Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What's in a Name?

Debut of cover for book-in-progress
A duke's daughter proposes marriage to the retired colonel of the 10th Hussars

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For me, the answer to that is: Everything. Names have power. (And that's not a fantasy allegedly perpetrated by tribal lore or certain religions.) Names have weight. Names tell us who a person is, often what a person is. For example: Mark Wilson, Chief Executive Officer, The Great Widget Company. Technically, I suppose CEO is a title, but it is also a form of Identification. Those three little words tell us something about Mark Wilson. If you introduced your character as "Mark, CEO of The Great Widget Company," he immediately loses stature. "Mark" works in the mailroom. Even "Mark Wilson" can be anybody, from basement to executive suite. But put the three sections together—Mark Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of The Great Widget Company—and you have a "somebody." 

Although it's not necessary to write out CEO, those words also add importance to Mr. Wilson's name. We see the acronym "CEO" so much we don't stop to think what it means. "Chief Executive Officer" rings a much louder bell. As for "The Great Widget Company" . . . well, firstly, I'd hope you'd choose a more auspicious name for your fictitious company. But keep in mind that the three parts of that identification add up to who (Mark Wilson), what (CEO), and where (Great Widget Company), three of the most important aspects of identifying a character well enough so readers aren't left scratching their heads about "Mark," asking who he is, what his job is, or where he's doing it. Yes, the "why" remains to be told at a later date, but in nine short words you've said enough to keep your readers with you long enough to discover the rest of Mark Wilson's story—whether he's a hero, villain, or secondary character.

Opening Paragraphs:
Get those identifications in there right up front (exception - see Action Scene below). Don't wander around with a whole slew of Dick and Jane first names and expect readers to figure out who you're talking about. Your characters' last names give them substance. And if you're writing in an historical setting, last names are a "must." First names were rare, even in the United States, until within the last sixty years or so. 

When introducing a character, go beyond names, if possible. Give us at least a hint of who these people are the moment they make an appearance in your story. "Jane Beresford's friend, Emily."  "George, Ben's partner at the law firm."  As an example of something a bit longer: ". . . Jack Phillips. She'd heard he belonged to the East Side Raiders, but that was hard to believe. He didn't have the swaggering, hardened look of a gang member."

Keep in mind that historical times were generally more formal, the men identified mostly by last names or titles, noble ladies by their titles (Lady, Mistress, Dame, Missus); female servants by first names, male servants generally by last names.

Whatever you do, do not toss out a series of first names (or even full names) and let them lie there, writhing, while your readers try to figure out who is who and what they're doing in your story. Identify, identify. Identify. Whether you're on the opening paragraphs or way over in Chapter 26. 

Opening with an Action Scene:
Your writing style needs to fit the scene - short, sharp sentences for fast action. And it's a time when you can fudge the introductions a bit. The hero or heroine may be identified by first name only, their friends and/or enemies as briefly as possible, saving full identification until a less busy moment. Just don't forget to get the info in there as soon as feasible! 

Grace note:  the above advice also applies to most stories written in first person, where full names, even first names, are more difficult to work into the opening paragraphs.

Body Copy:
After you have made sure your readers understand who your characters are, both primary and secondary, do not say, "Okay, I did it. Now I can call them Marcus and Amelie for the rest of the book. Make an effort to refer to your characters in as many different ways as you can. Keep that last name going, the person's title, position, their relation to other people, etc. For example, from my latest Regency Historical, The Lady Takes a Risk:

Hero - Marcus Rexford Trevor, Colonel, the 10th Hussars =
Colonel Trevor, Colonel, the colonel, Marcus, the earl's younger son, husband, brother-in-law

Heroine - Lady Amelie Christabel Beaumont Sherbrooke =
Lady Amelie, Amelie, daughter, the ducal daughter, wife, sister, daughter-in-law  

Secondary Characters - using Major Courtland Randolph as an example =
Major Randolph, Randolph, Courtland Randolph, the major, and (rarely) Court

Again, whatever you do, do not forget to make it clear who each person is and what their place in the story is. And if you can't justify their place in the story, get rid of them! 

Grace note: A secondary character's place may be vital to the story, or he/she might simply be there to provide color. Both are valid reasons for that character to exist. Superfluous characters include those who pop in for no reason, do not advance the story, or do not add the color, humor, etc., that adds to your readers' enjoyment. Kick them out!

Warning: No matter how charmed you might be by one of your Secondary Characters, never allow him/her to overshadow your hero and heroine. If they're that good, give them their own book.
~ * ~
 I decided to challenge myself to see if I put my money where my mouth is (to use an old expression - which I love to do in my books). Below please find the opening paragraphs of several of my books. Decide for yourself if I used the names with clarity:

From my current Work in Progress, The Lady Takes a Risk (Regency Historical):

    It is not easy to be the daughter of a despot duke. For that matter, Lady Amelie Sherbrooke was forced to concede, there were likely earls, barons, tavern-keepers, farmers, soldiers, sailors, tinkers, and tailors whose daughters considered them quite as despotic as the Duke of Wentworth. Which did her no good at all. Misery might love company, but as for finding a way to prevent her betrothal to most the most pretentious, fatuous, unbearable idiot in the ton . . .  

From The Sorcerer's Bride (SyFy Adventure):

Blue Moon
    How had he gotten himself into such a fydding mess?
   Jagan Mondragon, Sorcerer Prime of the planet Psyclid, stood at a high window in the Round Tower at Veranelle—once the summer retreat of the royal family—and scowled at the glowing orb of his home planet hanging low in the night sky. A few hours ago he had been down there, witnessing without protest his betrothed’s marriage to the leader of a hopeless rebellion. His woman, smiling, turning up her face to be kissed by a fydding Reg.

From Tarleton's Wife (Regency Historical):

January 1809 - Northern Spain
    “Major! Major!” Lt. Avery Dunstan burst into his major’s room after a token scratch at the door. Slamming it shut behind him, he leaned against the door, gasping for breath. Relief lit his youthful features at the sight of Nicholas Tarleton.
    “I’ve already heard,” snapped the major who had been savoring one of his few moments of comfort and privacy since the army left Salamanca in November. “The transports have been sighted.”
    “Yes, sir!” the lieutenant agreed with enthusiasm, diverted from his mission. “And battleships. Even The Victory, they say.” His hazel eyes sparkled in a face which had softened from exhausted soldier to the eager, boyish countenance of a young man who had barely reached his majority. “It looks like we’re really going home, Major.”

From Paradise Burning (Romantic Suspense): [an "action" scene which manages to get the heroine's last name into Line 4.]


“Almost in.” Kira Malfi’s honey-warm voice pinged off a satellite, crossing thousands of miles as clearly as a call to Boston.

To Mandy Armitage, Kira was a reddish blob of body heat on her computer screen, but in her head she held a clear picture of AKA’s whipcord-fit agent, poised over a keyboard in a dilapidated warehouse on the outskirts of Lomé, Togo, her chocolate-brown skin blending smoothly into the darkness around her.

 From Tangled Destinies (Regency Gothic): [an example of an "action" opening & also "first person" - the heroine's last name does not appear until Page 4]

    As I placed the sleeping baby in her cradle, I heard the click of the latch. In spite of a frisson of alarm, I pulled the bedcovers up under little Sarah’s chin, placed a kiss on her smooth-as-silk brow, and murmured, “Good-night, little one.” Then, and only then, did I allow myself to consider why that click had sent a shiver up my spine.
    It was too early for Nurse to return from supper and a comfortable coze in the kitchen far below. My sister Emilia,  Sarah’s mother, was too weak to climb the stairs. Meg, the nursery maid, would have breezed straight in, bringing her customary cheer and competence without raising goosebumps on my arms and a chill in my soul.
    “Good evening, Lucinda.” The satisfaction in my brother-in-law’s baritone had me fisting my hands before I slowly turned to face him.
From The Art of Evil (Mystery): [another "first person" book where it takes until page 2 for a full name - but please note I said, page 2, not page 22 or 122!]

    There’s something about a naked man seventeen feet tall.  Even if he’s bronze and pushing one hundred.  I eat lunch with him twice a week, thanks to the machinations of my Aunt Hyacinth.  More accurately, my great-Aunt Hyacinth, the sister of my mother’s mother, and the only person in our whole extended family who’s never had to work a day in her life.
    “Go visit Aunt Hy,” my mother told me.  “Florida’s the perfect place to recuperate.”  She paused, pondering her next words, an unusual move for my mother who is seldom at a loss on any occasion.  “Your Aunt Hy has always been a bit—ah—different,” she confided.
    As if I didn’t know.
    “But, lately,” she continued, “well . . . I’d feel much better if you were down there keeping an eye on her.”
    There was more, I knew it.  After all, when had Aunt Hyacinth not been strange?
    “You know, Aurora”—I winced at my mother’s use of the name she had inflicted on me in an excessive burst of romanticism some twenty-nine years ago— “your Aunt Hy is very wealthy and has no children—”
    “Mom!” I cut her off, nearly strangling as I repressed a screech unsuitable to my proper New England upbringing.  “Aunt Hyacinth lives in a condo at the Ritz.  With a housekeeper and a maid.  Believe me, she plans to spend it all.”
    “Nonetheless,” my mother decreed, “you have several months of recovery ahead of you and Florida is the ideal place to be.  Aunt Hy tells me she’ll be delighted to have you, so you might as well start packing.  It’s the perfect solution to your problem.”
    My problem.  That’s as close as we’d ever come to talking about my problem.  My “accident.”  My probable career change.  The great red blob in the middle of the white rug that everyone pussy-foots around and no one ever mentions.  I guess I should have been grateful my parents recognized I wasn’t yet ready to face the monster in the closet.  Correction.  My particular monster refused to be relegated to a closet.  It hovered beside me every minute of every day, hissing in my ear, Screwed the pooch, didn’t you, girl?  Messed up big time.  Pay for it the rest of your life, you will, Rory . . . Ro-ry . . . Ror-r-ry . . .
    Mom may have tippy-toed around the crisis in my life, but on the subject of my visit to Aunt Hyacinth she was inexorable.  Okay, so I’d go to the land of the has-beens, the cast-offs, the seniors who alleviated boredom with endless rounds of golf and shopping while they longed to be back in the boardrooms and teeming activities of the North.
    Or so I thought, while sunk in depression in my parent’s Connecticut living room with its great bay windows overlooking Long Island Sound.  Connecticut, the land of real people—the movers and shakers, from the rich-as-sin to university intellectuals, with a few dons and capos still clinging to the good old days.  Florida, in contrast, was the end of the world.  Exile.  I’d be fallen off the edge of the map, lost in the place that used to be labeled, “There be dragons!”
    Some dragons!  White-haired seniors with quad canes or walkers, creeping along with oxygen bottles at their sides.  And Rory Travis fitting right in.  In fact, it was a good bet most of the seniors could outdistance my hobbling steps nine times out of ten.

~ * ~
Next week (probably): Bacon Bread and Beauty & the Beast

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