Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Scent of Roses

[Note: Blogger's being a bugger, so I gave up on posting with an image. I'll update with one later if this crazy program will let me--Kath]

Heathcliff. Harry Potter. Basically all the characters in Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Mayella Ewell…). They’re awesome names that linger on your brain’s tongue long after the book is over.

What you name your characters is almost as important as your killer plot reversal, your crackling dialogue, your narrative voice. Boring names can kill interest in your book.

Dickens contemplated Little Larry, Small Sam, and Punkey Pete before he settled on Tiny Tim. I can’t help but think “Punkey Pete” would have been a whole other book.

And that’s why naming characters is so important. A character can fail to live if its name is off. And it’s an opportunity to evoke a place and a time without exposition. Suppose you’re writing a book about bigotry set in a sleepy southern town where the sound of cicadas and lychings whir around the acacias. A George Murphy or Sam Thompson wouldn’t cut it. But a Jubal Worthy….now he would fit right in. A story written for a character named Jubal writes itself.

John Irving is an author who nails the names of his characters scary good. They’re so good, he gives them top billing in the titles. A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY is a hook all its own. What kind of person would be named Owen Meany? Why is he praying? Why does the surname “Meany” seem to wind around many layers?

Sometimes I rename characters’ as I punch through a draft. One could go through as many as five different names until I hit upon the right one. Sometimes the character has to speak and interact with the other characters before their name is revealed. Other times, the name IS the character: all traits flow from name.

JK Rowling has said she collects names. "Many of the names are invented, for example 'Quidditch' and 'Muggle'. I also collect unusual names, and I take them from all sorts of different places. 'Hedwig' was a saint, 'Dumbledore' is an old English word for 'bumble bee' and 'Snape' is the name of a place in England. "

When a young fan asked her she thought of all the names, like Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, she said, "Those names all came out of the creatures that they turned into. I had a lot of fun with those. Wormtail was the most difficult one. My sister loathes rats and her problem with them is their tails, so that is what gave me the idea. You actually know how I get some names because I stole your Mum's maiden name, didn't I? You have to be careful if you get friendly with me because you tend to turn up in my books, and if you offend me, you often turn up as a nasty character. I found the name McClaggan the other day, which I think is a great name. There is a McClaggan in book six because I thought that it is a surname that is too good to waste."

Do you have a ho-hum character that's perfectly fine in all ways except he or she lacks that extra zip needed to get a really crackling story out of them? Try a name change, and see what happens.


Blogger redchurch said...

Great post. Naming of both the main characters and the novel title is also the primary act of marketing that the author undertakes.

I've never understood why authors give their novels foreboding generic titles like 'Dark Rain' or 'Blood Money' - I just made these up, but they probably exist.

Indiana Jones, Harry Potter--there's a reason these serve as the titles too. Why not put your hero on the title/cover?

Now, the only exception to the 'interesting name' rule is something like James Bond. Ian Fleming was going for the most boring name he could, so as to not have any associations. That can work too. The idea being, you take a name that isn't being used and give it depth of its own through the story.

Indiana Jones is a good example. Jones? That's about as generic as it gets. 'Indiana' is interesting, aside from being the name of Lucas's dog, probably goes back to westerns like Rio Bravo--'Colorado' or El Dorado's 'Mississippi' character.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Diana Metz said...

I so agree. One of the frustrations I have when talking to inexperienced writers is their wanting me to come up with names for them. So much goes into naming characters.

12:53 AM  
Blogger Kathleen Bolton said...

Heh, I just finished reading "Dark Rain". Kidding.

Naming's so tricky. No one wants to have a name that's so out there it's distracting, but a little thoughtfulness can go a long way toward setting up the mood of the book. Indiana Jones just wouldn't have worked if it were Tom Mississippi or even Arizona Smith...wait, Arizona Smith. Sounds like a fun mixed cocktail.

6:28 AM  

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