Monday, April 27, 2015


Finding a character's 'true' name can be the simpliest thing in writing, or one of the most difficult. In either case, though, for me, doing so is like water: essential.

It's different if I'm reading.  In that case, names matter, but I can also skim over them if they don't work for me.   I'm an inveterate chunk-reader anyway, so I can  hum through any name that feels like a misfit, or that reminds me of the kid in 3rd grade who used to make truck sounds as he went through the cafeteria line every day, spraying the kids on either side of him with the effluvia of his sputtering. (Note: not sexy.)

But as a writer, I'm a lot less flexible on the name thing.   Names matter.   A lot.

It's kind of crazy, but for me, names let me truly 'see' the character.  They're a bit like clothes: they reveal truths about a person, from the fit to the style.  But they not only reveal; they create. 

Names 'find' characters, and then force them to be true to that name.

I've had to use 'placeholder' names for months on end because no name felt right.   Unfortunately, no name = I struggle to find the story, flailing through hundreds of pointless pages trying to find the story and the arc for this wrongly-named soul.  

Names can be pesky things, and catching the right one can be like trying to catch a butterfly in a hurricane.  So sad, for the story, for the characters, for any deadlines I had planned.  

But the moment I 'find' the name, I also find the story.   It's as if the story shakes itself out, like a dog, and the entire character arc appears.
I'm guessing I struggle with names when I haven't 'found' the story yet.  This creates a vicious, if masochistically pleasing, circle.  All I need to do is find the story, and I'll find the name, and vice versa, which is at once hopeful (the story's out there somewhere, right??) and hopeless (I'll never find it.)

A peek into the neurotic freefall of one writer's mind.

How much do character names matter to you?
Do you have any books that you've loved, but couldn't stand the hero/heroine names? 


azteclady said...

*waving* Hello, Ms Kennedy!

It is interesting to see how writers' minds work. :grin:

As a reader, I do not believe I have found a protagonist name that I couldn't roll with, as long as the character is well-written (meaning, a fully formed person instead of a caricature), but some are a lot more memorable than others.

Roarke, of In Death fame, for example.

Jamie, to me, is what you call a James when he's a kid--like Billy for a William, say--so it was harder for me to identify with Jamie Fraser of Outlander, but once I got to know him and his environment (time, place, family, etc) it was done. said...

:waving back* Why hello there, Ms. Lady. ;)

You nailed how it works for me as a reader, too. I've had that same experience with good books: a name that felt 'off' to me initially began to feel right as I became immersed in the story world.

You know what's even more difficult for me as a reader? Not so much a character with a name I don't like, but a character who doesn't live up to his or her name. Some names connote great things, exciting things. I need to see that greatness exist/develop in them, or I get terribly fussy. :)

azteclady said...

Oh yes, I agree. There are names I love--I'm not sure why, in many cases--but say there's a Patrick or Paul or Mark and they are wimps? That kills me. Make them villains if you must, but make them strong. Wishy washy characters with those names make me a very sad reader indeed.