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?

Analogy:

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.

3 comments:

Unknown said...

Suzanne,

This was a thought provoking post for me as I am one of those authors that on ocassion do not give my characters a name. Your article got me to thinking about a few of my stories. I understand the point you are making, but I believe there are instances where the story dictates anonymity.

For example, one of my stories features a serial killer who shops for women like a woman in places of opportunity. However, he has a very specific type. I don't name him or his victim and that is the point. He is the busiman sitting beside you in a resturant, bar, or standing next to you on the sidewalk. There is no emotional connection not with him and not with the victims - they are nameless faces in the crowd. What do you think?

Thanks for sharing and giving me foood for thought. I'd like to share this on my blog. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

Suzanne Vincent said...

To be honest, I can see a modicum of merit in this example.

The entire point of a story, in my opinion, is to make readers feel something. There is no greater purpose for a story. No greater goal for a writer.

For the majority of stories those feelings aim for the heart. They aim for the parts of our minds that care about something. In which case, a deep connection with the character is more important than many authors, apparently, realize.

Some stories do aim for different feelings. Horror is a great example.

However...

1. Intentionally writing characters that you do not intend your readers to care for is risky in itself. Every choice you make with a story has risks. You're bound to disenchant at least one reader group no matter what you do. But most readers like to read about characters they can relate to in some way. They like to care. They like to feel as a result of that caring. They actually enjoy it when you, as the writer, manipulate their emotions. And this is borne out by the fact that most professionally published stories--horror, too--have named characters, with stories that focus on an empathetic character/reader relationship. That relationship helps to build tension as you place your character into perilous situations, or give him challenges to overcome. (I'm sure you can point out examples that prove otherwise. I can: The Road by Cormac McCarthy for one, in which McCarthy immediately builds empathy through the relationship between the father and his son without ever naming either.)

2. Horror is more horrid when the reader can relate to, empathize with, or feel horror for a character within the story. It is true that not naming an antagonist in a horror story can make him 'faceless,' and therefore scarier. But he is FAR scarier if he is played against a named, empathetic character who is threatened by him. Good horror is rooted in psychological manipulation. An author should take every possible opportunity to increase that manipulation. Consider how much more impact your story might have if we know everything about the intended victim--including her name. It would not only help us see her as a person, but would help us see how very evil your unnamed antagonist is, heightening his creepiness.

3. To be direct, the main point to consider is that we see far too many stories with unnamed characters. Most of them done badly or ineffectively. To be direct, when I begin reading a story with unnamed characters (as I said in the original post) it already has one serious strike against it, and because we read thousands of stories per year, I'm less likely to give such a story a thorough reading to find out if it has redeeming qualities. I don't have time. At least half of the stories I read are rejected within the first 2-3 paragraphs. If your character hasn't caught my interest by then, you're out of luck. And the cheapest, easiest, most elementary way to help me connect to your character is to give him a name.

4. As far as your example, I'm not thrilled at the prospect. Because for as much as unnamed characters in general has been overdone, an unnamed villain (essentially a walk into the dark mind of evil) has also been overdone.

To be continued...

Suzanne Vincent said...

I have a fantastic book titled The American Fantasy Tradition, a collection of short stories edited by Brian M Thomsen, a former consulting editor for TOR. The title is something of a misnomer. It is not, as the name might imply, a collection of knight/dragon tales. Not at all. It is a collection of American stories, written by American authors, about American themes. From Washington Irving to Stephen King. Most of them, in my opinion, would be classified as horror. They tear you out of reality and drop you wholesale into uncomfortable places.

Only two stories in that entire volume utilize an unnamed main character--with the exception of 1st person POV, which doesn't really count, does it? The first, "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K Le Guin, is the story of a child too young to know her own name who is rescued and raised by Coyote. The other, "Slow Sculpture" by Theodore Sturgeon, is written by a master at characterization who is able to suck you into the story and the lives of his characters without names--a rare talent, indeed. You might want to see if you can find those stories and analyze how they're effective despite the lack of names.

All the rest utilize named main characters. And not just named characters, but characters with interesting names, names that use a cognitively pleasing combination of sounds and rhythms and letters, and that tend toward the unusual,making a character memorable. Mercer, Hobson, Miss Straverton, Claydon, Homer Buckland, Jabez Stone.

The vast majority provide that name within the first 2 paragraphs. And only one of these called a character 'he' prior to giving me his name.

So unless you have a very compelling reason for leaving your character with an anonymous 'he' or 'she' monicker, AND unless you understand perfectly well WHY you are doing so, I'd really rather see a name.