Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name (Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare)

What's in a name? For me, as a writer, everything.

I know writers who can actually work on a new story while calling their main characters "A" and "B" or merely leaving blanks where the names should be. I have never been able to do that, so I don't understand that ability at all. I envy it and at the same time, I can't help being mildly shocked by it at the same time.

My stories always start with a named character. When I write a novel or a story, I usually have a pretty good sense of where it's going, what's going to happen, and whether my protagonist is male or female. But until I have that character's name, I'm in a bit of a bind. And not much gets written.

For me, meeting a character for the first time requires a proper introduction. And the introduction by definition requires a name. When I wrote Saving Jake, I already had the name "Jake" in my head. The rest of the characterization was so easy once I had the name that I usually tell people that Jake rang my doorbell as a fully developed person. I know exactly how he looked (long hair, sad brown eyes), exactly how he dressed (bottle-green trench coat from a second-hand shop and a pair of red high tops), and exactly who he was (sensitive, artistic, and rebellious). Until I had his name, though, the rest of those details were nonexistent.

In the manuscript I am currently sending out, Daniel Rhode appeared on my doorstep, told me I couldn't write the book without him, and proceeded to take over an entire subplot that I didn't know existed until he turned up. Like Jake, Daniel's personality came intact with his name and there was very little I didn't know about him.

I find that when I'm really struggling with a story, there's a pretty good chance I don't have the right name for my main character! As goofy as that sounds, I need to know who it is I'm writing about and until they come up and whisper their names into my ear, I haven't got a clue.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a character with the wrong name will never share his or her story with me no matter how I work at it. And having no name? That's just love's labors lost.


  1. Having the right name for your character doesn't sound goofy at all. If you're like me, your characters are very real to you and the name is a part of them. I love it when my characters whisper in my ear and tell me thing sbout themselves. The character is what I remember most about a story.

  2. I'm with you about the names. I may have an idea and a shadowy character but until I have their name I can't fit them into the story.

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  4. I've had a few stories where I didn't figure out the character's name until page 20 or so. Right now I'm still trying to work out a character's name - and she's being really stubborn about agreeing on just one (*sigh* five choices so far and she still doen't like any of them)...

  5. Wow, glad to hear I'm not alone with this particular, er, idiosyncrasy! I think it means we're all writing character-driven stories, and those ARE the stories that stand out in people's heads.