Call me Ishmael

The opening line of Moby-Dick must be one of the most recognisable in Western literature.  Imagine now that Melville had kept the structure of the sentence but substituted the name for another.

Call me John.

It does’t come anywhere near the impact of the original, does it? Ishmael tells its own story. There is a mystery attached to it, something that prompts us to delve deeper, search for an underlying meaning, both apparent and hidden from view. Whereas John… What could possibly interest us in a plain old John?

That is not to say that there are no Johns of interest to be found in modern literature, however…  Here is a challenge for you. Do you recall a John this very moment?

cardboard-cartoon-character-4-8141594While there are many ways for a writer to miss the mark when it comes to characterisation, it is near impossible for a publisher to make a decision either way without delving a little deeper into the manuscript first.

There are a couple of indicators they will be on the lookout for from the first page: character names. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet perhaps, but get it wrong, and I’m afraid that what our publisher will be sniffing out in-between the lines is the amateur writer.

Why do names matter? First impressions are as important in print as they are in person and the use of clichéd names – the Jacks and Joes, Marys and Sarahs we have come across one hundred times over – will signal to the publisher that they may well be reading a manuscript whose author either lacks the imagination to search out distinctive names for their characters or are themselves of a rather clichéd mentality.

On the other hand it is possible to err in the opposite direction by giving characters in a contemporary setting overly exotic names and this will cause just as much damage. Just think about having to read a novel populated by Grunzilbas and Frantomimons.

While a good plot may carry through characters with ordinary names, a poor plot is unlikely will not be strengthened by the use of character names that – while certainly original – are also difficult to remember and will be a cause of great irritation for whoever attempts to make it past the first few pages.

There is a third problem to add to the mix; what I like to call the Russian syndrome. Say you’ve found an interesting name for your character, which is neither clichéd, nor intrusively exotic. Take “Liese” for example. It is unusual enough to be memorable, but not so unusual as to make it annoying. You’ve even come across a surname that will work well with it… say: “Helling”. You’re off to a good start:

Enter Liese Helling.  

First sentence done, but wait a minute! What’s this? One page later the reader’s head is already spinning. After being introduced to Liese Helling in the first sentence, the next gives them an account of Mrs Helling’s troubled afternoon. Two sentences further and here’s Liesy being reprimanded  by her villainous husband. Then they are witness to Liese’s inner life while she bemoans her fate. Helling gets an urgent call from her children’s school to inform her of a bullying incident and then Ms Liese abandons everything to…

Now imagine that the scene unfolds with another six or seven characters in the room, and that for each of them there are four or five name variants. Instead of having to remember seven or eight names, we have to keep track of forty throughout.

While most readers will keep at it trying to wrap their heads around character names in the great works of one Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, they will be less likely to be as patient when reading a novel by a modern writer. So… It is best to give them time to get used to the character before asking them to remember a Liese Helling’s half dozen appellatives.

The solution to all these problems is a straightforward one:

  1. Research names for you characters. There are plenty of books on names and excellent internet resources too. Choose names that suit them. It is never too early to think of the underlying symbolism of a name; this may help deepen characters and add something else for the reader to delight in.
  2. Make them distinctive enough without making them sound like something out of a Martian encyclopaedia (unless you are writing science fiction, of course, in which case you may have a broader spectrum of names to work with).
  3. Then choose one way to refer to them, your favourite appellative, and stick to it.

Of course… we mustn’t forget to introduce them too. I know, I know. But you’ll be surprised how often it happens: ten pages of fast-paced action and not a character name in sight! There is no point in their having memorable names if the reader does’t get to know them.

Here we step into the realm of characterisation proper. More on this coming soon.

34 thoughts on “Call me Ishmael

  1. LoL. “Call me Ishmael.”

    As a Junior in high school I started a short story with, “Ernie Tuttle had aerophobia…” and my teacher ran out of the room to show the paper to another teacher. Seems she thought the name was pretty funny.

    The name belonged to a lawyer in town who belonged to same tennis club, haha. I thought it was a funny name as well….

    • It’s an excellent name for a character. Anyone being introduced to such a character would already have a visual idea of them and attach their own set of traits to them – and if the reader starts doing that then you know they’ll keep reading. Thank you for the comment, Kavalkade. Great example.

      • What I always found interesting about that Ishmael statement is it is probably not his name. Right there Melville has written a mystery. It might actually BE John. “Call me Ishmael. My name is John, but that’s irrelevant.”

      • There is certainly an ambiguity in that sentence that adds to the mystery surrounding the protagonist.
        It is interesting isn’t it how an author chooses to introduce a character?
        In Rebecca, we never find out the name of the narrator. We know that her name is unusual, but the reader never finds it out and her own name is subsumed into that of her husband’s once she is married, so that we only know her as Mrs de Winter, and even that title is believed to have been rightfully Rebecca’s as the first Mrs de Winter.
        My protagonist’s name does not appear until the penultimate line of the first chapter – a deliberate choice, given the underlying theme of the novel.
        Now you’ve made me curious to look into how other characters have been introduced. Should make for interesting research.

      • I hope you post on it — as a writer, I find that first line incredibly difficult.

  2. I do love this post, although I do not agree with all of it. You see, I believe the genre has something to do with it also. Simple “cliched” names seem to add to a light-hearted theme when the novel is humor-based (other genres might be different). This is just my opinion, mind you, but we live around simple names, and the names of the characters are what they are. If we try to hard to be creative in name-choosing, sometimes the characters end up with names that sound forced. “… signal to the publisher that they may well be reading a manuscript whose author either lacks the imagination to search out distinctive names for their characters or are themselves of a rather clichéd mentality.” That is simply not fair, and a bit snobby. Publishers should have more important things to focus on. Yet another reason.

    • Thank you, Erik. I agree with you that each genre will have its own rules and this will of course influence what character names work best. As in life, genres too have trends when it comes to names. Vampire novels overuse the name Vlad. Teen fiction appeared fixated for a while on names such as Ashley, Chelsea and Stacy for the “mean girl” and so on. That is not to say that every character in a book should have an unusual name – that would be unrealistic, but I also think there is an advantage to avoiding stock names where possible (as you say, depending on the genre). This is why I tried to qualify the “distinctive” as names that suit the character.
      Incidentally, until relatively recently I didn’t realise that the misuse of character names can have any impact on whether a manuscript is accepted or rejected, but apparently it does, hence why I decided to include a post about it.
      Ultimately, it is of course up to the author. My own protagonist in the novel I’m revising at the moment has a very ordinary name, but I have a good reason for why she has that name and no other: it is a part of the puzzle of her identity and I rather look forward to the reader finding it out.

      • Yeah, it was the statement that publishers assume that a writer thinks in a cliched way that got under my skin. No. Kinda pissed me off. I detest cliches, and yet my novel characters are somewhat simply named, because that’s who they are, it adds to the feel of the story. I would tell the pompous publisher: “Many award-winning novels are filled with simple names. How dare you assume anything about the artist with such pettiness” I am a peaceful man, but certain things light a fire inside. I apologize for venting.

      • I absolutely understand and please do not feel you have to apologise. In fact I am happy that you added a caveat to the above – it’s important and I really appreciate it. There are many things that I have come across in my research that are counter-intuitive.
        I try to share some of the things publishers are on the lookout for and how the industry assesses manuscripts, especially when it comes to first-timers like myself.
        Ultimately, staying true to the characters we create is key and more often than not we already have a name in mind before we write the first page.
        PS: I’ve saved your pages in a separate tab so that I may read them with fresh eyes tomorrow morning. Something to look forward to.

  3. John Thornton!! (In Gaskell’s ‘North and South’) However, before I gloat too much at ruining your premise, I probably only recall his name because I have a teensy crush on Mr Thornton, played by Richard Armitage 🙂
    Excellent points, Vic. Characters’ names are very important in my not so humble opinion, particularly the protagonist’s, I don’t like anything too contrived or pretentious, but I’m not mad about the common garden variety either. It has to suit the persona of the character, so that one can imagine her/him as real.

    • I was certain that there will be at least one reader who will be able to recall a John. 🙂 John Watson was the one I was putting my money on, since Sherlock is quite fresh on many viewers’ minds.
      Interestingly enough, my own protagonist has a very ordinary name (there is a good reason for it, I promise), but I’ve offset it by giving relatively unusual and yet believable names to three of the other main characters, and have taken care to choose suitable names for the supporting cast too.
      I also find that until I have the right name for a character, I can’t get to know them fully. Garden variety names, as you call them, certainly have that effect on me: I struggle to make a regular Joe sparkle 🙂

  4. The art of naming characters applies to non-fiction, too. Canada has poor protection of freedom of speech, where the burden of proof exist on the speaker to prove what he/she said was true. On the advice of a lawyer, I had to use pseudonyms for all the malefactors in my true and outrageous divorce saga.

    Hence, I had to deal with:

    – Mariah Aliawaiz deMansfalt, feminist social work counsellor
    – Malyssa B. Kruel, feminist child “protection” worker who assisted my ex in alienating the kids from me
    – Didi Righteous-Butterkupps, the boob of a feminist lawyer who advocated that the kids be subject to expert-confirmed child abuse
    – Feminist judge “Justice” Gertrude Gavelbanger, who has already decided to screw me before she even walked into the court room.

    Excellent post, Vic. Well done.

  5. I’m flashing to a couple of movies where character names were so strange, large chunks of the film were dedicated to dialogue explaining it. In each case, the character in question would have been better off with the name John – even the girl.

    • Thank you, Luanna. I think the Johns work well with strong surnames. Now there are two Johns in the mix with a “W” 🙂 although if the character is a detective or spy who wants to pass unnoticed John Smith – through its over-simplicity – might give them away.

  6. Agree names can be surprisingly important. I got irritated to an entirely unreasonable degree by the name of the dog in Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”. I could cope with it being called both Popper and Popchyk, even if the protagonist used both versions apparently interchangeably; but when I discovered that Popchyk was also spelled in various places Popchik, I felt enough was enough. I suppose that’s what you get for reading it in hardback.

    • It can get rather confusing, certainly, and frustrating too. I suppose the Russian syndrome is not much of an issue when it comes to Russian novels, but I’d much rather avoid it in my own (and I know I’ve slipped up in a couple of places which I must go and amend for consistency).
      PS: By the way, did your character reveal which of the two names was hers?

  7. Pingback: Out of Character? | vic briggs

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