The Name Game

Most writers will have heard the phrase “cast of thousands.” Sometimes it’s positive, describing a richly populated world that feels like it has all the human variation of real life. Sometimes it’s a criticism of an overpopulated, confusing story that seems to have more characters than it needs. We’re often told to simplify – combine characters, don’t give unnecessary characters too much description or page time, don’t name people if their names aren’t important.

There are places to streamline things and keep your character count low. Query letters, for instance. But in other places, it makes sense to name names, even if a character is unimportant to the overall plot.

In real life, we know a lot of people’s names, and we use them to think about those people. Or if we don’t know names, we use descriptions or our feelings about the people. It might be simplest and most straightforward to describe someone as “a classmate,” but who thinks in terms like that? It’s not “a classmate asked me for a pencil,” it’s “Ashley asked me for a pencil.” Maybe “Ashley Green” if you don’t know her that well and feel a bit more formal. If you don’t know her name, it might be “the girl with all the eyeliner” or “a kid from the volleyball team.” “Classmate” or “another student” is accurate, but feels like a weird way to describe a specific person you encounter regularly. See also “coworker,” “teammate,” and other people whose names you’d likely know.

I think writers sometimes fear the “name soup” problem – that there will be too many characters’ names, and readers won’t know which ones to pay attention to. Which, again, is a concern in query letters, where you have limited space. Because the plot summary in a query may be just a few sentences, it’s hard to give important characters the emphasis and weight that lets readers know that these are the ones to remember.

In a novel, though, readers can handle having name-drops that they aren’t expected to keep in mind forever, because this happens in real life all the time. Servers introduce themselves at restaurants; you meet people at a conference who you’ll never see again; you hear a researcher’s name in a news story. Do you remember all those names? Probably not. Does it confuse or bother you to hear them? Probably not.

We often use people’s names when we’re talking about them in real life, too. It’s generally much more realistic to say “Michael and I went to the skate park” rather than “A friend and I went to the skate park,” especially if the listener also knows Michael.

Because this is me here, let’s have some examples of skillful name-dropping from Harry Potter!

  1. Remember Mr. and Mrs. Mason? If not, don’t feel bad. They’re “a rich builder and his wife” who have dinner at the Dursley house at the beginning of Book Two. They only matter in that their visit is occasion for Harry to be forced into hiding, at which point Dobby arrives, ruins the dinner party, and gets Harry in trouble. But given that the Dursleys put a lot of planning into this dinner, it would be weird if Rowling had decided to avoid ever using the Masons’ names just because they don’t have any continued importance to the plot.
  2. The use of characters’ names can be delightfully sneaky when it’s casual enough that you forget it until later. When Harry meets Cedric Diggory and his father, Mr. Diggory mentions the Lovegoods to Arthur Weasley. It sounds natural – two adults discussing mutual friends or acquaintances Harry doesn’t know – and most readers probably forget it quickly, as Harry seems to. Then we meet Luna Lovegood in the next book. Lovegood. Now why does that sound familiar . . . ?
  3. Many of Harry’s classmates never do anything of great importance in the books, but we feel we know them because their names pop up every so often. This makes a lot of sense: Hogwarts isn’t that big a school, and Harry would know the other kids in his year, and some of the ones older and younger than himself. They’re present in his everyday life, and we get a feel for that through dozens of tiny moments that aren’t individually important: Lavender Brown answering a question in class, Pansy Parkinson complaining about Hagrid, Dean and Seamus interrupting a sensitive conversation between Harry and his closer friends. Bonus: it doesn’t feel like the character came out of nowhere when one of them DOES do something notable, such as start dating Ron.

You can overdo it with names, of course. Too many can be a kind of infodump: the writer has put so much work into building her world and developing every character in it that she doesn’t want to leave any out even when including them doesn’t feel natural. For instance, in reality, a character who is on a soccer team would likely say, “When I got to practice, the rest of the team was already there,” rather than, “When I got to practice, Sarah, Natasha, Alice, Lauren, Karina, Jamini, Melissa, Tenesha, Maya, and Emily were already there.” If the book is written in a conversational style, you might pull off naming the whole team in a more intentional way: “When I got to practice, the rest of the team was already there. What you have to know about the Mountain Goats is that only half of us are any good. Specifically, Natasha, Lauren, Karina, Alice, and Jamini, who were running drills when I arrived. Maya’s parents make her play, but she hates it. Tenesha only joined the team to support Maya. I convinced Sarah, Melissa, and Emily to join with me, and I’m only playing until I figure out who murdered the team’s last coach.”

Rather than write a proper conclusion, I leave you with this masterpiece:

A Hottie by Any Other Name

So I’m reading another YA paranormal romance. I’m frequently disappointed by these, mostly for reasons that fall under the “romantic interest is a jerk” and/or “protagonist is a dopey pushover” categories, but I am convinced that these problems are not inherent to the genre. Just, you know, frequent pitfalls. Plus, this one is an Alice in Wonderland retelling, and I am a sucker for some Alice in Wonderland, y’all.

However, in this book – I’ll go ahead and tell you that it is Splintered by A. G. Howard, since you could probably figure it out – I’ve encountered a completely unrelated issue. It’s one that I’ve seen before in different books of various genres. It is the saddling of characters who are supposed to be romantic/sexy/attractive with names that are none of the above.

Is it shallow that I have so much trouble taking seriously our protagonist’s attraction to a guy named Jeb? JEB, you guys. His name is JEBEDIAH. I’m fairly confident in saying that no name that ends with “diah” is going to be loaded with sex appeal. As to the question “is it shallow,” quite possibly. But I’m not the only one who has this problem.

Years ago, I was at a writers’ conference in which a romance author on one of the panels told a story. Some time before, she had had another romance novel in the works, and was auctioning off the right to name its male lead. The proceeds would go to charity. Here is where the awkward starts: the winner of the auction was her father. Here is where the awkward gets worse: he wanted to name the male lead after himself. Here is where the author put her foot down: his name was Melvin.

Because, unfair as it might be to the Melvins of the world, you cannot, in modern-day America, slap that name on a character who is supposed to be swoonworthy. Hey, fiction doesn’t always mirror real life, and it doesn’t have to. Romance authors rarely give their male leads bad teeth, or have them catch icky diseases, even those those things happen in reality. There are things that writers have reason to want to avoid.

The names that do and don’t work for a sexy character (or a scary character, or a cute character, etc.) vary from person to person and era to era. Some names may work or not work for a specific reader for reasons that have to do with that reader’s experiences. (“Jebediah” might just be a problem for me because I grew up in a small town in the South and didn’t really like the redneck culture I often encountered. To me, “Jeb” is a guy in dirty overalls who takes potshots at ‘possums.) Other names, however, have pretty broadly-held associations, at least for a given time period or a given culture. Which brings us to LIST TIME!

  1. Just Getting Older with Age – A name that was very popular a generation or two ago but isn’t now will feel like an “old” name – a “mom” name or a “grandparent” name – and probably not be sexy. Think Doris, Mildred, Clarence, or Lloyd, all common baby names in the 1920s. When Jane Eyre came out (slight spoilers maybe, but you’ve had since 1847 to read it), “Bertha” was a sexy foreign name. How many sexy Berthas do you read about now?
  2. Nobody Names Their Daughter Jezebel – Some names are strongly associated with specific people. Even if your male lead is German, you might think twice about naming him Adolf. The associations don’t necessarily even have to be negative. I once read a thriller in which the heroine’s supposedly sexy tough-guy husband was named Mickey. I just . . . Mickey is a mouse. He’s a mouse.
  3. “Bond. Jimmy Bond.” – Doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Sometimes it’s not the name itself, but what the character goes by. I can easily see a Robert as a romantic interest, but Bob? Not so much. And it’s not just about whether a name is attractive or not: there are other implications. If you want to write someone snooty, would he go by Lawrence or Larry? Augustin or Gus? What if you want to write someone very laid-back and casual?

I don’t intend this post to be mean! I feel the pain of real-life people who have these names. I myself have a first name that peaked in popularity between 1950 and 1955, over thirty years before I was born, so it always felt like a name for people my mom’s age. That’s part of why I go by an unrelated nickname. If I were writing a book set in the present, with a character my age, I probably wouldn’t give her a name like mine unless it was a plot point. Certainly my name does not evoke a “twentysomething” image, any more than Melvin evokes a “smoldering hottie” image.

You can, of course, give a character a contradictory name if you mean to play around with expectations or otherwise make a point with it. (See “plot point” in the paragraph above.) Maybe it’s an old family name. Maybe your character hates it – or loves it. Maybe she goes by something else, and her real name is an embarrassing secret.

Or maybe you just want to play it for laughs. I must take this opportunity to recommend the awesome Dickens-spoof radio series “Bleak Expectations,” which includes such wonderful names as Mr. Skinflint Parsimonius (“who was, ironically, the most generous of men”) and Mr. Gently Benevolent (“who was, ironically, a complete bastard”).

None of this is to say that real people can’t be sexy or silly or serious or anything else regardless of their names. It’s just one of the many things to consider when you’re putting together a fictional character. Names are neat! There’s so much you can do with them! They can really pull their weight, making readers assume or feel things about a character the moment she’s introduced. Just make sure you aren’t giving her a name that pulls its weight in the opposite direction of what you intend.

Favorite/least favorite names, fictional or otherwise? Other thoughts?

What’s in a Name? Vowels, Apparently.

. . . Who knew?

I just realized something completely random and a little odd. Counting the heroine of the novel on which I’m currently working (14,000 words in!), I’ve written four female characters who are the protagonists and viewpoint characters of their respective novels. And, by coincidence, each of their names contains both the letter A and the letter I.

It’s not as if their names are similar. Seriah was the POV character of my first novel, Guardian to the Prince; Allison is the heroine of Dragons Over London; Claire stars in The Dogwatchers; and my current work centers on a girl named Sanji.

Allison lives in the modern-day USA. While all the others inhabit the same fantasy world, they’re not citizens of the same country. Indeed, Sanji lives on a different continent from the other two.

A quick rundown of my secondary and supporting female characters seems to indicate that only a third to half of them have this letter combo in their names. (Still seems like kind of a lot to me.) I’ve only written two male protagonists/POV characters in my novels, so I can’t really analyze them. They do not, however, follow the A-and-I pattern.

It’s a silly observation, I know. I think it’s kind of neat, though, considering that it was entirely unintentional and that the names are so different. The A and I don’t sound the same in any two of them!

The funny thing is that, while this has been totally coincidental so far, my having noticed it means that, on some level, whether I do it again will probably be a conscious choice. Sure, I might forget, or I might be drawn to a particular name so strongly that I would have chosen it regardless, but chances are I won’t be able to claim again that I didn’t even think about it.

Anything like this ever happen to any of you guys?