I’d like to introduce you to someone. His name is Gage. While you and I are talking, he’s going to have a seat here in the back of your mind.
You should consider updating the furniture back there, by the way. Just saying.
I want to have a word with you about character names. Making up a character’s name is not the easiest thing in the world to do, and the stakes are pretty high. Some writers don’t have to deal with it – their processes are pretty intuitive, so they just know what their characters’ names are. Even those lucky souls have to make up the occasional name, though. Today, I want to show you two of my personal pet peeves.
1. Cutesy-boo nicknames. They’re gimmicky, and they commit the cardinal sin of telling without showing. Here’s how.
Let’s say I’m at the brick-and-mortar bookstore. I’m hanging out in the romance section, and I see this intriguing title: “Getting Hot with the Tin Man.”
Yes, that is my sort of thing, and you’d do well not to shame me.
Anyway, I pick up the book and turn it over for the back cover blurb. Here are the first four words: “Tim ‘Tin Man’ Chase.”
Well, I will never know for certain what happens to Tim because I just put the book back on the shelf. I have a pretty good guess, though. My suspicion is that something happened to poor Tim, at some point in the past, which has caused him to behave as if he has no emotions. He is very good at what he does, but it’s like the poor fellow has no heart. Then he meets someone special, and things get hot, as the title promises.
See? I didn’t have to read it after all. Tim’s name told me everything I needed to know. I’m doubly annoyed because I was hoping to read about an actual tin man. Maybe something about Oz. Instead, the imaginary writer of this imaginary book lost me in four words, none of which was inside the book.
You’re a better writer than that. Show me that Tim has no heart – or if you really want to go to Oz, show me that he thinks he has no heart but that he’s wrong. (For a man with no heart, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz was always the first to shed tears. Check it out.) Stand on your story.
2. Remember your characters have parents. When I was in high school and finding my legs as a writer, one of my teachers often encouraged me to give my characters symbolic names. It’s not bad advice for high school. Out here, though, I think the reader can see a symbolic name for what it is.
Back at the brick-and-mortar bookstore, I’m reading the back cover blurb for a paranormal romance. It’s about a werewolf hero. His name is Fenris.
Yeah, I’m putting that back, too.
I encountered the name Fenris for the first time during my first trip to Narnia, many moons ago. Fenris was a wolf. His full name, Fenris Ulf, means Wolf Wolf. And he’s a wolf. See?
(This was in the time before he was called Maugrim, at least here in the States.)
I don’t mind a name that symbolizes *something,* but remember, this person probably got his name from his parents. In our paranormal romance, I was being asked to believe that this person’s parents first held their baby boy, who was probably screaming himself pink in an adorable baby way, and said, “Yes. His name is Fenris.”
To me, that’s like watching new parents in our non-paranormal delivery room hold a baby boy, who is screaming himself pink in an adorable baby way, and say, “Yes. His name is L’Homme. Hmm. Or maybe Infant.” Now if the point of the story is, in some Faulknerian way, that his name is L’Homme, go right ahead. Just remember that most of us had to be assigned Faulkner, and not so many of us went back to him voluntarily.
Consider the parents. When they look down at their child, their hearts filled with whatever emotion, what will they call this baby? Don’t turn his name into a label. It’s a name.
Let’s go back to Gage, hanging out on the outdated furniture in the back of your mind. Take a second and study him. Who is he? What does he look like? What’s he been doing back there while we’ve been talking?
Gage is not a name entirely free of connotations, but it isn’t loaded. And so Gage can be a rugged Western hero from a romance novel, the sort of guy who drives a Suburban but struggles sometimes with a bad back. Or Gage might be a little boy who is about to spend the last few minutes of his life racing his father to the highway.
Mom read about the first Gage about 20 years ago. She still mentions him every time she sees a Suburban. The name didn’t do that. The author did.
I read about the second Gage about 20 years ago. Writing about him now, though, I can see the movie version of the story, that part when his father trips on something in the tall grass and loses that race and then loses his son and then goes on to lose a whole lot more. The name doesn’t do that. The author does.
(I know. Let’s not get into Victor Pascow and whether his name refers to the Paschal Victory. That’s not my point just now, but yes, I do see it.)
Before I mentioned these two guys with the same name, did you see someone else? Had you already begun to draw that picture in your mind? Leave yourself some room to work. Don’t push us readers away before we even start reading.
Let’s have a little fun and share what your Gage looked like in the comments. I will always see the little boy.
**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.