Look, it’s our good friends Dolly and Stiva. I mean Darya and Stepan. I mean Darya Alexandrovna and Stepan Arkadyevich. I mean Princess and Prince Oblonsky. I mean…. Jeez, Tolstoy. Just pick one and stick with it.
Part of planning a new novel is writing character profiles. This is something we’ve discussed here before, but as I’ve been doing this for a few years, I’ve become more and more aware of the importance of simplicity when it comes to names.
I’m not just talking about picking simple names that the reader will remember, and not trying to get too fancy, cute, or faux-exotic. Yes, it’s true that this can be annoying. (For example, why does the elder Jacobis brother on Killjoys have to be named “D’avin”? What is that apostrophe even doing there?) But that’s not what set me off on this rant today.
I thought of this earlier this week, not because I was doing character profiles, actually, but because I was reading an ebook that I borrowed from our local library. I won’t name the book, or the characters, except to say that two of the main characters are a pair handsome young men who are in a relationship. I’ll call them Sam Jones and Bob Miller. Eventually, as the story goes on, the reader can see individual personality quirks, and can differentiate them pretty clearly. But in early chapters, they are…I’m sorry, there’s no other way to say it…they’re practically indistinguishable.
And this is all made about a hundred times worse by the authors insistence on mixing it up between their first and last names whenever they’re in a scene together. So in one exchange of dialog, you might have “Jones” talking to “Miller.” And then on the next page, there’s “Bob” talking to “Sam.” I had no idea who was who, and it got fantastically frustrating. I very nearly gave up the book simply for that reason.
Perhaps the author (or her editor) was worried about just saying “Jones…Jones…Jones…Jones,” over and over, again and again, all down the page. And so she wanted to mix it up a bit between first and last name. But that’s entirely unnecessary. It’s like the beginning writer problem of not wanting to use the word “said” too many times in dialog, and then throwing in verbs like “opined” or “pronounced,” which are actually far more distracting to the reader. When a reader sees a boring old dialog tag like “he said,” the reader just skims over that, barely even noticing. In contrast, a reader is more likely to notice “he queried,” or “he contended,” and that will take the reader out of the story.
But that’s not nearly as bad as forcing the reader to flip back to an earlier chapter just to figure out if “Bob” and “Jones” are the same person, or if it’s “Bob” and “Miller.” So my modest request to fantasy authors out there is to pick one name—just one—and stick with it. Please.
I know you’re thinking, “But what about Tolstoy?” To which I have to say, 1) you and I are not Tolstoy. 2) if we’re writing in English, we’re not writing primarily for an audience who grew up with the dizzying system of Russian diminutives and patronymics, and who therefore finds it totally normal. And 3) go tell someone that you’re going to force them to read War and Peace. Do they look happy about it? Look at the face they make. Is that the face you want people to have when they contemplate reading your work? I think not. Just pick a name—any name—for each character, and then stick with it.
This gets a bit tricky when you’re writing in a quasi-late medieval/renaissance fantasy world like S and I have created in the Myrciaverse. A great many of our characters are knights and ladies and nobles, and a lot of our stories are about war and spying. This means we have a lot of characters who have ranks and titles, and before long, if you’re not careful, you have people named, say, “Colonel Lord William Smith, Earl of Ashwood.” So from this, we can get an almost Tolstoyan variety of appellations just for this one guy:
“The Earl of Ashwood”
“Will,” “Bill,” “Willy,” “Billy”
And finally, maybe his old school friends and army buddies have some juvenile nickname for him that has nothing to do with his given name or rank, at all, like “Stinker” or “Goose.”
If I use even half of those names for the same character, the reader will hate me, and rightly so. If I use even two or three of them, I have to make sure it’s very clear in context that the guy whose troops call him “the colonel” is the same person his neighbors call “Lord Ashwood,” who is, in turn, the same guy his wife calls “Will.”
So, thanks to running into this problem in the book that shall remain nameless, I’ve been giving more thought to exactly what my characters should be called, and trying to make sure that I’m not confusing the reader.
And also I’ve been expanding my outlines and looking up the history of geology, but those are topics for an entirely different blog.