Have you noticed how sometimes it’s effortless to read a fellow author’s work and you can’t help but marvel, in those hidden recesses of the mind, at the ease of this feat? One of the easiest ways to break the essence of effortless connection with a reader is by abusing The Name Game.
How often do you mention your character’s name?
How many characters do you have populating your early chapters who are also ‘named’?
How fast are you asking your readers to digest new terms, locations, and concepts?
1: Mentioning their Name
If you’re writing in first person the biggest thing you need to watch out for is going one, two, six pages before having another character say your protagonist’s name. We need to know who we’re dealing with (even if it’s a pseudonym) before the conclusion of the first page. Now, if an integral part of your story revolves around the reader not knowing the protagonist’s real name, okay. Really, it’s okay. However, we need some way to identify with him or her. Perhaps her moniker becomes a variety of derivative names like: Ash Baby, Slummer, Patchwork, etc. to denote status as others see her and until she fully sees herself she won’t accept her birth name. The multi-name works then because in her un-naming you’ve named her.
For those of you writing in third person or rely heavily on dialogue to carry your scenes, your concern is the opposite: too much naming. Don’t fall into the trap of having another character say other people’s names out loud unless it’s absolutely necessary and true to the moment. Alternately, drop as many “he saids” or “said Mike” as you can. Instead, use characteristics to help a reader clarify who is speaking after a long run of back and forth dialogue. It can be anything from having him grind his teeth in contempt (if that’s his trademark reaction) to playing with a coin in his pocket or rubbing a scar on his thumb. Repeated (but interspersed) mentions of a trait or tendency will not only allow readers to more easily follow who is speaking/thinking but will help bring another dimension to your characterization – so long as you flush it out eventually 😉
2: Naming other Characters
In an opening scene, or scenes, it can be difficult for readers to follow the main thrust of the action if they are being introduced to too many people all at once. If you can’t avoid this, then consider using the trait mentions from above (for reoccurring characters), give them a simple title (like: boy, teacher, ass hole, skinny chick, etc.) that allows your reader to locate a simplified stereotype of that person already locked in their mind as opposed to having to build up multiple new identities all at once. Then, as the story progresses we can learn names at a slower pace and weave them into our understanding of your story.
The flip side to this is that I’m sure you’ve been taught only to name those characters who are “important” and “lasting”. Generally speaking, this is true. However, a client of mine developed his whole first chapter around his main character’s brother getting caught and detained by a militant group. He and his “friends” were tortured and dealt with accordingly. We never again hear of this teenager’s “friends” but the severity of the situation and the closeness to the brother (who is a major motivating character in the story) demanded names. So, check the impact of a given scene and consider all the angles before listening to those ‘hard and fast’ rules everyone tells you to follow 😉
3: Naming Stuff
In any story, any genre – be it fiction or non – you are going to have place names, terminology, and new concepts to label. Having too many of these identifiers in those first few scenes has a tendency to cause confusion; and an overloaded brain is not a happy brain. We want to keep our readers happy and “happy” really equates to “engaged.” The moment they disengage is the second they stop reading and pick up someone else’s book. So, take it easy. Don’t feel the need to name everything from the neighbour’s dog, to the street, to the butcher shop, to the high-tech gadget strapped to skinny’s chick’s arm – you know, the one she keeps rubbing like there’s a genie inside just waiting to pop out?
Keep it simple and straight forward.
Layer in the important names and have fun crafting ingenious ways of talking about your important nouns 😉