Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Characters have many names

In the course of a story you are going to refer to each character several times, however, you do not want to be repeated "Luke said" or "Luke wrote" or "Luke did whatever" over and over again.  The repetition of the name would get grating on the reader and it has the character of an inexpert speaker.

Think about how people talk in real life.  When we encounter someone that simply repeats the name over and over again when labeling who is doing what, we get irritated at hearing "Luke", or whatever name is being used, incessantly.   It becomes like a drum beat where we can mark the time by the use of that name.

Some times you want to give that impression of the same word repeated over and over again as it can add to tension in some cases.  However, used too often and it simply becomes annoying.

English has a built in solution for this problem in the form of pronouns, but even in that case, you've switched from one distinctive beating sound to two.  Instead of beating the same drum over and over, you're now switching between two drums, or, more likely, you'll beat one drum frequently and occasionally switch over to the other at dramatic points.

In that case the drum beat sounds like "Luke he he he he he Luke he he he he he Luke he he he he he..." and so on.

The solution is simply: you need to give the characters, especially important characters, more than the one name.

By this, I don't simply mean to give the same character a bunch of given names, but that each character should have several short descriptive phrases that specifically meant to indicate them.

These names can come from different combinations of their given name, based on occupation, descriptive phrases, titles, nicknames given to them by other characters or anything else.

Let's look at Lucretia from Bystander.  The following phrases are used to describe Lucretia in the first book, though in some cases only once or twice.

Lucretia, Lu, parolee peak, silver-haired peak, silver-haired young woman, librarian, ex-con, bystander, Kimono, young peak, older peak and the hostess.

In addition, her variety of names give me some quick ways to remind my readers of parts of her character in the course of the story.  This reminder can be either appropriate or inappropriate to the situation.

For example, I might want to suddenly remind the reader in the middle of a sequence that Lucretia's day job is that of a librarian.  If I use this while she's fighting or running for her life in some sort of fight or crisis, then it instantly places the image of her shelving books on top of the current scene.  That's a somewhat disjointed image that makes for a bit of amusement on the part of the reader.

Of course, the action-librarian has become something of a common trope of late, so it doesn't any longer have the sort of impact it used to.

Occupational names have some problem when you are dealing with characters who share occupations.  Looking back at Bystander again, I often use "the mercenary" to describe Robles, Kali and their underlings.  However, names have to be exclusive to a particular character within the scene.  If I call Jason "the mercenary" then I cannot also use that term for anybody else in the same scene or else I risk confusing identities.

In Bystander's case, I simply shift to other titles.  Kali or Robles can both become "ex-goddess", Sightseer is the "sniper" and Isaiah is the "drone master".  When Kali and Robles are in the same scene, then I could have refered to them as the "templar goddess" and  the "ascended goddess" respectively, however, the need did not present itself, so that might come later.

Also note which names each character uses for each other.

Lucretia calls most people by their last names if she knows it.  However, she often calls Robles "Sergeant" the way the others do and she calls Novac "the Old Man", also like the other mercenaries do.  She calls Sightseer by his given first name, "Eldon" however.  All three of these exceptions are indicative of how she feels about the characters.  Robles and Novac are rather parental figures, while she wants to be closer to Sightseer.

Also note that most of the people who are friendly with Lucretia end up calling her "Lu" rather than Lucretia.  The villains refer to her by names meant to objectify her such as "bystander" and "Kimono".

Of more note is the exchange between Kali and Robles when the latter reveals her presence to the former.  Kali refers to Robles by her codename, "Tlazolteotl", while Robles calls Kali by her rank and family name, "Sergeant Jasthi."

This shows that Kali has become more than a little unhinged by what she has been facing since becoming a goddess and has started to associate with the implications of the codename and abandoning her old name.  Robles, meanwhile, is still firmly grounded in reality and her normal, birth identity.  There use of the others' unprefered names shows an attempt by each to impose their paradigm of thought on the other.

Kali is identifying Robles as a goddess, a mythical figure, while Robles is reminding Kali that they're just people.

Note that the more important a character, the more names and labels that they are likely to have.  However, also note that the number of names increases when you have the same character being described from multiple different perspectives.

Lucretia is not only the main character of the story, she is the title character.  The world revolves around her from a literary point of view, other things are going on in the world, but the story focuses on the things that affect her.

Bystander shows the perspectives of several different people and how they view her.  She is described alternately by herself, Robles, Grant, Sightseer, Novac, Kali, Jason, Isaiah, Det Assaf and Det Park.  Since each of these characters sees her slightly different, they each use different terms when referring to her and thus a multitude of names are born.

By comparison, the Greenwater novels are mostly told from the perspectives of Tennel Grimbeck and Runya Sulemar.  In addition, the world is much less centered on these two than it is that they are somewhat placed at the center of it.  As a result, the other characters, when they get their perspectives, are not so focused on the two main characters.  As such, both characters have fewer names than Lucretia due to this more focused perspective in the story.

In the end, a simple drum beat pattern is okay for a short story with few characters, but the longer and more complex the story, the more notes you want to play with.  You might end up with enough names where it is a better analogy to compare to a piano or xylophone, but do remember, that there is one name that you want to use for every scene that a character appears in.

Their given name.  The name that most completely defines them in the terms of the story.

There are some reasons not to use a given name.  If you want to conceal the identity of a person in a scene for a time, then it is a good idea not to use their names until you want them revealed.  However, you'll want to have some clues as to who they are, and giving hints of a descriptive name is good for that.

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