Thursday, December 18, 2008

Names and roles

I am still-- always-- thinking about what we call our characters. Talk about picky. I was just reading a book where characters are referred to by their names, by their roles, and often by some physical trait. For example:

A woman is called Fidelia (I'm making this up for the usual reasons) on first reference.

Then next time, she is called "the ad executive" or "Peter's wife".

Then she's called "the brunette."

I actually came across a reference to her as "the brunette ad executive."

I remember my friend Lynn Kerstan remarking that such a passage made it feel like there was a big crowd in the room, though there are actually only two characters (Fidelia and Peter, the blond airline pilot husband :).

Anyway, take a glance at your own story, and tell me how you handle this. Do you always refer to a character by name, and then pronoun (and what do you do if there's more than one "he"?), and if you do replace the name with a noun, what do you consider acceptable and not?

I was just writing a passage where I was referring to a male character by his last name (Petrus). Now this scene is being told from the POV of another character, Lakoff. Petrus has come to Lakoff's city and office for a business meeting. So I had Lakoff think of his as "Petrus" and then "the visitor," and I stopped and thought... should I do this? Is it clear enough that the visitor is Petrus? Is there a good reason not to use his name?

Oddly, I think I find sort of generic terms like "the other man" or "the visitor" or "his guest" as acceptable, while personal terms (like those that tell much at all about this person, especially his hair color) make me squirm-- they seem amateurish somehow.

Okay, here's my justification, lame though it might be, for "the other man, et al" being acceptable substitutes. Those are all in relationship to the POV character. That is, Lakoff is a man, so "the other man" refers to, uh, the other man. Lakoff is the host, so the other man is "the visitor" and "his guest". This seems okay to me even if Lakoff himself would not necessarily think those terms-- after all, we don't think entirely in words, and "the other"ness of someone else is something so primal that we probably think it without language, and we writers use those terms (because we do communicate entirely with words) to replicate the feeling that the other is, well, the other.

But I'm not sure. I just feel that the generic terms are acceptable sometimes (not often, and never, I'd suspect, if the POV character KNOWS this person well), and "the blonde ad executive" conversely seems like a neon sign of amateurishness. What do you all think?



Dara Edmondson said...

I agree with you that things like "the blonde ad exec" sound false. I usually use a name or pronoun, although I sometimes will say something like, "Mary glanced at her friend." But Mary would never glance at the petite travel agent:-)
When a reference pulls me out of the story like "blonde ad exec" would, it screams wrong and amateurish to me.

Rachael Herron said...

Augh. That smacks of the Nancy Drew books. I've disliked that style ever since. The "attractive redhead" or the "convertible-driving sleuth" was always doing something to irritate me....

Riley Murphy said...

Mmm...the use of generic terms? I like the idea of them, on the level that it gives the author a comfortable distance from the fear of empowering a character that has little relevance to the scene, while offering needed clarity to the story’s form and flow. I mean, if a character is immaterial - then giving this character more than a casual reference of: her, she, that gal or the other woman, (like the POV character imparting information about specific characteristics like hair color and line of work) - implies an intimate expectation to the reader, about that character -doesn’t it? And if this information isn’t going to further the storyline, why did the POV make such a distinction in the first place? Sometimes I like to use physical placement to clarify - like ‘the woman on the right’ – or how about setting characters apart by ‘current’ action - ‘Jason eyed the guy smoking the cigar, before turning his attention to--? Where the reader can make the distinction in a scene, between certain characters, at the same time that the POV character, does - through their commonplace actions. As for the blonde ad exec.? Doesn’t this comment imply history and prior knowledge somewhere - That the reader is just supposed to accept from the POV? I mean, when did the POV learn what she did for a living? Why would the POV character notice her hair color? Is she the only woman in the room that is blonde? And as for her line work – is it unique in someway? Pertinent to the story? I feel it’s almost too personal, if it has no relationship to the storyline, - distracting maybe? You say: to replicate the feeling that the other is, well, the other - to me, means giving a certain character a place in the scene, where they can be acknowledged for being present - but, not an important place - that they should matter too much, because he/she is only ‘the other’ - after all, right?

Edittorrent said...

Yes, it would pull you right out of the POV, because the POV character wouldn't think of someone's job, at least not combined with her haircolor!


jaz said...

On a related note, I struggled with how to refer to a law school student before my pov character, about 7 or 8 years older, knew her name. I graduated from a women's college where calling a fellow student a "girl" was verboten. ("Lady" was possibly worse.) And then I went on to work in law firms where people in their twenties would say, "this girl I know..."

Although for a student, "woman" can seem formal or stilted, I ended up using young woman and woman, because I think that's what the POV character would have done.

And I got her name out there quickly! From then on, it was her name/pronoun.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Arriving a little late to the party... when I'm in Trevor's point of view, I use lots of those nicknames, particularly when he's talking about Mitchell. The Blonde. The Big Idiot. Wuss.

But that's part of Trevor's point of view. It's part of the Trevor-Mitchell dynamic (oh, dear, that makes them sound like lovers, not the best friends they are). It's part of how Trevor views Mitchell.

I *think* my audience gets it. I've never directly asked them, but I'd be surprised if they couldn't pick out Trevor's attitudes. They are pretty... emphatic.

In my other characters, I tend to not do that as much. Yeah, in my last outtake, I referred to Daniel as "the drummer" -- because I had to call him something and calling him by name again was too repetitive. Overall, I'm not a fan of those sorts of tags in my own writing.

Edittorrent said...

Susan, do you think it helps that you cap the references? If Trevor is using The Blonde as almost a nickname, he'd sort of capitalize it in his head.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

It's interesting that I used caps here, Alicia -- because I actually don't.


When the shadow fell over him, he knew better than to hope some higher being had agreed with his plan. It *had* to be Mitchell, and not just because the big idiot was probably the only other person who knew about this spot.

Does that show anything, or do you need a better example?

Edittorrent said...

Well, in this case, I'd say that you're using the big idiot just as a descriptor, not as an identifier. If two paragraphs down, you use the big idiot-- well, that's actually in his POV, isn't it? I mean, it's not like M is really an idiot.

POV is all. If it comes from within the POV character, it's going to be okay-- at least if you make this an interesting POV, and clear and such.

Anonymous said...

It's called "Burley Detective Syndrome." Scroll down to Part One to find the reference where it orignated (an old private eye series):

First, I think it depends on viewpoint. If I read "the visitor" in first or third, I think I'll have problems with it. It's actually too vague for the viewpoint. In omnscient, I think it's more acceptable--but that the reference also shouldn't be too vague. For me, The visitor would be too vague; The assasain would be a little more specific.

But, I also think it should be used sparingly. I just read a book, done in omniscient, where one character was referred to as "The vampire" for the entire book. After a while, I started thinking, "You can't be bothered to tell me his name?"

For the descriptive ones, I agree--they sound fake. It gives me the impression the author is trying to slip in a description without taking the time to do the description. And why on earth would a first person or third person POV think of a character they know as "the blonde woman"? It comes across as the author is uncomfortable with using the name!