Sunday, January 3, 2010

Fiction writing tip of the day


Don't give your main characters names that are too fanciful, pretentious, un-euphonious, unusual or unlikely. Give them names that are at least halfway probable for their time, place, gender, and in some cases, alas, class -- not names that you think might be cool baby names. It's not unreasonable that a child born in the 1970s might be called Layla, that one born in 1812 might be called Jeremiah or that one born in Marseilles might be called Antoine, but in the ordinary run of things (which for the moment let us say means a realist novel set in contemporary Australia) it upsets the delicate balance of that precious commodity, the reader's suspended disbelief, to come across a character called Rufus or Iphigenia. Much less Tristan, Tay-lah or Malachite. Stick with something (though not necessarily white-bread: Australia has a plentiful array of Dmitris and Minh-has and Ahmeds and so on) that by virtue of being mainstream makes your particular Jane or John Doe that much more your own.

18 comments:

Ann ODyne said...

You are so correct - naming is a minefield.
Holden Caulfield, or Zooey Glass anyone? I did get a surprise trawling the Victoria births of the 1890's to find SABINE was a stand-out popular name.
Check with my pal Onomastitrix who logs the notices around the (english-speaking) traps and brace yourself - today there was a Farrah.

Mindy said...

Heh, my cousin Tristan is in his mid twenties, and another cousin has a daughter now in her early teens called Taylah. Does that help?

No Malachite as yet (but there are a number of babies I haven't met so who knows. We don't talk to/about that side of the family).

fifi said...

I know tons of Taylahs and quite a few Tristans. In my daughter's year at school there were four Taylahs. No Malachites or Iphigenias though.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Oh yes, I too have many friends-and-relations whose names, like my own, are unmistakably those of their time and place, viz given to a Australian girl-child in the 1950s. I belive 'Raewyn' is a common New Zealand name, of roughly the same vintage, but I doubt it occurs anywhere else in the world.

That post was born of my reading of yet another a work novel full of irritatingly improbably named characters, the day after a discussion over dinner about Creative Writing students and what it is that they want to get out of the courses they take. I guess I was partly trying in the post, but I think probably not hard/clearly enough, to challenge the idea that the photographic approximation of real life is the chief virtue of fiction, a widespread belief among Creative Writing students and a topic that came up over New Year's Eve dinner.

But I wasn't at all talking about Naming Children in Real Life (in fact I picked Tay(-)lah for exactly that reason), nor yet trashing Malachite et al, but about the names that inexperienced fiction writers give their characters for all the wrong reasons. Especially when you get a Tay-lah popping up in 1788, or Abu Dhabi.(Hi TC. *waves*) Whereas if a character is named, say, John or Mary or some regional or period variation thereof (Jean-Paul, Ian, Maria, Mary Ann), s/he immediately becomes timeless and his/her name fits seamlessly into the reader's awareness without jarring.

Ms O'Dyne, I do so agree that there are exceptions. I'd argue that we still know of them today because their authors were exceptional talents. 'Call me Ishmael' and so on. And as for Huckleberry Finn ...

(I think Sabine is a beautiful name, BTW.)

innercitygarden said...

I do know a Tristan (and an Isolde, they don't know each other though) and a Rufus (he's a toddler) and their names are all fine and dandy so long as the fictional parents depicted would conceivably have chosen them, ie people with large home libraries and a few degrees. If you're going to bang on about how your character had hippy parents who lived in a cave, you probably shouldn't call him John and expect us to believe it's his birth name. That said, novels (or tv series) that bang on about a character's name as a central theme are also quite boring and tend to miss the point that parents, when they name a child, are not representing their child's actual personality because they don't know it yet.

fifi said...

I did understand what you were saying.
(Fysh Lamb made me so irritated though not for historical inaccuracy)
but just thought Taylah would be quite usual to reflect the now of now. Or even better, Epony-rae. heh.

Meredith said...

I think my parents called my brother Dorian because their own names are Betty and David.

The temptation to exotic names for fictional characters is strong... and I agree it can be detrimental to one's suspension of disbelief. Sometimes it works though, like Hermione in the HP books could only be Hermione.

Anonymous said...

Raewyn Yee, a Chinese schoolmate in Christchurch NZ, at a time when the place was super Anglo.

Now why do your creative writing students think Isherwood is god? I have to teach mine how to make up imaginary fantasy names. Although I did have one student with a contemporary novel set in the Death Metal scene, and I am assured the details are all true.

Naming a character is like naming a cat. It just fits...

Lucy

Red Horse said...

I was recently researching naming conventions in pre-industrial England (don't ask) and stumbled over the delightfully macabre fact that medieval parents (presumably those with many children)sometimes gave a younger child the same name as an older one - I suppose assuming one or the other would inevitably die young.
Later on (for example in Jane Austen's day) parents would sometimes give a younger child the same name of an older child who had died prior to the birth of the younger one.
It's an interesting insight into our own modern attitudes and markers of grief. I can't imagine any parent today re-using the name of a dead child for a younger sibling. What did those earlier parents have in mind, I wonder? The younger child as replacement? As a walking-talking memorial? Or simply pragmatic re-use of a name intended to honour someone else (a beloved aunt, say, or a rich patron). I don't doubt for a minute that they mourned the lost child every bit as much as we would, despite larger family sizes.

ThirdCat said...

*waves back*

I reckon you need to be able to say the name too. Easily. It's too distancing if you're never quite sure whether how to pronounce it even in your head.

Bernice said...

Occasionally sitting reading the credits at a film's end, I'm not quite sure whether some of the names are mis-spelt, the parents weren't terribly good spellers or they're just eye-rollingly tiffaneeated.

A friend was riding a bus in rural Ireland some years ago and started up a conversation with a young woman holding a still nursing babe. On being told the girl's name was Wyvvone, she remarked "oh that's unusual, is it an old Irish name?" No, came the reply. She then asked how you spell it. Y-v-o-n-n-e. It's all in the saying.

Nabakov said...

The names attached to spam are often good. No likelihood of blowback.

But ultimately it really depends on what kinda writin' yer writin'.

EG: Thomas Pynchon, Angela Carter, Patricia Highsmith and Graham Greene all came up with very evocative names for their characters. But you wouldn't wanna swap them around would you?

Though "The Infernal Desire Machines of Tom Ripley" does have a certain ring to it.

Personally, I reckon when it comes to naming fictional characters, you should as the comment doorbitch puts it now, "demalt" ie: deliberately go too far and then wind it back a bit as the story settles and forms on the page or screen.

Look basically, a good name just feels right in the context of the story. If you can pull that off, then you already know what yer doing with the whole of the tale you want to tell.

Nabakov said...

But I've always wanted to to go too far with a Roald Dalhish story for 21st century kids. As he did in his time.

'The Appalling Adventures of Calico Pusbutter and Nagasaki Felch,"

I've gone too far haven't I? Or gone "sesubs" as Madame Word Verification would have it.

Y'all notice though the two names above have the classic five beat blank verse tempo. That always works when namin' names.

Nabakov said...

"Though "The Infernal Desire Machines of Tom Ripley" does have a certain ring to it."

No, fuck it - "The Infernal Desire Machines of Thomas Ripley" is much better.

I guess you'd call that misfired retreat to a better position a "fausee". Thankee Madame Word V for the suggestion.

Nabakov said...

And the Black Swan of Lausanne was superb at naming his pieces on the board. Humbert, Quilty, Zembla, etc. They all sound like soft and punchy kids toys.

But then there was the tongue tripping Lolita and the abrupt yet endlessly open Ada.

Synthesia my arse. What Vlad was coping with was what M. Comment Verification has now adeptly described as "syleopsy".

You know it should make sense. Especially if yer whacked on Hennesy VSOP while listening to Max Q.

"Sometimes...I can't believe my brain"

Nabakov said...

Just occurred to me that you kids would have no idea what I was talking with Max Q and 'Sometimes".

So here's the clip - a Dogs In Space spinoff - with me old muckers Ollie Olsen doing the "painp" (thankee again Madame Comment bitch) on keyboards and John "No I don't look like Queen Victoria" Murphy on drums.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wh0TV2ArBS8

Admit it, Michael Hutchence never looked so sexy as when he was fooling around with us Melbourne inner city music dudes.

Helen said...

Hello from NZ! I just reread David Foster's In the New Country (David Foster is probably my best loved writer, but he occasionally does things which frustrate the hell out of me and seem out of kilter with the bulk of his writing - and keeps some dubious intellectual company. But.) One of the main characters is Mike Hock.

Foster is one of those comedic writers who love to give their characters improbable names and generally gets away with it. The D'arcy D'Oliveira stories are my favourites. Then there's Plumbum, about a Canberra rock band of that name, whose lead singer, Sharon, goes off the deep end and starts to channel the death goddess Kali when they move to India - except that, being Australian, she calls herself Kylie.

Great stuff.

Some of you have already heard (read) me grumble about my daughter's name, which is a beautiful name not heard much in Australia but perfectly common in Spanish speaking countries and Germany, where some of her ancestors come from. Unfortunately the mum of one of our better known bogan families saw fit to give it to her eldest daughter and now my poor kid has been stuck with a name that has been coded bogan. So you can't win, really.

Anonymous said...

Pinkie Brown (Brighton Rock) - absolutely wonderful for that character.
And, yes, Helen of NZ, David Foster is superb. Darcy D'Oliveiras (delivers) for a postman hehehe.
Clarry