Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Trouble By Any Other Name

As I hinted in my answer to Dave’s Monday post, names of characters assume a disproportionate importance to me. I don’t know if anyone else is bedeviled with this problem, but I can’t seem to write a character at all until his name is right. The voice won’t come into focus until I know to whom it belongs.

Now on the outside it looks like a very weird ideosyncrasy. I mean, as good old Will of the shaking lance told us, a Rose by any other name would smell as sweet. In real life, I’m fairly sure we’ve all met the equivalent of Prudebunny Pussicat who was hell on wheels. It is a well known fact – though its so well known it could be used in naming characters, frankly – that if you name a kid Grace she will trip on her own two feet all day, a Joy will be a sourpuss and I’m fairly sure all the young men now named Storm or Blaze will turn out mild-mannered milquetoasts. Heck if you want to be assured of a go-getter as a son name him – as one of my mother’s friends was – Amavel (in Portuguese, non literal, it means "mild mannered.")

So why does it assume such a disproportionate importance in characters? I don’t know. Perhaps it is one of those instances in which life does not have to be plausible, but fiction does. Or perhaps it’s the newly-hatched duck syndrome. As I get tired of preaching to new writers, it’s very nice that you want to start your book with this incidental never-again-seen character, but your reader, like a newly hatched duckling, will attach to it and be very upset when he’s not the main character. In the same way, when we get introduced to someone in real life, we’re not bound to the name only. If Amavel has a roguish twinkle in his eye, we’ll know better than take him at his name-value.

On the page, though, no matter how much you describe the character, the name gives us a hint to what he is. And unless you make it a point early on of pointing out that he is ironically named, people will think you mean it.

I first ran into this with Nigel Oldhall, who was a secondary character in Heart of Light. For a secondary character, and given his attitude, I wanted staid and somewhat wet. I didn’t realize that making him the hero of the third book would drive me insane and I’d be dragging "Nigel" up and down the page. (I asked, but the editor wouldn’t let me give him a more colorful pseudonym.)

I ran into this headlong with the sequel to Darkship Thieves, in which took secondary character Etienne Boulanger (let alone that given my issues with double letters he was often Etiene or Ettiene) and made him main character. It just wouldn’t work. In the first book I wanted an every-man sort of name at least in the planning process and he wasn’t central enough for the name to bother me. But dragging an Etienne through the book was impossible. So, with the editor’s consent – and going back to the first book before it’s typeset – he’s been renamed Simon St. Cyr. Why this works better I don’t know, but it makes the character immediately live for me. The St. Cyr, btw, was at his insistence. I have NO clue why. (I had a similar issue with Draw One In The Dark in which I tried to name Kyrie Kris and Krissy and Katy and Kelly, but nothing would work till I named her what she thought she was called "Kyrie Grace". The fact that this was the name of the newborn daughter of a friend made no difference at all to the character.)
I confess to making extensive use of, though mostly I just skip through the desired pages until a name "clicks" with what the character.

So, why do you think this is? Are there any characters you think would change completely with different names? Would Pride and Prejudice work just as well if Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy’s names were reversed? Why not?


C Kelsey said...

Wow, interesting post Sarah. Specifically the comments about Etienne. Having read the DST eARC (and loving it) you are absolutely right about his name. But I think it's a setting issue. The name "Etienne" for some reason doesn't like to fit into the DST universe. Alternately, Simon reads easier for some odd reason. However, if you flipped this around and Etienne was interacting with say, the three musketeers ;) then his name works much better as opposed to Simon.

I wrote a short ghost story to allow me to play with setting, emotion, etc. I wanted the ghost to be a girl who was listless and kind of creepy. I wanted her to be named Rachel. She, strangely enough, insisted on being named Sarah. She also became a jokester and a funny person. That change made the setting and the emotions work so much better that I was pleased even though I wound up with an 8 or so page happy tale rather than a creepy tale like I wanted.

What's in a name? The story is in the name I think. Examples abound. Miles Vorkosigan, Honor Harrington, Mike O'Neil, Jack Ryan, Sherlock Holmes... Kyrie, Tom, Notty! All of the names in a given story IMPLY a given story. Strange, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

While characters' names are of importance to me during the initial writing process, they don't have an encompassing presence to me at first. I usually name the characters and move on. Only after I've worked with the character for a while does the name either attach itself to character or it doesn't. For example, in "Winds of Change" for SMTWC, I absolutely, positively cannot envision Martha Jane with another name. Initially though, it was just a placeholder. I guess I got lucky that the placeholder name worked so well.

There are other stories in which I've had to rename characters because the placeholder one wasn't cutting it. For "Mellow Yellow," I went through several names before I settled on Cosmo. I actually do have a Cosmo in my work database, and I realized as I was working with that file what a wonderful name it was for my little flash story. His final name gave me a much better focus on the story, but I was able to move forward without it at first because I did have a sense of who the character was as a person.

No, my sticky wicket is the title of the story. No matter how much I love a story and how it's shaping up, it's not complete without the perfect title. I save myself a lot of mental angst if I go ahead and devote some brainpower to it up front.

For instance, for "Motherworld," I must have gone through five titles during the writing of the story and was frustrated as I moved from one to another. I even submitted it a few times before I settled on the final one. I never "loved" the story until I had the final title.

Between that story and the following few stories, I learned that I do much better by having a good and clever title up front. I'm a better writer if I love my story, and I have personally found that impossible if I don't have a great title.

Linda Davis

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You are correct on the setting/name match, but there's more than that. Even in the musketeers, I don't think I could have made Etienne as steel-spined -- and devious -- as he needs to be for DST II. Simon St. Cyr, however, JUST works.

And I envy Heinlein who often changed his characters' names mid-series. Do you really see Lazarus Long remaining as a "Woody"?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Perhaps the obsession with characters is my own bane. Though I have to tell you that titles are pretty important too, and this is made worse because I SUCK at them.

C Kelsey said...

The only title I ever came by easily (says the irregularly writing and unpublished wannabe) was that same ghost story. I simply wrote the entire story in an evening and then saved the file with named with the last line I'd written. I came back about a week later intending to write more and realized that the story was finished as written and the last line was the perfect title.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

LOL. Chris, I've had that happen to me -- thinking a story was halfway through and finding it was finished. And that was after selling several novels. Don't feel bad. OTOH I should have warned you -- be VERY WARE of Sarahs. Even as characters, they are subversive. It's a thing we do.

C Kelsey said...

LOL. I've noticed that Sarah's seem to get their way regardless. ;)

T.M. Lunsford said...

In response to your closing question, I honestly think Pride and Prejudice wouldn't be the same if the characters had different names. In the same way that diction and description set the tone for a story, so do the names. Bingley and Darcy are soothing, comforting sounding names, but still somewhat imposing and important at the same time. If Mr. Darcy's character had been named Mr. Collins instead, I don't know that he would be the same.

Anonymous said...

No, Sarah, it's definitely not just you who devotes much time into naming her characters up front. I've heard many writers talk about it, to the point that I really wondered if I wasn't missing a boat somewhere. Did I really know my characters well enough if I could proceed without perfect names and was I missing opportunities to get to know them through association? Was I not giving good enough renderings of my characters without great names? I did know that if I sat around trying to figure it out that I'd never get anything written. I have a hard enough time getting a rough draft down.

And I'm sure each writer's personal experiences color their opinion of the perfect names. For instance, most folks wouldn't think twice about the name Kevin in a story. I however would only name an unsympathetic character Kevin. No disrespect to the Kevins of the world because I now know plenty of good men named Kevin, but I didn't until I had become an adult. Until then, I'd never known a Kevin I liked, so the name became tinged with an "uck factor" for me. And probably no reader would've ever known if they read a story by me with an antagonist named Kevin. They might just think I'd grabbed the name out of thin air since it is rather common.

Okay, I think I'm done rambling now. And I really do have to get back to work :).

Linda Davis

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, I blame you for the fact I now have a main character who refuses to tell me her name. Two chapters in and I still don't know what to call her. I'd leave her to rot under my bed except the book is dictating itself to me too loudly to ignore. Sigh...;-p

As for your question about whether characters would change completely if you changed your name, oh yeah. Think of what P&P would have been like had Darcy been called Buford Strunk instead of Darcy? And Notty (Not Dinner) wouldn't be nearly as much fun in the Shifters books if you'd named him Fluffy. And you give a perfect example of how characters shape themselves by refusing to be called by their "real" names in Dipped, Stripped and Dead with Dyce. She simply wouldn't be the same if you called her Candyce all the way through.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


IMHO beyond that, if Mr. Darcy were Mr. Bingley he would have to be far more outgoing and friendly. :) Bingley sounds fun and bell-like. There's a lot more reserve in "Darcy" and also some dark historical associations. (Look up Northern Rebellion and Henry VIII if what I said doesn't ring a bell.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Well, we each work differently. I know very good writers who build their characters from people they know. Consciously. I just couldn't.

On the personal associations with names. I always run my character names through the critique coven -- or whichever members are accessible at the time -- because mine are quirky. The ESL thing makes them odd.

For instance, it took me years to figure out that Bruno was not a strong-silent-smart name. It was growing up in Portugal!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually I have any number of weirdly-named characters who go by other names. Right now I'm starting something with a Lillith Quartermain (don't ask. Why would you ask?) who goes by Lilly.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Names are terribly important. I've had to stop halfway through a book and go back to rename a character, because they just aren't a 'Roger'. Then this will have a roll-on effect with other names.

You can't have names that rhyme, or begin with the same letters. It gets confusing.

If a name 'click's I feel great relief because it means all the subconscious story associations that we were talking about in the comments to my last post, are working!

C Kelsey said...

I once gave a character the last name of "Mayor". Dave was kind enough to point out that I had done a nifty job of allowing the reader to become confused as to whether I was referring to a name, or a position. Oops. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


it also has happened to me I had a killer idea, but the names didn't click and the book NEVER came alive.

Kate said...

Names certainly matter. Characters get sulky and refuse to tell you things you need to know if you try to use the wrong name. Of course, one of the things you need to know is their name, and they can be quite snarky about.

Chris McMahon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris McMahon said...

I can't even start working on a character until I have come up the name. For me its a lot like working out a plot problem, and I put a lot of thought into it until something 'clicks'. I am not even sure why a name feels right, but I seem to know it when I get there. Subconscious I guess.

I guess this is why I am so resistant to changing a character's name once they have been let loose on the page. I think I have change names - maybe once or twice - but usually for incidental characters.

Da Curly Wolf said...

Eh..I don't know. I will say that 'Dyce' kinda threw me for a loop.
I wrote a fast and dirty review of the book over on LJ. BTW could you please take my suggestion under advisement and KILL Dyce's Ex? It's not just that he's a useless prick, but to name his child Enoch? He does not deserve to breath the same air as his son..for that reason alone. I mean Enoch? Really? *shudder* mom LOVED it. Which works for me since A> like my father she'd doesn't do fantasy or sci-fi. B. Hard as I tried I couldn't get her into the Musketeers. [to my eternal frustration.] C. I now have 2 people to buy the new series for. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sean, sweetie, can you send me your LJ link? And I just got the cover for the second book!