Thursday, August 19, 2010

Naming Your Protagonist

Hello, again.

Last week I promised I would tell you how to write, and while I can’t (obviously!) give you my whole writers’ course in a blog, I can give you a few good pointers about writing your story.

Above all, you must remember that no matter how exciting, suspenseful, romantic, or shocking a story may be, it is always a story about someone! Not about a treasure, a kingdom, a car chase, an explosion, or a box of chocolates. A story is always and forever about a character. And so it follows that most importantly for the sake of the story, you, the writer, must know your character.

So many times, young writers come to me with this sort of a pitch, “I got this guy, see, and this is a great story, you're gonna love it, lots of car chases and this big explosion, and crashes and stuff, and—“

I already don’t love it. I don’t even like it.

It’s like listening to—or reading—a really bad weather report.

Who is the character all this is written about? Someone called “this guy.” Not even a name. I get the creepy feeling that this writer may not even know it.

Who is “this guy?” Why am I supposed to be interested in what he’s doing or what happens to him? Why do I care? For pity’s sake, writer, give me his name!

Is he Uriah Heep? Then I won’t expect him to be a hero. In fact, his very name turns me off of the character, though not off of the story. What kind of a story needs someone named “Uriah Heep”? I am intrigued, and I read on.

Well, what if his name is Charles Pennington Brentwood? Okay, I already know he’s not an oil rig worker. Not a ditch-digger. Not a ranch hand. “L’il Smokey” Johnson? Sounds like he’s a cool dude who blows a hot horn. Pete Cooper? Another All-American boy. Nandi K. Pakranishan? Could be a doctor, an IT specialist, a scientist. Again, I am willing to read on.

But you see wehre I’m going with this, I think. When you give your Reader a Protagonist’s (hero’s) name, you are already setting up an expectation in the Reader’s mind.

Be careful how you name your characters; a fellow named John Beverly Rawlings-Smythe is not necessarily going to be my first choice for an infantry sergeant. Joe Garrett will be selected instead to lead a tough squad of seasoned soldiers. (A caveat, here: there are hundreds or thousands of fine British soldiers with elegant names who are easily as tough as any Americans or Aussies, and I am certainly not denigrating anyone.)

The trouble is, Readers are attuned to certain names being associated with certain endeavors, and while sometimes the most vicious serial killer might be named “Percy Goodyshoes.” I guess. I just have a really hard time believing it—or in the story that talks about him. It just doesn’t follow in the general scheme of things; not for most writers, at any rate.

Think as hard about naming your characters, young writer, as you would about naming your child. After all, in a very real sense, Charles Dickens is the “father” of Ebenezer Scrooge.” Agatha Christie gave birth both to “Miss Marple” and to “Hercule Poirot.” Dr. Seuss engendered “The Cat in the Hat” and “Sam-I-Am” and “Horton”, too.

What will you name your literary “child”?

Last week, I suggested that you write down everything you could think up about your Protagonist. This week, I’m going to ask you to name him.

Study lists of name, titles of books; scan magazines and newspapers (but don’t lift any real person’s names, because using them can get you into court, facing a libel suit that any lawyer would salivate over.)

Use only one name, either a given name or a family name (again, nothing like “Trump”, “Rockefeller”, or anything—anything!—familiar or recognizable. And please, no lady singers named “Lena Lerner,” or "Bina Burner" or Nina Nerner." Your Reader's not stupid. Don't use “Milady,” either (that’s what Madonna means in Italian.) Make up your own names.

Use some discretion and all that great talent you have got. And you have, or you wouldn’t be trying to find out how best to demonstrate it!

By the way, just a side note: since “he” and “him” are the default proper-English adverbs indicating any member of the race called “Man,” I always use the “male default.” I hope I don’t offend anyone, but if I do, I’m terribly sorry; and I hope you get over it without any ill effects. I suspect you will.

A good writer always obeys the basic rules of grammar, whether he likes them or not, until he is competent enough to try to change them; and so shall we.

See you next week, when we’ll talk about relating with your Protagonist.

Until then.

Lang out.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Weaving the Threads

I’m taking a break just now from writing a particularly harrowing scene from my new science-fiction novel, “Gusto, ” and I thought I’d drop you a line.

It’s a retrospective novel of sorts, in that Paul Riker--skipper of USS Skipjack, the Federation sublight vessel he captains, in my books—has received word of a death in his family. His grandmother, the formidable, very prejudiced and super--socially--conscious matriarch of the clan, has passed away, and he returns to his home planet, Zerev, to attend the funeral.

Not such a hot premise for a book, on the face of it; and yet, when Riker begins to discover elements of his life and family that he has never suspected, he gets drawn ever deeper into the lives of the pioneer folk of his colony planet—and understands exactly who he really is—and who is family truly are.

This kind of book is not necessarily easy to write, and I don't recommend your starting with one of this sort. If you have a great idea for one of them, shelve it until you have a few finished novels under your belt, and then go for it.

Some books are easier to write. You start with a character you know well, put him in an impossible, hopefully deadly, situation and let him get out of it by his own wits. You just follow him around, making notes. Some writers pooh-pooh this approach, but, I say, hey, to each his own. It's always worked for me, as far as it went.

Other books call for more sifting, more weighing of ideas and facts, a spinning of multiple golden threads that guide each character—like Theseus with his Minotaur—through the maze of the story. To do this, however, be sure you know the way out of the maze beforehand.

Before you start a story of any sort, you mustknow the beginning, the middle and the end, and the important thing that changes. You already will have the skeleton of your story. Fill in the blanks with anything you wish, as long as it makes sense. Situate the story anywhere you like, give the characters whatever attributes you wish, add plot twists if you want to, and still, you have the basis for your story, right there in front of you.

In my own work, I always start with one strong, engaging character--someone I'd like to know--and hopefully, two or three more of them to flesh out the story. Then I go from there.

In my initial novel, “All the Gods of Eisernon.”I used five strong characters: Dao Marik--clearly the dominant personality--Hennem-Mishli, Kles Mennon, Duli Paige and Paul Riker.

Since “Gods—“ had multiple story lines, I needed multiple strong characters to support them. Just make sure, if you decide to go this route (and before you build all those individual story lines) that the book really cannot do without them. Nothing is more confusing—or more off-putting to your Reader--than a snarl of storylines that even the writer can’t untangle.

In “The Elluvon Gift,” while I still relied Dao Marik and Paul Riker, I basically used one story line and just the two really strong lead characters, because that’s what the story called for. It was a much simpler book, from the writing standpoint. Neither better nor worse, just simpler.

For my purposes as a writer, I find that the more story lines you weave, the more ‘lead’ characters you must have. That can be a problem for the beginning writer, and sometimes for more experienced writers, too. If I were just starting out, and had not written fifteen or twenty pieces of fiction yet, I’d stick to a single, well-defined, story line, and make it the best I knew how to write.

But how do you know how?

That’s the rub, as Shakespeare was reported to have said. (These days they’re not sure he actually existed, but they quote him anyway.)

I’ll tell you next time.

Meanwhile, why not start building yourself a character whose adventures you personally would love to share. Write down every detail. Nothing is off-limits. You are bound only by good taste and your great imagination. You cannot write it ‘wrong’ because it’s yours, and you get to say what goes and what doesn’t.

Meanwhile, let’s talk next week again, shall we? Looking forward to it.

Lang out.