A Rose Without a Name

A Rose Without a Name

As I strive to improve my writing, I take note of my bad habits. Words I tend to use too often, awkward phrasing, the unfortunate tendency to write in past perfect tense. One of my worst habits is avoiding names. Minor characters end up as confusing jumbles of description, repeatedly referenced, just so I don’t have to come up with a name. And it isn’t just characters. Towns, cities, roads, and pets all remain nameless to save me the agony of choosing a name.

But only in the first draft. One of my primary tasks during the first edit is to add names to all the things I left vague and confusing. Which leads to an entirely different problem; how many names are too many?

I once read a comic where the artist strove to give every character, no matter how minor, a name. It was a lofty goal, and it made the chapter confusing. Characters who appeared in no more than one scene (one or two pages of the comic) were introduced with names. It made it impossible to keep track of who was who and what the main characters were trying to accomplish. Names are usually an indication of importance; if a character has a name, it usually means they’re going to do something relevant to the plot. Without that demarcation, it’s impossible to keep track of who’s meant to be the main character. Especially in chapters centered around side plots where the established main characters are absent.

Naming everyone, no matter how insignificant, isn’t a new concept. Older works tend to be rife with names, and a host of those named personas are meant to be important characters. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are prime examples. No one dies in Homer’s epic without a name. There are pages and pages naming Greek soldiers and the number of ships they take with them to war. And modern authors sometimes try to replicate that style, especially if they’re trying to create an epic work. But rather than elevating the lowly by acknowledging their names, it makes the entire story a confusing mass of people, impossible to tell apart.

But if everyone other than the main characters is a nameless, faceless presence in the mist, the story isn’t remotely interesting. So how to do you strike a balance?

A while back someone undertook the difficult task of defining what makes epic fantasy epic. Most of the authors whose work qualified seemed to be under the impression that they didn’t, in fact, write epic fantasy. But one thing they all agreed on was that what makes a fantasy work epic is the world in which it takes place. Epic fantasy is vast and sweeping. The world itself becomes a character. While the characters move in search of their goals, other forces are at work in the world. Think of The Hobbit and how Gandalf often splits from the party to tend to other important tasks. That movement in the world is more than flavor, it gives the world depth, making it real to the reader.

This helps me set the benchmark for names. If the main characters are going to interact with them more than once, they should probably have a name to help the reader recall the interaction. If it makes sense for an important character to know someone’s name, they should definitely have a name. If they’re talking about a place where something is happening in the world, even if the characters are never going to go there, it should probably have name. That way the world is bigger than the main characters, more defined. But every passing street vendor doesn’t have to have a name, especially if your characters don’t know them and have no reason to be introduced to them. This defines the world without forcing the reader to flip back through earlier chapters just to keep track of who’s who.

After all, it’s always the big worlds, with distant lands that the author only ever hints at, that turn out to be the most interesting settings. Those are the books you always love to read, and the worlds you wish you could explore.

Some authors put a character list at the beginning or end of their books, and such lists have saved me a lot of agony. But I’m not a fan of them. Sometimes they lead to spoilers, and they seem like a lazy way to solve a problem which can be handled through refined writing.

As for easing the agony of choosing names; that’s a whole other blog post!

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