What’s in a name?

By Janice McCaffrey

According to Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint (2010) characters’ names have “many associations” for readers. Surnames signify ethnicity and family connections. Given names can identify where and when a character was born. A name can help with the character’s physical description or hint at their personality. (pgs. 54-55)

So how do authors choose names for their characters?

Dickens is probably the most famous for creating names that convey a character’s looks, personality, or place in society. In Bleak House Mr. Nemo is an unkempt looking man who owes six-weeks rent, has no friends and is found dead from an opium overdose. Accident or suicide? No one knows for sure. When readers are told that nemo is Latin for ‘no one’ they understand that people did not acknowledge him. And learning it was not his legal name tells them how he felt about himself.

Icelandic storytellers refer to historical figures that same way. A prime example is a woman in one of the sagas whose name is Aud the Deep Minded. Then from other sagas there’s men known as Helgi the Lean and Bork the Stout.

Card advises that authors vary the first letter, number of syllables and sounds of characters’ names in a manuscript. The example he gives is how “monosyllables like Bill, Bob, Tom, Jeff, Pete lead to boredom and confusions.” But he also cautions against using “a lot of flamboyant, bizarre names unless that’s an important part of the story.” (pg. 56) Of course, when writing historical novels authors can and should use full names of real people. However, that does get confusing when families have used the same given name for two or more generations.

Anyone who has read a Russian novel will understand another of Card’s points. Simplify characters’ names and use only one name per character. I find stories easier to read and identify with their characters when I can pronounce their names. Easily knowing and remembering who’s who also helps. Not like Anna Karenina where her husband is Alexei Alexandrovitch Karenina and her lover is Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. I’ve wondered why Tolstoy used the same given name.

Then I read the Introduction in a Barnes & Noble edition (2013) written by Amy Mandelker. She says that one of the themes throughout the novel is mirror images. Besides Anna’s two men having the same names Anna itself is a mirror since it is spelled the same frontwards and backwards. Her maid is Annushka which is a nickname for Anna. The daughter’s name is Annie and Anna adopts a protégée by the name of Hannah which is the Hebrew form of Anna. Tolstoy knew how to get the most out of a name!

Another suggestion from Card is not to have all the characters in a story have names that “mean something” . . . unless it’s an “allegory and [you, the author] deliberately want them tagged with symbolic names.” (pg. 56) My comment to that is if the meaning  of the name is important to the characters’ back story or description be sure to include the meaning some way or other to inform your reader.

As we search for creative names for our characters we should remember that over the years, for better or worse, characters’ names have become part of our cultures’ mindset. Thanks to Dickens we know that a person who is selfish and/or doesn’t like the Christmas Spirit is a Scrooge. Hearing the phrase “Double Oh Seven” conjures up a picture perfect version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. (For me that will always be Sean Connery). How about Norman Bates, Jo March, Darth Vader, Lolita or Mr. Darcy? Novelists have given us characters whose personalities and deeds will never be forgotten. A challenge to every fiction writer.

What’s in a name? Evidently a lot!!

THE END

Are You A Writer?

Writers are compelled to write. If you are one of those people, even when not sitting in a favorite nook with a keyboard or notebook, characters are wandering through your thoughts asking you to write their story. From conceptualizing a book to completing a first draft can be a long journey, usually years, but some hardy souls dive into writing a novel in just four weeks.

In November each year during NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, many writers take the challenge. If you look at https://nanowritmo.org, you’ll see how it works. The website is interactive and supportive, so if you need a boost to finally finish the first draft of that special book, this might work.

The concept is to write 50,000 words in thirty days. Not everyone can take a month off and just write. If your busy life demands attention, but you are driven to write anyway, you are a writer. You will finish your manuscript without the push of time and camaraderie found with NaNoWriMo. However, critique groups are extremely valuable and a necessary party of producing a professional manuscript.

People in my critique groups over years have said, if they are in the middle of a book and must take a break because life gets in the way, they miss their characters as if they are living, breathing people who are part of their lives. There are very few times writers don’t write. One key is to always be ready to record a note, no matter where you are. I found working twelve hours a day didn’t stop me. Our guru, Dennis Foley, has some of us carrying markers in our cars so if a thought comes at an awkward time, we can write a reminder on the side-window without running off the road.

Finishing a first draft is just the beginning. Multiple edits are required to make it publishable. A running outline of your story line, including twists and turns, is a start, but some writers use no format, they just write. Others develop extensive character descriptions and pages of scenes before ever beginning to write the book. I began writing years ago without an outline of any kind and completed two books that have since been rewritten many times and finally to completion after discovering two creative writing books.

  • Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering: Mastering The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,
  • Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure

I have read many excellent books on writing with varied useful concepts, but using skills I learned from Brooks and Bickham pulled me into a different realm. In the past year, I have rewritten and extensively edited three novels. They are breathing life, and after professional copy editing, are finally ready for publication. I finished a fourth one yesterday and will submit it to my copy editor today.

Another tool I’ve found helpful over the past year is to use a text to speech product to review a final manuscript draft. This sounds tedious, but is valuable for identifying word repetitions, missing words, missing periods and sentences that need reconstruction. There are many options including Natural Reader, a free online product. (https://www.naturalreaders.com); Microsoft word following the menu for Review>A Read Aloud Speech; and Kindle, where you can easily save your entire manuscript and listen to it.

Writing The End provides mixed feelings. It is a huge achievement and a relief to finally have the whole story written. If you find you’ve reached the end, yet are not satisfied with the action, intrigue, rising tension or final scene, consider reading a few of Larry Brooks’ analyses and deconstruction of best sellers at (https://www.storyfix.com).

If you are looking for a critique group or help with writing, check out the active local writers group at https://authorsoftheflathead.org

Betty Kuffel

Collateral Damage in Fiction

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By Karen Wills

We’ve all seen feature photos that show victims of war—collateral damage is the modern term for them—the nonmilitary who suffer. Think of the crying infant by the railroad tracks of post-bombed Hiroshima; the agony of the naked Vietnamese girl’s face as she runs toward us, the beautiful shocked eyes of the Afghan girl.

By chance, I’ve lately come across characters, literary inventions, which are collateral damage in two big novels. I marvel at how the authors made them into what author David Long calls “bright human images.”

doctorow

One of the novels is E.L. Doctorow’s, The March. It’s a broad epic depiction of Sherman’s March to the Sea. I hadn’t realized what a cross section of humanity, not just military, joined in the March. They included freed former slaves, nurses, refugees traveling with the very army responsible for their displacement, Southern deserters, and opportunists.

One memorable character is Emily Thomas, genteel daughter of a distinguished Southern judge. When her father dies just as Union Soldiers take over his house, Emily throws her lot in with the Union surgeon who helps her see to his burial. She becomes a nurse, like the doctor blind to blue or grey. She becomes stronger than she could have thought possible.

Pearl is an adolescent “white Negro” who carries a letter she intends to deliver written by  the Union officer who protected Pearl on much of the March. It’s written to his wife in Washington, D.C.

Each homeless person in the book finds a rough shelter and some measure of companionship on the journey. We see them as resilient, desperate, but purposeful, individual survivors.

roy

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundahti Roy has a more modern and terrible take on what countries warring over religion, power, and land can do to their own inhabitants. Written to show historic upheavals between India and Pakistan, and especially the battles over Kashmir, Roy gives us memorable characters of collateral damage. These include transgender people who become more and more marginalized, and those who lose loved ones to torture and murder on the part of police and military, and those who love well, but not wisely ( feminist Tilo and Kashmiri freedom fighter Musa) in dangerous times.

We care about these people and we think about what war has done to them. They become symbols of collateral damage of war. These books, and our own country’s present and historical involvement in war, make me think of the importance of creating characters who remind us of the importance of humanity, even in extreme times. 

karenwills.com                                                 river with no bridge

Face Book: Karen Wills Author

My Inner-Children Have Issues

Sis. McCaffrey    By Janice McCaffrey

In my early teen years I envisioned myself as a best-selling author of “THE great American novel” until . . .

Mrs. Foster’s 8th grade English class when we were assigned to write a descriptive paragraph. My imagination took over and I penned what I thought a fabulous portrayal of a Regency Era carriage.

The next day, expecting an A+, I sat at my desk straight backed and proud. Then Mrs. Foster handed my paper to me and instead of an A+ there was a huge red D; the paragraph riddled with red ü marks. In that horrifying moment, my writing career ended. I never received explanations for the check marks. And pretty much saw grammar and good writing over my head and out of reach. Yes, I could identify and properly use the basics: subjects, predicates, nouns, adjectives, verbs, and past, present and future tenses, but never grasped the finer points.

But then I’ve never been a quitter. So as a young mother with an infant I signed up for a fiction writing correspondence course. Yes, the one advertised in match books. I didn’t like following the formulas taught and eventually one instructor told me that before you can be a novelist you needed something to say. Obviously, I didn’t have anything to say.

very few years, I’d try again; receiving rejection letters from popular magazines (i.e. Redbook, my Bible of womanhood).

Then, as life would have it, in my retirement I found a good friend who just happened to be a published author. It took a few years of her encouragement, but I’m back to my early writing goal. My friend is my mentor, critique partner, and . . . a retired English teacher.

Now when she gives my papers back to me there are no red checks or grades and, in fact, there are often comments about good ideas, writing or scenes. But every now and then I hear “You have a dangling participle.” And there I am sitting in Mrs. Foster’s class holding that D paper. My mind freezes.

Then my 10-year-old inner-child comes to the rescue with humor erupting with, “Who the heck made up these words?” We laugh. She tries to explain in a way I can understand as I attempt to calm my inner- 8th grader. I go home, study grammatical rules and lingo and rewrite.

After several of these interactions, my friend loaned me Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto. I found the explanation of the word participle: “Greek – shares or partaker. Latin to English: Capture or participate.” An online dictionary says: “a participle is a word formed from a verb and used as an adjective or a noun. In English participles can also be used to make compound verb forms.”

And you’ve guessed it, my 8th grader’s brain froze and my 10-year-old shouted, “Who the h— thought this stuff up? My inner-children continue their habits whenever they hear grammatical terms, but thank Heavens I have a patient friend and mentor who parents these headstrong children with kindness and humor.

Thank you, my friend!

 

A FLYING LOVE AFFAIR

Just as I hate spiders, I love birds.  Big birds, little ones, noisy ones, quiet ones, most birds.  I love to see them flying, and envy their extreme athleticism, their amazing ability to navigate through the air, their dance in concert in the air.  How do they do that?

If we could reincarnate as an animal, I’d pick a bird.  Let’s see, a vulture, maybe not, considering their icky diet.  A fierce eagle, or hawk, yeah that might do, though still not the favorite diet.  Their death-defying dives are wonderful, though, the stuff of legends.  I really like robins, too, how they pair up and stay together, and their odd song is always recognizable.  The males declare their territory every morning and night, flitting from tree to tree to outline what they claim.

No chickens for a do-over—they usually don’t have a good ending. Turkeys, either, and domestic turkeys are just about the dumbest animal alive.  If you leave them outside in the rain, they’ll drown because they don’t know enough to hold their head down.

Finches are the racers, the remarkable speedy fliers who whiz so fast into the juniper tree in my yard that I can’t tell what they are.  This summer, one has been tearing into the tree, then it sits and calls out, maybe looking for a mate to join it?  Haven’t heard it lately, it must have gotten lucky.

Last year, I had an old birdhouse sitting on a pole stuck in the ground in front of my porch.  A cute pair of chickadees took up residence, with Momma cleaning house by hammering the floor, and Daddy keeping watch.  The next morning, the floor of the little house had been hammered in two, and the whole shebang had fallen onto the bushes below.  The chickadees were gone, probably traumatized.

Ravens and magpies are the sociable fliers, unless you’re a cat. They’ll sit on the roof above a cat and yell at it for hours, until the cat finally gives up trying to make one lunch and saunters off.  Their calls are different, the raven shouting all their communication so loud they can be heard almost a mile away.  The magpie has a scritchy voice, and they are just as good a scold as their cousins.  I think magpies know they are beautiful, prettier than the ravens, but smaller, and smart enough to stay away from the bigger guys.  Ravens, crows, magpies, can all do human talk if taught.  Imagine that, they can talk our language, and we can’t talk theirs.

The little water ouzel can walk on the bottom of a creek, snagging bugs from the rocks.  Montana creeks are mostly clear, and I love to watch as they bob along, able to withstand the fastest water.

A meadowlark has come to live near me this summer, and I whistle at it, copying its great song.  When I whistle, there is a pause, like the bird is thinking, ‘What the heck is that?’, then it replies, but with a much prettier riff than mine.  I’ve had conversations with meadowlarks since I was a girl and had taught myself to whistle.

And there’s a mourning dove, too, its sad call following as I go about my business.  I think it’s alone; usually there are two, mourning together in perfect harmony.   Sometimes, they make me cry.

My least favorite bird is the killdeer, they are constant in their noise and their irritating run in front of you, faking a hurt wing, trying to lead you away from their babies, even if the babies are hundreds of yards away.  They screech even at night, preferring the spot under my open window to declare themselves to the world, make their paranoia evident.  They sure are pretty, though.

Pheasants are pleasant.  (Sorry.)  They have a barnyard call, similar to a rooster, though wild and untamable.  I love to see them beside the road or in a field, their feathers shimmer with color, and they strut like the world is theirs.

The perfect sparrows zip through the air in the evening, ridding our world of mosquitoes, thanks.  I think they probably have a contest every night to see who can catch the most bugs.  They use mud and straw to build houses on the bottom of eaves or on cliffs, an engineering marvel.

Bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, wrens, emus, ostriches, blue jays, ducks, geese, parrots, etc., etc.  If it has wings and flies, I’m all for it. Think of that,–they fly through the air with the greatest of ease, a medium not known for its support.  And don’t get me started on their side-to-side clown walks.  I’m pretty sure they know I’m laughing when I see one struggling along, rocking like a clown.

Nan McKenzie