character names & keeping things straight

One of the biggest challenges I face is keeping all the characters in the Wilderness novels straight. There are, you may or may not know, hundreds of ’em, and more show up all the time. It’s almost comical, the machinations I have to go through to make sure I’ve got the right character and the right name, and almost always I mess up something crucial, in spite of the fact that I have detailed notes to consult. The proof readers almost always catch these flubs. Almost.

Over the years I have worked out a few tricks. The first is that when I’m writing a scene that involves a lot of minor characters, I put the names in brackets [Moses] and leave them that way until I’m finished. Then with the notated character list in front of me, I search through the document for every set of brackets so that I can check them. More than once I have saved myself from fictional disaster doing this. Before I ever start, though, I make a little map for myself of which individuals and families were active in the last novel, and figure out (1) how old they now are (2) where they live and work (3) if I can do without them realistically, and if so, where I’m sending them. Off to Johnstown to work in a smithy, for example.

Of course, there’s still the basic problem of naming so many characters, and then handling the names. It’s harder than it sounds, and also, for me at least, one of the things I enjoy doing the most, researching names. I have lots of old newspapers and reproduction documents from the time periods I work in, and I’m always scanning them. Some of the best I have ever found came out of official notes of various council meetings in New York City in the early 1800s. That really as a treasure trove, but one I had no way to use without adding dozens of characters who would then mill around with nothing to do. You can’t name a character Mangel Minthorn — even if there was such a person running around Manhattan in 1802 — and just let him … moulder. The solution came when Elizabeth was sitting with Selah Voyager during her labor. What better place for a discussion of names, after all, and thus my treasure trove got put to work.

It’s true that I have a weakness for odd names but I also like strong, simple names for main characters. Thomas Hardy, one of my favorite authors, had a genius for names. I borrowed his Gabriel Oak for one of my own characters, as a tribute to Hardy and Gabriel (the hero of Far from the Madding Crowd) both.

The other side of the problem is even more tricky. Once you’re deep into the story, the issue becomes how often to use a character’s name, and what to use instead of that name when issues of rhythm and tone demand alternates. Gabriel Oak could be called Gabriel by some, Gabe by others, Mr. Oak, Brother Oak, or (not in my novel or Hardy’s, but this is an example) Buddy, and of course there are the standard pronouns: he, him. But this starts to feel like juggling, doesn’t it? Isn’t there a simple way to handle this?

I am not a huge fan of H.W. Fowler’s rather rigid rules on writing — most especially not when it comes to fiction — but in this case I think the Chapter called Airs and Graces is useful, specifically his term ‘elegant variation’ which you can read in its entirely here. I reproduce his two guiding principles:

(1) Variation [in names, for example] should take place only when there is some awkwardness, such as ambiguity or noticeable monotony, in the word avoided. (2) The substitute should be of a purely pronominal character, a substitute and nothing more; there should be no killing of two birds with one stone. Even when these two requirements are satisfied, the variation is often worse, because more noticeable, than the monotony it is designed to avoid.

Allow me to simplify: use names where you can; simple pronouns if the name repetition would be awkward, and if necessary, some kind of other identifier (the old woman, the senior statesman) if really necessary. If you find yourself in contortions, you probably need to rewrite the whole sentence or paragraph.

Later this month I’ll be going to Europe for two weeks to visit family, but between now and then I thought I’d write about one of those topics few seem willing to tackle directly: sex scenes. If anybody’s interested in sex, that is. If I used emoticons, I’d put one here.