SO FAR, I’VE BEEN TREATING CHARACTERS as if everything about them were negotiable. This is true, as long as the story still exists only in your head or in outline form. But at some point you’re going to start writing the story down, and then you’ve got to make some decisions and stick to them.
One of the earliest decisions to make is a character’s name. I have a friend who doesn’t name his characters at all, until a story or novel is almost through. He just names them things like XXX and YYY. Then, when he knows them better, he decides what their names should be and uses his word processer’s global search-and-replace command to turn all the XXXs into Marions and the YYY into Ednas. That just wouldn’t work for me. A name is part of who a person is. It’s the label that stands for everything you’ve done and everything you are.
What a Name Means to the Character
A name has many associations. Your last name links you to your family. If your character is a married adult, did he take his wife’s name; did she take her husband’s? If she’s divorced, did she keep her husband’s name or return to her maiden name? or perhaps the character’s parents were divorced, his mother got custody of the children, and she later remarried. Did he keep his birth father’s name or take his stepfather’s name? Surely these decisions had repercussions.
Your last name also suggests ethnicity. Wozniak does not have the same associations as O’Reilly, Bjornson, Redfeather, Goldfarb, Fitzwather, or Robles. The moment you choose a last name, you bring to the character a load of ethnic, national, even racial baggage. You will almost certainly find that the name opens up all kinds of character possibilities, inviting you to speculate on the character’s upbringing. How much did his ethnicity make him who he is?
You might be named for someone, too. Is your character a junior or II? Named for an uncle, aunt, grandparent? He’s going to have an attitude toward his own name in part based on his attitude toward the person he’s named for. What about a girl growing up as Scarlett or Meryl, or a boy named Elvis or Lennon? Not only does the name tell when the character was probably born, it would also have caused a lot of teasing from other kids. Maybe the girl named Scarlett O’Hara Watt insisted that her friends call her So Watt, from her initials? The name is also too cute to stand – but that, too may be a part of her character.
Robert Parker’s best-known character is named Edmund Spenser. He at once follows his name, being a lover of poetry, and rejects it, insisting that people call him Spenser. He insists on people spelling the name correctly with a middle s instead of c; yet having a name like Edmund when he was growing up may be why he always regarded it as essential that he be in top physical condition and know how to fight. Indeed, most of Spenser’s main character attributes seem linked to his name – it’s quite possible, though I have no way of knowing, that the choice of the name Edmund Spenser was how Robert Parker came up with the idea for his character in the first place.
You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Program
There are other considerations involved in naming a character, however, beside the effect on the character himself. The name of a character is also the label the reader uses to help keep the characters straight. That’s why it’s always helpful to give characters memorable – and very different – names.
One rule I try to follow is to make sure all my major characters’ names start with a different letter. I won’t have a Myron in the same story with a Milton, unless there’s some compelling reason to violate that rule.
I also try to vary lengths and sound patterns. It’s hard for the reader to remember who is who if all the names follow the same pattern. Mono-syllables like Bill, Bob, Tom, Jeff, Pete lead to boredom and confusion. These particular examples are such common-sounding names that the reader begins to feel that you gave these characters the first name that came to mind – it leads to a subliminal message that the characters’ identities don’t matter.
However, it also becomes distracting when you choose a lot of flamboyant, bizarre names, unless that is an important part of a story. If you’re writing about a street gang, you might give them all odd nicknames like Mud-eater, Wall Man, Slime, and Lick. But you’ll lost a lot of belief if all beautiful women in your stories have phony but euphonious names. And make sure your characters don’t all have names that mean something, unless you are writing allegory and deliberately want them to be tagged with symbolic names, like the characters Patience, Will, and Angel in an allegorical fantasy I once wrote.
It’s easy to full into a rut, repeating the same patterns: Jackson, Waters, Deaver, Rudman. Change the number of syllables: Waters to Waterman. Change the accent position from the first to second syllable: Deaver to Despain. Start one name with a vowel instead of a consonant: Rudman to Urdman. Change one name so they don’t all sound like WASPs: Jackson to Giaconni or Kabuto.
One Name Per Character
Have you ever read a Russian novel? The Russian pattern of naming is different from ours – everybody has a first name, a family name, and a patronymic. Thus Ivan Denisovitch is Ivan the son of Denis – but the author might also refer to him by a completely unrelated name, like Dobrinin, which is his family name. The character might also have a nickname – and Russian authors feel no qualms about having characters refer to each other by any or all of the names in any combination, or so it seems. This is often hopelessly confusing to English-speaking readers.
Yet many a writer does exactly the same thing to his readers, with far less reason.
Bill heard the all-stations siren and wondered whether he was going to get in trouble this time. Well, too late to worry now. Lieutenant Waterman would help him if he could, and if he couldn’t, well, that was the breaks. He got out of his berth and put on his clothes.
Johnson walked down the corridor until he got to the bridge of the ship. The executive officer was asking, “How much time do we have?”
The captain quickly surveyed the situation. “About three minutes, I’d say. Not enough time to avoid a collision. But we’ve got to try. Hard port, full speed.”
Howard immediately relayed the command to the engine room, while his mentor made sure everyone else knew what to do.
OK, folks, guess: How many characters have we just seen? There are seven different names or tags here – yet this passage could just as easily refer to only two people. Lieutenant Howard Waterman is the executive officer of the ship; his mentor is Captain Bill Johnson.
This is an extreme example, but a lot of beginning writers (and some who should know better) make almost as bad a mess of naming.
The rule of thumb is that the narrator of the story will refer to each character the same way every time. You introduce the character by the name he’s going to have most of the time through the story. For instance, you might decide to always refer to Captain Bill Johnson as Johnson. His junior officers, of course, will always call him Captain or Sir; his wife will call him Bill; his children will call him Dad. But the alert writer will make sure that we are constantly reminded who we’re talking to. The first time somebody calls Johnson “Captain,” make sure he calls him “Captain Johnson.” From then on, the reader can make the connection. But “Captain Johnson” won’t help if the only name we’ve seen so far is “Bill.” It takes a little thought, but your job is to help your reader keep clear who is who, and you can’t do that if you’re busy playing musical chairs with the characters’ names.
Sometimes amateurs play “musical names” because they’re afraid that using the same name over and over again will become “repetitive.” What they don’t realize is that repetition is rarely a problem with names – names aren’t a stylistic device, they’re a signpost to guide us through the story, telling us who’s doing what. On those rare occasions when it really would be awkward to repeat the name, we already have a solution: the pronoun.
Sometimes amateurs play “musical names” because they’re trying to convey information with the replacement nouns:
Johnson went to the bridge. The captain barked his orders. The Annapolis graduate wasn’t going to take any nonsense from these youngsters. A sixty-year-old has to fight to get respect in the navy, thought the grandfather of nine.
If it’s vital for us to know that Johnson is a sixty-year-old Annapolis graduated who is captain of the ship has nine grandchildren, then tell us – but don’t do it by using all these taglines instead of Johnson’s name:
Johnson went to the bridge and barked his orders. He knew these youngsters didn’t have much respect for a sixty-year-old like him; who cared anymore that he graduated first in his class from Annapolis? He knew that whenever he gave an order, his executive officer thought, “What’s an old coot like him doing as captain of a ship? He ought to be sitting on a park bench boring people to death with pictures of his nine grandchildren.
The second version takes a little longer – but then, it conveys a lot more information and attitude as well, and you always know who Johnson is. Remember, if you lost clarity, you’ve lost your reader, and the consistent use of names is one of your chief tools in keeping the reader clear on what’s happening in the story.
KEEPING A BIBLE
Besides names, you’ll make a lot of other decisions about your characters. Some you’ll make before the story begins – a lot of facts about the character’s past, about things he’s going to do in the story, and so on. But you’ll make many other decisions as you go along. And it will help you a great deal if, from time to time, you jot down these decisions.
For instance, when you showed the character getting dressed, you had him choose a striped tie. No particular reason – it was just a detail to give reality to his morning routine. Ten pages later, though, you forgot that. you have him pull his shirt off over his head before he goes in swimming – but not a word about loosening or removing his tie. Why did you forget? Because it isn’t all that important, and because you wrote the first page three days ago, and because writers forget. We’re human.
Most of your readers are human, too. But they’re reading the story all at once, and for them page one and page ten are minutes apart, not days.
During the shooting of a movie, there’s a person whose whole job is making sure that if an actor’s cigarette was two inches long in the establishing shot, it’s also two inches long in all the closeups and reaction shots. You don’t have anybody to help with that. you have to do it for yourself.
The best way is to keep a bible – a notebook (or a separate computer file, if your computer allows you to open two files at once) in which you jot down each decision you’ve made. If it’s too distracting to do this while writing, don’t interrupt the flow; you can simply wait till you’re through writing for the day and take a few minutes to scan through the day’s output, jotting down all the things you’ve decided. The method I find best for me is to begin each day’s work by scanning the work I did the day before, jotting down things I’ve decided on papers beside the computer. This not only helps me think about each decision, wondering if it was right, seeing if perhaps it makes me discover new things about the character.
The decisions you make aren’t all as trivial as the colour of a character’s tie, either. When I wasn’t creating a bible as I went along, I once changed the character’s name between chapters 5 and chapter 15. I forgot that I made him an orphan and had him telephone his mother. I’ve changed a minor character’s race, I’ve changed other characters’ professions, I’ve changed my hero’s hair colour, age, height, birthday – it’s easy to do when a character isn’t the focus of the action or when a lot of pages have intervened.
Fortunately, editors – or my wife, Kristine, who reads everything in manuscript – have caught most of these mistakes. When they have, I’ve had to choose which version is correct. This has forced me to rethink many decisions that I had made arbitrarily, on the spur of the moment, and I’ve realized that many of these decisions were careless, that with a bit more thought I could come up with something much better. I had reached up and grabbed the first idea from my stock of clichés, when on second thought I was able to come up with a better decision that enriched the story and the character and brought them to life.
Keeping a bible helps make you aware of the decisions you’re making. The very fact of jotting down your decision makes you think about it again, allows you a chance to improve on the decision while the story is still fresh, before you have gone ten or fifty or a hundred pages beyond that moment.
Even a bible, however, won’t keep you from the occasional mistake, and for every decision you realize you’re making, there are hundreds or thousands of others you’ll never even notice. That’s all right. The idea isn’t to make every single aspect of storytelling a conscious decision – then no one would ever finish writing anything. Most of your decisions will remain unconscious. But the ones you are aware of allow you to open up your story with more invention, more possibilities, more space, more people for your unconscious mind to play with.
In fiction, necessity isn’t the mother of invention. It’s possible to have a career without inventing very much at all. You don’t have to be inventive.
But the stories that astonish us, the characters that live forever in our memories – those are the result of rich imagination, perceptive observation, rigorous interrogation, and careful decision-making.
When it comes to storytelling, invention is the mother of astonishment, delight, and truth.