Friday, April 04, 2008

Name Tags


Monhegan Headlands,
Charles Ebert,
oil on canvas, c. 1909.

Writers are advised to produce the name of their Main Character as soon as first-page possible to provide the reader with the usual, immediate means of identification, assist sympathetic bonding, and all that nice, coveted stuff.

No problem writing in third person, whether close or distant. Reader head space is easy to acquire directly. You just tell them.

On his way to a murder, Joe Jurassic...

More of a challenge in first.

I just realized that my Lillie's name is not divulged until around page seven, and her full name later. My bad.

Of course, she's distracted by the need to fight off a zombie-type, but I may have to do a little manipulative revision in view of the advice above.

Off hand, I can think of several methods to introduce the character's name early on in first person narrative.

1. direct dialogue by a secondary character: Joe Jurassic! Get your primeval ass in here...

2. by direct introduction, sticky Hi-my-name-is type: My name is Joe Jurassic and I suffer for it... Not a style I care for as it breaks the fourth wall. A forced intimacy.
If not done carefully your character may come off like that irritating stranger in the next chair in a doctor's waiting room.

3. Having the narrator read or mention his/her name on a letter, a parcel, a name plate, a business card: My name in black, block letters: Joe Jurassic, Private Investigator. I saw that much before the box blew up in my face...

Can be done smoothly, but often strikes me as a bit obvious, a contrivance, similar to having the character describe him/her self in a mirror or a shop window.

4. Have seen self-address -- internal dialogue: Joe, I said to myself, you're in deep shit -- but that method works only with certain chatty character types.

5. A backstory re-call (similar to direct dialogue) of a previous conversation: The Lieutenant always stuttered over my name. Where t'hell is that cretin J-J-Jurassic? The Lute always spit when he talked, so I was glad that time I was standing behind him...

Can you think of other means and methods of early name-dropping?


Yesterday, I saw two reconnaissance squadons of the liberation, sweeping high and silent in the far blue.

52 comments:

StarvingWriteNow said...

Well, if Lillie's name is on the back cover blurb, why worry about it? Or, I suppose you can just take the first "she" in your prose and change it to Lillie.

Have a lovely weekend!

James Goodman-Horror Writer said...

There is always the ill timed phone call. Character is in the midst of action, finds cover to catch breath, cell phone rings, caller "Hey Joe, whadaya know?"

Joe, "can't talk now, I'm a bit busy..."

Bernita said...

Hmmm, name supplied by title or blurb. Interesting, WriteNow.
Can't change the pronoun when the pronoun is "I."

That falls under diaglogue I suppose, James, but a neat way to introduce a name - and an opportunity for humour.
"Joe? How's it hangin'?"
I looked up at the body. "About five feet off the floor. I haven't cut him down."

Ric said...

You always have the greatest questions / observations.

My thoughts on Lillie tend toward the extreme amount of action in the first pages would keep the reader engaged enough they wouldn't worry about the name. (assuming of course, we have already read the first pages..)

spyscribbler said...

It is such an irritant to me. I have this weird aversion to names. I've always chickened out and edited one in, but I keep getting drawn in by characters, who by strange circumstance have no name. No name at all. It's a bit of fascination for me. And it sure makes the beginning less awkward.

BernardL said...

I opt for your style, Bernita. Let the writer bring the name out with the story. I suspect this 'Name Game' is another bout of tinkering by the people with the job of selling fiction rather than writing it. I can think back to hundreds of books and authors where the main character's name wasn't revealed for many pages.

Bernita said...

Ric, thank you!
I considered that. There's nothing like a dilemma for engaging the reader.
I have also wondered if withholding a name is a form of suspense or merely an irritation.

I've never felt the need to know the character's name to immediately relate to them either, Natasha.

It's more realistic with first person and the plot, Bernard.
Yhe idea about naming is based on an iron-clad assumption that people need a name or else the character is indistinct to the reader.
I don't think that's always true.

bookfraud said...

i'm all in favor of the "yo, vinny!" means of introducing character names, which is having someone yell "yo, vinny!" on the opening page.

if it's third-person, i'd imagine the omniscient narrator can just describe action of the protagonist as soon as possible; in the first person, i don't feel like you even need to introduce "yourself" until "you" have a motive to do so.

Bernita said...

Book, you favour the dialogue direct.
I could have the zombie-type address her, I suppose.

Demon Hunter said...

I write in 3rd, so I don't currently have this problem, but I may if decide to write another series with the MC in 1st. Not sure yet...

The Anti-Wife said...

Knowing someone's name makes the story more intimate. We tend to have stronger feelings about people when we can attach a label to them and a name is a very personal label.

Bernita said...

In that case, here are a few options, my Demon.

So they say, AW.
However the beginning of a book is something like being helped by a stranger when you're being mugged in a dark alley, you will have an immediate appreciation of him but are damn well not going to stop and ask his name while he's hauling some sonofabitch off you.

Robyn said...

I don't think there's an immediate need for the name; as you said, there's plenty happening to grab us. And since it is in first person, we won't assume Lillie is about to become the first body.

Scott from Oregon said...

I had the same problem and used a recounting of an event where others chanted the name of the character because he was being heroic...

Your problem is all the action...

(Maybe your zombies could mumble "Eee Eee" and your character could hear her name in it "Lillie" and then have a moments pang of conscience before she lops their heads off?)

Bernita said...

I don't quite understand the requirement for an immediate formal introduction in first person, Robyn.

Actually, Scott, since the revenant is supposedly her husband, he could speak her name.
I'm just being sulky over this, I suppose.

Sam said...

I can think of one instance when we never learn the heroine's name -'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier.

Rules are made to be broken!
:-D

raine said...

I think the hurried intro of the main character's name--especially in first person--shouldn't be the major deal it's made to be. Third person, ok. But really, with first person I'm okay with "I" for quite a while, lol, especially if I'm quickly identifying with the character.
Now I wonder if anyone's ever written a stand-out first person pov where the character's not "named" at all, which might actually prod the reader to become the "I" in even more depth...
Everything I'd thought of has pretty much been mentioned here, lol. Phone calls work. The zombie might whisper the name. She might even have her moniker embroidered on the bathroom towels, or engraved in the wedding band she's continued to wear but hurriedly removes after the encounter...

raine said...

...And I see Sam answered my question just as I was typing it, lol.

pjd said...

I dunno... I think this is one of those "rules" that needs to be taken with some skepticism.

I really enjoyed the movie Once, and it wasn't until the credits rolled that I realized neither of the two main characters had ever had their name revealed. In the credits, in fact, they were named "Guy" and "Girl." It worked just fine. In fact, it was better for the lack of names, I think.

Bernita said...

True, Sam, too often we see form chosen over substance, but beginners are wise to pick their battles.

Raine, you are often so close it scares me.
First instance of her name is on the inside of his wedding band .

BTW, people, Raine's latest novel, with the delicious title, "The Last Man on Earth" is released today.

PJD, your reasoning follows mine.One can make a case for deeper identification without the name, which in some cases, may provide a barrier.

Jaye Wells said...

Personally, it's not something I've worried about in reading or writing first person. If your editor has a problem with it, believe me, she'll let you know. But I don't think it's a make or break thing in submissions.

raine said...

First instance of her name is on the inside of his wedding band.
A lovely touch. ;)

Raine's latest novel, with the delicious title, "The Last Man on Earth" is released today.
You have a generous heart, Bernita. Thank you!

Bernita said...

Good to know, Jaye. Thank you.

Your hero sounds like one sweet guy, Raine.
~Raine has links to a delicious excerpt as well~

Lisa said...

I'm not bothered at all not know a main character's name when the story is told in first person. Page seven is five or ten minutes into it. I'd rather wait, then have the author make a huge effort to tell me the name. I don't even care if I know the last name right away -- sometimes I think it would be better if the author wouldn't tell me at all. But I also don't like to hear much on physical appearance either. I must be a minimalist :)

Bernita said...

The way I think too, Lisa.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Call me Ishmael.

Bernita said...

# 2 - direct address, Anon.

Shauna Roberts said...

I don't mind if the character's name isn't introduced right away, or even at all. I identify with them from the start just from being in first person.

Many of the books I read, both first person and third person, start somewhat omnisciently and gradually swoop in on the main character and get into their viewpoint. That never bothered me until I became a writer and hyperaware of POV changes.

Bernita said...

Shauna, I'm curious about your comment regarding omniscience in a first person narrative.
Do you mean a description of a room, a scene, an event, before the reader is alerted by the personal pronoun indicating the narration is in first?

Shauna Roberts said...

Bernita, yes, I've seen that, and it's sometimes from the author's POV rather than the protagonist's.

I've also seen (in third person) the first scene start with a bird's eye view of the protagonist, describing what's around the protagonist, including things they could not see, hear, or smell, such as the hat they're wearing. Then the description zooms in closer and gradually we begin to get into the protagonist's thoughts.

Then there's sentences such as "She turned toward the window, and her lace-edged silk skirt swirled around her ankles," which I find somewhat objectionable because it suggests the viewpoint of a watcher, as opposed to "She turned toward the window so quickly that her skirt wrapped around her leg, and she had to grab the sill to keep from tripping," which is clearly in the lady's POV.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Well, some characters call themselves by their own first names... Or the enemy can know them. I tend to think the effort is a bit lenient in "i" books.

I will never forget the days after 9/11--our silent night skies, only broken by American AF hawks overhead, securing our safety and well-being. What did those pilots think as they flew that empty air over the mountains?

Bernita said...

Yes, Shauna, sneaking in the descriptive details, a bit annoying: "I tossed back my long black hair" - often it is a POV slip unless the writer has established that the narrator is likely to have focused on those details because of a previous comment.

I understand some of those pilots were Canadians flying F16's, SS.

SzélsőFa said...

Another thoughtful post Bernita!
I've checked my WIP.
although it is a bit different, b/c it will be about 7-8 pages only.
It starts off with the very name of my MC :))))
Actually, it goes like this:
Hail opened his eyes.

SzélsőFa said...

And when I'm reading a first person VIP, I don't really care about the name of the character, either. If the thing is written well, I might even feel the written I is the same as I, the me, the reader.

*looks confused*

Bernita said...

Thank you, Szelsofa.
That is a direct, efficient opening. Perfect application of the identity rule for third person.
No one could possibly complain.
Seems the rule is not strict and necessary in first from people's comments.
Mine opens with I was standing there naked...

ChristineEldin said...

A talking parrot? or is that too obvious a trope?

Dean Koontz's "Odd" series is told in the first person. I wonder how he did it? I don't have those books with me at the moment, but they were smoothly told from the first person, and we knew his name.

I like the telephone idea. I just love dialogue in general.

Bernita said...

"A talking parrot?"
Chrsi, would work, especially if the narrator's name was "Polly."

kmfrontain said...

If the story flows well without the name until page seven, if it's logical that the name wouldn't have been given, take the risk, break the so-called rule and leave the name out.

Also, first person, by it's very nature, breaks the fourth wall to some degree. It is "I" talking to "you". It is written more like a journal with a definite intended or implied audience. This is no doubt the reason some people don't like the style. They are more aware of being addressed personally. Involvement on the party of the reader is almost demanded because the reader is the "you" that accompanies the "I". Some readers would rather relax and be more distant, a nebulous "they". (Runs screaming from all this philosophical sounding discussion. Too early on a Saturday for it.)

Anyhow, I still think if your "I" didn't get around to mentioning her name until page seven, it's no biggie. You're less demanding on the "you" reader that way. ;-)

Bernita said...

Karen, thank you!
Have been wondering myself if that intimacy was one of the reasons some readers are uneasy with first.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think the best way is just to state it and get it done.

"Ruenn Maclang stood at the window, looking down at the city below."

Most of the other ways can work but they seem a bit contrived.

Charles Gramlich said...

Uhm, somehow I posted before I'd finished the comment. That first part was about 3rd person. For first person, it almost has to come from a direct address from someone else, but I personally don't see much harm in going a few pages before introducing the name. I'm not focused on the character name at first when I'm reading a book, more on the characteristics of that character.

Bernita said...

I agree, Charles, thank you.
Think I'm more focused on gender, apporximate age, and their character at first too.

writtenwyrdd said...

This appears to have the same considerations as a character's appearance: Finding the right means in the given situation that doesn't appear contrived, trite or stupid.

In first person, I don't have a problem with the pov character talking to the reader a bit. It's not like an aside to the audience, it's like the main character is telling the story for someone else to read, knows it, and thus the trick doesn't break the fourth wall because the reader is being told the story by the character.

You could thus even start the story, "My name's Joe, Joe Jurassic, and if you even think about cracking a smile I'll remove it for you, with prejudice."

Scott from Oregon said...

You could title your chapter one "Where Lillie meets her zombie uncle"...

or something like that...

Bernita said...

Written, imo,that does break the fourth wall, deliberately.
Not a problem for the hard-boiled type of narrative.

Scott, that goes along w/WriteNow's solution. The reader is informed, though not within the narrative.
Have seen those chapter headings in older books.

Travis Erwin said...

My current WIP is first person and some what loosy goosy on the so-called rules of writing. I want it to feel as if the narrator is telling the reader a story and thus he basicaly gives a lsit of things he cannot say for sure and then follows it up by saying. But I can tell you my name is Hank Petty Zybeck. Hank, for the greatest country singer of all time. My daddy's description, Not mine. Petty, for ...

This happens on page three and even though it could be considered author intrusive I think it works for the tone of the story.

writtenwyrdd said...

Hmmm...I guess it does break the 4th wall, at that, bernita. Maybe it works because the device is a trope in and of itself? In any case, I am sure you will handle the issue with no problem. I'd angst over what to wear over your award ceremony clothes a bit more, lol.

By the way, do you need beta readers?

Bernita said...

Travis, it probably works fine with your style and character, especially if your consistent with it and the reader comes to expect it.
It's a perfectly acceptable technique, just not one I can handle.

"I'd angst over what to wear over your award ceremony clothes."

Be nice, Written.

Beta reader? Been considering it.You've got a good eye. E-mail me. Perhaps we can work something out.

writtenwyrdd said...

I meant that you'd be likely to have to find award clothes, Bernita. Hope I didn't offend!

Bernita said...

No offense, Written!
I just think that awards are wa-ay beyond the realm of possibility!

Vesper said...

Very interesting points, Bernita.
But how about a nameless main character/narrator throughout the novel?

Bernita said...

"Rebecca" managed it, Vesper.
Short fiction is more compatible with that approach, I believe.