writing names and groups

It’s been a heck of a week! Trying to get the hang of teaching has drained me pretty dry for the last two weeks. I’m glad to report that we’re now working with code (which to me is easier to teach than history), my students look to be a fun group, with the exception of one or two of the guys who seem to be far too ‘cool’ to be taught by a hyper nerd-ette.

Which means that after two weeks of delays, it’s back to my novel, and back to thoughts on writing craft.

I remember watching old bugs bunny cartoons, and knowing what’s going to happen next, because one plank of a fence board will be a slightly different color than the others. It always annoyed me, letting one prop stand out from the others. Lately, I’ve been having the same problem in writing.

If you have a group of characters show up, how do you handle them? Do you go through the entire process of developing them? Do you name one or two, and leave the rest as blank faces? Leave them all blank, and hope that they’re still important?

Option 1– develop them all. It’s realistic. It brings a lot of focus on the parts of the new force, maybe even too much, detracting from the main characters and whatever else would be going on. Name them, and the reader will feel obligated to remember their names. Another advantage is that if one is utterly unimportant and another will make a huge difference later on, the device isn’t just inobvious– it doesn’t exist at all. I think this can be a good choice if introduced early into the book, or if they’re a constant presence.

Option 2– name the important ones. … I feel awkward about this method. It always seems painfully obvious who the returning characters are. Like the joke from Order of the Stick, “They won’t survive! They don’t even have names!” (link). It’s less weird if the main character has a reason to note one out of the group, say they’re looking at a girl he likes, or if something they do stands out. But that’s interaction as an individual, not as a part of the group.

Option 3– name no one. Make them all faceless. Last summer, I attended a fantasy-sci-fi conference in Spokane. One of the panels I attended included Timothy Zahn, of Star Wars fame, discussing villains in stories, and we made a comment that a lack of familiarity with the villain, not understanding who he is or his motivation makes said character less of a villain and more of a force of nature. Of course, this might be easier when you’re working with stormtroopers.

These are the techniques that come immediately to mind… but here’s what I want.

I want an immediate impression of a group as a whole. I want to be aware of the characters in a vague light, as tertiary characters ought to be seen, but ready to pop out, without being obvious which one will be used for plot, yet supported and foreshadowed.

Any thoughts on this?

12 thoughts on “writing names and groups

  1. I think there’s some merit to each of the options you discuss and it really depends on style. Me, I’m naming almost everyone in my novels. Basically my dividing line is the knowledge of my main characters. If there is a reason my main character would know the name of the person being discussed, I use the name. If they don’t know the name, I use something generic–the man, the woman, the fishmonger, the dancer, whatever.

    On other hand, if readers feel obligated to remember names, they’re going to go mad with my novel because I am naming everything, people have names, airships have names, places have names, paintings have names, operas have names, newspapers and magazines have names. Sort of like real life. But the absurdity of the names is also something I’m working with and part of the tone of my writing is that everything has these weird names, which the characters imbue with significance. Basically, the characters make a lot of knowing references to popular culture–but its the pop culture of the fictional world they live in, not the pop culture of our world. I think the readers will get it.

  2. Though I think my method works because though I’m writing third person, the story is really being told through the perspective of three or four main characters in rotation.

    If I were writing something where the main characters were somewhere else and the novel is following, briefly, a group of assassins, for example, who are plotting something or other, would I give the assassins names?

    I think that’s the issue you’re really getting at. I haven’t addressed it because I’m not engaging in that type of storytelling. It doesn’t really come up when you’re like me, doing an over-the-shoulder third person narrative and less of a view from the sky type of thing.

    Where does your work fall on that spectrum?

  3. May I also suggest an Option 4 — Name them each as they become important? I mean, maybe there’s a group of raiders in the tunnel and Jake is their leader, shouting orders, etc. But he actually dies first and when the next guy takes over, we learn his name Banfi or whatever.

  4. Okay, I’m posting a lot but this is a really interesting question of craft you pose. It’s got my mind on fire–and I was already fired up because I was just looking at writing blogs to psyche up for a writing session. Anyways, your particular specific dilemma:

    “I want an immediate impression of a group as a whole. I want to be aware of the characters in a vague light, as tertiary characters ought to be seen, but ready to pop out, without being obvious which one will be used for plot, yet supported and foreshadowed.”

    In this situation, I might name them all and give them each a single trait or action that identifies them but really it feeds into the feeling of the group as a whole. So if it were a group of bandits, maybe something like this:

    They were lounging around a boulder left in the gully by some ancient glacial melt. Mark crouched on top, crossbow on his knees. Below him, Niles and Grape were arguing about how to divide the wheel of cheese they had taken from the farmer’s basement. They had cut it three times already. Arnaugh had passed out on the grass, using his worn snakeskin boots as a pillow. A few paces away, Ricky and Yules threw dice while the one they called Grim picked his teeth with a rusty knife.

    It gives them each a little enough for us to know they’re distinct, but I don’t think we can predict too much about who might become important.

  5. In that example I just wrote, Mark seems important because he comes first and Grim seems important because he comes last and we say “the one they call”–making it ominous. But really, I think that sort of set up would give you room to play.

  6. Reasons to give people names. 1- You want the reader to go ‘oh, they’re important, I’d better remember them’. 2- Your important characters are taking an interest in them. 3- In that moment, they are important, or 4- there aren’t that many of them. Throw in names in passing if the situation would normally involve the use of a name. Otherwise don’t try to force it.

  7. Let me clarify the situation.

    My character is a political hostage, and the niece of the king. She’s not being thrown into the prisons– she’s being kept in her own private apartments.

    Unfortunately for her, she’s also being guarded at all times. You have four guards posted in the rooms when she’s there. When she wants to leave, two of them follow her, to see that she’s not receiving any messages or guests not approved by her uncle. They also work in shifts. That’s twelve guards total, all there to sit in the background and watch her from her apartment commons. And they’re there for two-thirds of the story.

    Individually, only two of these men do anything important, or are really distinguished. But as a group and a representation of the king’s power, they really do affect the story. But not as individuals. And they’re there for so long that it would make sense for the main characters to be familiar with them.

    I’ve tried naming one or two early on. It feels very awkward, as if I’m trying to pull something. Now that I’ve given this several days worth of thought, I feel like I’m going the wrong way. I should sub-plot them somehow, and make their group more complex that way.

  8. Eliza, in the situation you describe, I would subplot them as you suggest and make a reason why the important ones have names. There a lots of things that can happen between twelve men who have the same job. Fighting over women? What can they do to make a little money on the side? Is one of them stealing from your heroine’s apartment? Are the others conflicted about whether to rat him out? Do any of them ever shirk their duties? Why?

    Surely they have some differing feelings about the king and what they’ve been asked to do. I think you have lots of room to play.

  9. One thought, with them being guards, is that it’s entirely plausble for one or more of them not to want to interract or become friendly, even to the point of giving a name. Which ones get names could therefore be used as a mechanism for exploring the relationship between the guards and the prisoner.

  10. I remember reading an article in GQ about the American soldiers who guarded Saddam Hussein before his execution in Iraq. They would chat with him, talk about his life, watch South Park together. It reached the point where they almost thought of him as a regular guy.

    Though stu also makes a good point. I agree that its likely that some will just keep their distance.

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