Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why You SHOULD Name Your Main Character

A few minutes browsing through my slush pile will yield a plethora of stories that open with some unnamed man, woman, or child.  And each time I see one I roll my eyes and ask 'Why?'

The trend seems to be growing.  Do authors think it's trendy?  Do they think it adds an air of mystery or suspense?  Do they think it helps their reader place himself into the shoes of the unnamed character?

If they think any of these things, they're thinking wrong.

If they're not thinking these things I'd like to know exactly what they ARE thinking, because not naming a main character in a story makes very little sense to me.  And if you're just doing it for the hell of it--if you don't know WHY you're doing it--you shouldn't be doing it at all.

I suppose there could be instances in which it might be effective.  No.  Wait.  I don't want to give any author an excuse for doing it.  Just don't.  I promise I'll be more likely to give your story more than a cursory glance if you name your character, and I'll explain why in a minute.  But as I'm looking through slush I DO have an instant and automatic visceral reaction that negatively impacts my reading of your nameless character story from the very first paragraph.  And that's because SO many authors have done it--and done it BADLY.  I don't want to see it anymore, even if it IS done effectively.

Chances are, it won't be.  Trust me.  Best to not.

But why is naming a character so important?


You've moved to a new town and are looking for some social interaction.  You hear about a dance at a local pub and decide to go.

When you arrive you're a little hesitant.  What if there isn't anyone interesting there?  What if you read the advertisement wrong and it's actually a party for retired dental assistants?

But you screw up your courage, check the ad again to be sure, put on your best dress, and go.

You walk in the door, find the bar, order a drink.  For the first little while, nothing happens.  No one seems to notice you, or everyone is already paired or trio-ed up with people they seem to be familiar with.  You take your drink, knees knocking a little, and approach a small group of people who seem to be having a good time, who seem to be the kind of people you might be interested in getting to know.

You walk up to them, catch the eye of one of them, smile and say, "Hi.  I just moved into town."

Wait.  Something's missing there.  It should be: "Hi.  My name is ____name____.  I just moved into town."

Whoa.  Wait a minute.  You give your name when you introduce yourself?  Wait.  What?

Food for thought.

A name is a reference.  It says something about you, about your character.  It gives your reader an instant sense of familiarity, which makes your reader feel instantly comfortable with your character.  And if a reader feels comfortable with your character you plant the extremely VITAL seeds of helping your reader give a damn about your character.

That seed is crucial.  Without it your reader is always held at arms distance from your character.  Without it you may never be able to establish a meaningful connection between your reader and your character, and therefore between your reader and your story.  And without that you may not be able to keep your reader's attention.

I don't care if your beta-readers said they loved your story. I don't care if your critique group didn't complain about your nameless character.  In the end, your goal isn't to impress them.  It's to impress me.  If you don't hold MY attention, you don't sell your story.  It's that simple.

Why do we read fiction?  What KEEPS us reading fiction?  It's characters.  It's characters we care about or can relate to.

ESPECIALLY in flash fiction, you have SO LITTLE time to establish an emotional connection between your character and your reader that you want to employ every possible device to do so quickly.  A name is the most obvious and most effective way.

The NAME doesn't have to be obvious.  In fact, I wish more authors spent more than half a second coming up with names for their characters.  An interesting name adds interest that further draws your reader in.

Think about it.  When was the last time you met someone with an unusual name.  Did you say, "That's a pretty name!"?  Did the name pique your interest in the person?  Now a name that is TOO unusual can be annoying.  You don't want a name of the sort that those of us with an ounce of sanity shake our heads and think, 'He must have hated his parents all through his school years.'  Not THAT unusual.

Unless, of course, the unusual nature of the name becomes part of the story!  (Just because I said that doesn't mean you should run with the idea.  I'd hate to see 40 'unusual name' stories in my slush pile next week.)

But I digress.  The point is, give your character a fetching name.