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.

5 comments:

  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.

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  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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  3. Hey! Just thought you might be interested in checking out my latest book giveaway at amandarosetew.blogspot.com!

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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)...

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  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.

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