensitivity; it’s about good writing, no matter who your characters are. I highly recommend the whole site.

Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series writer toolbox by Jennifer Hallock author

 

And so concludes the first in my writer’s toolbox series of posts. I hope these sites are as useful to you as they have been to me. Happy character creating, and happy writing!

Sugar Sun series glossary term #26: aswang

Sugar was such a greedy crop, drinking the lifeblood of the soil like the aswang demons that peasants feared.

Under the Sugar Sun

With the popularity of the Twilight series—or, let’s get old school with Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles—I am surprised that more writers have not widened their paranormal worlds to include the macabre supernatural folk traditions of the Philippines.

Aswangs are lady vampires…on steroids. Though legends vary, the Aswang Project website has come up with three common characteristics in them all:

  1. The aswang’s diet consists mainly of human liver and blood;
  2. It has an unholy preference for unborn children; and
  3. It is also known to prey upon children and sick people.

Um, did you notice number two? Aswangs have been blamed for miscarriages and stillborn babies all over the islands. As this website describes:

When they know of a pregnancy…they would land on the roof of the pregnant woman’s home, and, trying to remain undiscovered, dig a hole to get inside. Once close, they use their razor-sharp teeth and their tongue that can stretch out as a thin wire to drink the blood and eat the fetus through the mother’s belly button…

Even worse, there is a related creature called a manananggal, who is a beautiful woman by day, but at night she detaches the upper half of her torso, sprouts bat-like wings, and flies around with her guts hanging out, looking for victims. This is serious stuff.

manananggal_small
A manananggal as pictured at Florente Aguilar’s guitar project site, Aswang: Tagalog Song Cycle.

The aswang legends are particularly popular in the Western Visayas region, near where the Sugar Sun series is set. In fact, when Silliman University in Dumaguete opened their first dormitory in 1903, people thought it was haunted with these very creatures. That would be enough to keep me home, thank you very much.

Why the Visayas? I do not think that it has anything to do with infant mortality rates, which historically were high everywhere. One theory is that Spanish Catholics spread the legends to vilify female folk healers, especially those in the interior of the southern islands. These pagan women were far away from the friars on the coasts and the Crown in Manila—and, therefore, they were not to be trusted.

You may be wondering, how are aswangs created in the first place? Getting bitten, like by a European-style vampire, is not going to do it. (You would just be dead, I think.) In the Filipino version, the dying aswang vomits up a small black chick—as illustrated below—which the aswang-to-be must swallow. Waiter, check please.

aswang-black-chick
Image from Erik Matti’s “Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles,” found at the AswangProject.

In European folktales, like those of the Brothers Grimm, the big bad wolf is eventually punished for eating children. But the victims of aswangs get no such justice. (Maybe because carrying a child to term and then actually delivering it has been the most dangerous thing a woman could do for most of history.)

This is very dark stuff. I don’t write novels this dark, but someone should. Maybe a new paranormal venture from #romanceclass? I cannot imagine an aswang hero, but maybe you can convince me. Or maybe not.

Featured image from sweet00th at DeviantArt.com.

Update:

Yvette Tan of CNN Philippines wrote a nice article on aswangs, pre- and post-Spanish, even including the demons of World War II. The only thing she left out was the American CIA’s use of aswang fears to intimidate the Huks (communists) in 1950s Luzon. Interesting stuff.