Thursday, 20 October 2016

Name your characters well! And quickly!

I tend to give a character a random name and then change it later.

Initially, this seemed like a good plan... because a quick, "oh, sod it, he's called Fred" meant that I could carry on writing and not start wasting my writing time by googling lists of names or rushing to a name generator.

However, this is turning out to be a terrible idea!

Thing is, every writer has their natural rhythm. Lines tend to dance out of the brain in accordance with a certain internal flow or pace or beat, and woe betide the poor writer who starts screwing around with that rhythm in the editing stage (I find it gets lost very easily when editing, and then the whole text starts to sound stilted and unpolished).

Another problem is that the character starts to become "whole" in your head once you name him. I have a character called Calvin and he will never, ever, be anything else to me. If an agent or publisher (assuming I ever reach that stage of the novel-writing process!) tells me to change his name, I'm going to have a lot of trouble adjusting. And if they want me to change Crimble's name then I'll probably cry!

I'd always thought I could do a quick "find and replace" once I'd decided on a better name, but I realise now that's not an option. Here's one of the reasons: internal rhyme. Changing a name can cause lines to start rhyming, and that'll completely change the feel of the whole story. Imagine having a character called Bob and then you change him to "Fred" at the last minute. Suddenly you have a ton of lines ending with "said Fred" or "Fred said", and that weird little rhyme is going chime in the reader's head (just like "rhyme" and "chime" just did in this sentence!) and quite possibly get annoying over the course of an entire novel.

Turn to blog post number 394

Here's a similar example: What if the goddess of writing, J.K. Rowling, had called the character something other than "Snape" in her first draft? For the sake of argument, let's say she called him Maurice. When the slimy potions teacher is being grumpy, JKR could easily have written first draft dialogue in this form:

"Turn to page 394," Maurice snapped.

And the thing is, once you've associated a character with a dialogue attribution/description like "snapped", it's easy to do that over and over again. That word "snapped" becomes part of the definition of your character. "Snapping" their dialogue becomes one of their natural characteristics. We know what it sounds like when someone snaps - it's spoken quickly and the words are almost bitten off like someone biting off a head. That gives us a strong sense of character.

Then, later in this completely fictitious example, let's say JKR was editing and finally decided on the name "Snape". One global-replace later, she'd have a ton of lines saying "Snape snapped". Ugh. That just sounds daft. Suddenly the manuscript is chock-full with dumb-sounding dialogue attributes, and this would only happen if the right name wasn't chosen early.

Okay, you can argue that "snapped" is a bad word to use because all the writing books tell us to stick to "said". Fair enough, but that's not really the point of the example. Pick your character names early, and pick them well. Getting the name right will change how they feel to you, and that'll come out in your writing.

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