A few more thoughts on character names, or, need your opening scene contain a cast of thousands?


Did you have a nice weekend, everybody? After last Friday’s thought-provoking post on the intricacies of choosing powerful character names, I naturally spent the last couple of days reading through my latest manuscript (yes, IN HARD COPY, as I am perpetually urging all of you to do), seeking minor characters to rechristen. (Oh, as if I’m the only writer in the universe who pursues such quixotic amusements in her spare time.)

Like any sensible revisionist, I took the precaution of creating a list of characters as I read, along with notations of where they appeared throughout the text. From past experience, I know perfectly well that if a writer does not have such a list in hand when she decides to change her protagonist’s name from Georgine to Georgette, she’s almost certainly going to miss a Georgine or two.

Leading, of course, to the classic irate editor’s comment: “Who is Georgine? And is it really a good idea to have two characters with names as close Georgine and Georgette? The scan too similarly; readers are likely to mix them up.”

Okay, so that comment is a tad specific to qualify as a free-floating axiom. But it’s nevertheless true: as guest blogger Askhari pointed out last time, since a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look alike — or sound alike — it’s best to give them monikers that not even the fastest reader could mistake for one another.

Readers are also likely to confuse identities if a narrative introduces too many characters too quickly — or without making it pellucidly clear which in an opening crowd scene are the ones he reader will be expected to remember. (This is equally true for fiction or nonfiction, so don’t doze off, memoirists and historians.) If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rushes into view on page 1, the reader is going to have no idea which of those 360 singers is the protagonist unless the narrative spotlights him, so to speak.

Why is a bit of momentary confusion on the subject unadvisable? Would anyone familiar with our recent REJECTION ON PAGE 1 series care to tell the rest of the class just how much text our old pal Millicent the agency screener tends to be willing to read before knowing who and what a story is about?

That’s right: agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1, they generally stop reading a submission. As in forever.

My playing the Millicent card hasn’t convinced all of you, has it? Very well, let me use an example with which all of you will no doubt be familiar: the plot of the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini, first performed in 1625.

Oh, you’ve forgotten some of the details of the plot? Well, I can’t say as I blame you; it contains one of my all-time editorial pet peeves, the bad interview scene, that oh-so-common literary interchange where the protagonist is trying to obtain information from another character but fails to do anything so straightforward as simply asking for it. (A craft topic that I anticipate tackling within the next few weeks, never fear.) Take a gander:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid. (You had to be there.)

I’m going to pause at this point to vent a bit: this type of persuasion in an interview scene – where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with — couldn’t he argue back just a LITTLE? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, take out your hymnals and sing out together now: because conflict is more interesting in a scene than agreement.

Okay, I’ve cleared that out of my system for now. Time for your pop quiz: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do?

I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight. Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is EXTREMELY common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. Indeed, sometimes there are so many people lurching around that the reader does not know for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

If an image of Millicent’s sliding a manuscript into the rejection pile did not just flash before your mind’s eye, you might want to go back to the top of this post and read it again.

As with so many of the manuscript traits that we’ve seen raise red flags, part of the reason Millicent tends to be touchy about openings with casts of thousands is that she sees so darned many of them. I think TV and movies are to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Many, many, many writers.

Strategically, then, you might want to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. Before any literal-minded reader out there demands that I provide a chart specifying how many is many, broken down by genre, length of work, and mood of Millicent, let me hasten to add: there is no hard-and-fast rule.

There are, however, a couple of tests I like to apply when in doubt about how many is too many.

1. Does the text make the relative importance of the protagonist plain?
This first test, the simplest, is a modification of the quiz I asked you to take above: hand the first scene of your book to a non-writer, ask her to read through it as quickly as possible — and then, as soon as she’s finished, ask her to tell you who the main character is and what the book is about.

If she starts talking about characters other than your protagonist, you may have too many.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Because writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description – which can be problematic in itself – or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Perhaps not even then. Our buddy Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: time is of the essence.)

2. Does the text portray each named character as memorable?
The other test, which is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across, is to hand the entire first scene to that non-writer (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test) and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning. Then take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember. If she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene?

If the answer is no, you have a few fairly attractive options for getting rid of them. Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, for instance, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be in the scene, but not mentioned specifically until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the action of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three. (Mannie has a knife; I just know it!)

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live. And that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing an agency screener’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

Worth considering, at least, isn’t it?

You could also opt to introduce your characters gradually, rather than dumping them all upon the reader in a group scene. More gradual revelation will allow the reader to tell the players apart without a program, and thus render the ones you do introduce early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is — wait for it — an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of history in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in manuscript, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

This is particularly the case in books where characters have similar names. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in –een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves…I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page. Doubtless, there are families where such , but it made it darned hard to remember whose storyline was whose.

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla.

Again, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys the book. Opt for clarity now.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to go to the length of avoiding names that begin with the same first letter — not just similar sounds — at least for major characters. Why? Well, to the skimming eye, one of the easiest clues that it can skip a word is a capitalized first letter: if your protagonist is named Samuel, then it’s natural for the speed-reader to assume that every capital S refers to him, and move on.

Want proof? Okay, try reading this passage as rapidly as you can:

Samuel cursed his luck: thanks to Maggie, he would have to explain yet again that he had been raised by wolves. Not the kind of upbringing that made for lighthearted cocktail party conversation; people tended to back away from him at the first mention of a howl. (How Samuel missed howling! But investment bankers did not do such things in polite society.) Important people like Edgar, his boss-to-be, would definitely not be amused.

See how easily your eye slid from the first Samuel reference to the next? When the same letter is used repeatedly, however swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.

See how perplexing all of those Ts are to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but…) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time. As I MAY have mentioned above (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically in this forum for the past three and a half years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood book buyer.

Not out of any hatred of the written word, necessarily, but out of sheer self-defense. In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ‘em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors, not the big ones, that get submissions rejected.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

I’m bringing this up again, because frankly, I know it’s nit-picky of me to ask you to cull the characters in your opening scenes. I could easily understand if you felt from time to time that the standards I urge here are higher than they may actually need to be in order to get your work a fair reading.

But the fact is, it is rather rare for a submission that isn’t technically first-rate to receive a fair and complete reading at an agency, unless it happens to fall upon precisely the right desk at precisely the right time. Emphasis upon complete: as any agency screener would tell you — any honest one, at any rate — they are trained to look for reasons to reject manuscripts, not to accept them.

And that means, necessarily, that good writing often gets bypassed because of rather nit-picky reasons.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and in its entirety by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

As we saw in January, right?

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

Wow, that was a dense post, wasn’t it? More thoughts on character names follow in the days to come — along, no doubt, with more tirades about those pesky interview scenes. Happy Monday, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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