Character Names and Sir Thresselthwaite Goldenhind

Sue Barsby recently linked to this article, all about character naming.

Character names are a big deal, for me. I build my stories around my characters, and rarely put finger to keyboard until a character’s name, appearance and backstory have been plotted out. Maybe this isn’t how it should be done, but it’s a way of story planning that I enjoy.

Etymology is wonderful when it comes to names. There’s a reason a character in a YA novel I’m starting is named ‘Michael’. And there’s good cause for a city in my Fantasy novel being called ‘Crow Hill’. If you choose to name your villain ‘Garbage Evildoer’, is it any wonder they have a axe to grind?

And names in SF and Fantasy have their own rules to follow. This is another aspect of naming that I love. People from different regions will have names that follow different conventions. An ‘ie’ ending on a name might be feminine in the south, but masculine in the north. Syllable counts are often close. Surnames may or may not exist. Titles might change. As may names, depending on age, rank, etc. And if you have a character named ‘Sir Thresselthwaite Goldenhind’, his best friend is unlikely to be called ‘Fred Brown’.

Character names don’t have to mean something. But they certainly need to suit the character. I remember being thrilled when I read that Harry Potter’s middle name was ‘James’. I still get chills thinking about Sansa and Arya Stark’s identities changing as their names do. What’s in a name? Everything you choose to pour in.

Workshopping

Workshopping can be, hands down, the best thing ever. Notice I’ve gone for ‘can be’, there, rather than ‘is’. And I’ll tell you for why:

Getting your work read by other writers is always a privilege. There’s no arguing that one. People who write tend to read differently, and you need both sides of the coin. But if the person reading is scared of causing offence, you might as well not bother.

When we workshopped on the MA, at first we were all guilty of being too nice. We’d start our comments with positives. Sprinkle critique on the edges. Or just leave it written on the page, never spoken out loud. As time went on, we started delivering ‘sh*t sandwiches’, sometimes with compliment mayonnaise. Then the second year happened.

This weekend I met with two amazing writers for a Workshopping session. We’d all done the MA. We’d all learnt to take it on the chin. So, we were all brutal. We laughed at each other’s work. We mocked it. Scribbled lines out. Shook our heads and played Devil’s Advocate. It was wonderful. There’s nothing like a fellow writer pointing at your work and telling you he expected better, and what were you thinking? It sounds odd, to have your novel dragged through this painful process, but no matter how closely you read your own work, there’s no telling how it’s going to be received by a fresh pair of eyes.

So my final suggestions would be these: find people you can be honest with. Honest to the point of rudeness. If they can cope with you laughing at their sentence structure, you can cope with them sneering at and pointing out your repetition. Put the hours in. Spend a long time reading and ‘marking’ one another’s work. Spend longer in the workshop itself. A day, if you can manage it. Hours, at least. Get picky. You will reap what you sow. If you want in-depth critique, you’re going to have to dish it out. And lastly, don’t get offended. They’re not criticising you. Just your work. And yes, those are separate things!