We name everything in this life of ours—children, pets, the towns we live in, all products and even our toy teddy bears. As authors we should do the same thing. You’d be surprise how many novice writers don’t though. In writing just as in life, naming everything should be the standard operational procedure. This is what we call being “literary specific.” Some writers though just have not acquired the name habit. Read this following paragraph:
The woman looked at herself in a mirror. In spite of her being basically pretty, she was at best a washed-out blond. She always seemed to get on most people’s nerves. Her husband didn’t seem to mind though. Neither did her cat. Her daughter didn’t see eye to eye with her mother on anything.
If this were the first paragraph of a book, do you think you would purchase it or even continue reading it? Let’s re-write the paragraph in a way that might get you more interested.
Ava Fisher was a flamboyant mess. Everyone said it no matter what the occasion. This doesn’t mean that she was an unkempt person. It denotes that in spite of her being basically pretty and in her late thirties, she was the sort who gave bottle blonds their bad name. She had just enough of the tart in her to get on people’s nerves after about five minutes. The only person who didn’t seem to mind was her husband Danny, who obviously believed he had won the grand prize when it came to wives. Also her black and white cat Gomez was a fan of hers too. Her thirteen-year-old daughter Heather didn’t exactly see eye to eye with her mother and really couldn’t be called a follower.
This is the opening paragraph on page 1 of my novel Teddy Bear Murders. You will see quite a difference between the two paragraphs. The second is literary specific. This means you give details and names. If a reader is to continue reading, they MUST have some specifics to pique their interest—names and specific facts will do that in a big way.
We achieve being literary specific via three different methods:
(1) Characternyms in which we reflect a character’s personality through his or her name. Prissy in Gone With The Wind, Goldilocks in The Three Bears and such handles as Slim, Fatty, or anything else that gives a clue as to the nature of the character. In the Maltese Falcon, the detective is Sam Spade. The name Spade might tell us he digs deep to find clues. It doesn’t have to be obvious. In the paragraph above, the name Ava might make you think of Ava Gardner even though she wasn’t a blond. Fisher might mean she’s always fishing for an angle or a compliment. Danny, because we end his name with the diminutive –ny, makes him sound easy going. Heather is a genre of wild flower. This could denote that the daughter is not controllable. The cat is named Gomez and that could make him sound both zippy and loving long naps. This certainly beats calling people Mary, Joe or Susie. Not only can you use this method to tell what kind of person you’re dealing with but perhaps their profession or aim in life. If you were to name a character Percy, would that person likely be a wrestler?
(2) Toponyms are used to name places. Most of these are derived with some topographical feature in mind. If you are going to use a real geographical place, it generally is tied into some topographical feature. Cave Creek, AZ; Live Oak, CA, Rosedale, AK. Many places add the suffixes ville, burg, town, ton, bury, city, field. So feel free to invent your own geographical places if you like. Doing so keeps law suites at a minimum.
(3) Commercial names which deal with companies and products. These can be real but many times for legal reasons, you’re better off to invent your own companies and brands. Big Rewards Super Market, GigaBurgers. The name can incorporate meaning just as with the other two naming factors.
Remember to be subtle with names. In the past, names were overdone in order to make a connection. (Heathcliff, Snidely, Killer, Ratface, Fatty etc.) Nowadays, a hint is better. You don’t have to break a walnut with a sledgehammer. Avoid names like Seraphina, Prince, Phoenix, Zeus, Duke, Apple or Prunella.
Also remember that in your writing, you want to use as many specifics as you can. Instead of saying “a tall boy”, give him a name with some hint of a meaning like Grant or Lance. Rather than saying “not too long ago”, say “early last Thursday evening.” Say “limping” instead of “walking.”
Being precise can mean the difference between a yea and a nay in the submission process—not to mention at the cashier.
In next week’s blog, you will be shown some suggestions for actually applying names to your characters.