As you know, we at The Art of Writing are taking Sundays off. Usually I’d post a picture. However, today we have a guest post by Paul Davis instead. So, enjoy his perspective on the importance of names in writing, and I encourage all of you to go check out his blog as well!
I think often on the power of words, but recently I’ve really focused on the power of names. In my story on Hurskfjell almost everyone has a name. There are few characters referred to as “Guard #2,” or “The Bartender.” Often in fantasy and sci fi there are bit part characters that jump on and off screen, and we just don’t care to name them. A friend of mine commented while reading my story it felt I was throwing in names just to throw them in. I suppose in a sense I was. But it does something else when the story is read.
Primarily I have been thinking about it because of Game of Thrones. Everyone has a name. I’ve only gotten through one book so far, but it struck me deep how each character in the world has a name and some degree of a background. Sure you don’t remember even half of them, and a few you suddenly start seeing over and over again and think, this guy might matter in the future.
One instance of naming which really struck me was the girl leading Catelyn to the Eyrie. Her last name was River. I don’t remember her first name, but what struck me as soon as I read her name was she’s a bastard. Catelyn knew it, as she got all rigid and indignant. But Martin didn’t need to tell me this girl was a bastard. In one word, with a last name, Martin told me everything I needed to know about this child. I related her to Jon Snow instantly, another bastard we get to know very well.. There was a tragic story behind this girl that we never discover, and I felt for her solely because of her name. In the end, she leads Catelyn up the path and we don’t see her again for the rest of the book. I hope River doesn’t show up again.
There was also an inn keeper. She briefly appears twice, but Catelyn knew the woman since childhood. Despite the inn keeper being unimportant, we learn a great deal about her and her eating habits. Suddenly this otherwise insignificant character is someone we can understand.
This is the power of names and of giving insignificant characters a few important traits. Ever wonder why everyone reads Martin? It’s not just his immensely intricate plots. It’s because every bit character in that story is significant. Every character truly exists beyond being in the presence of main characters. There are no NPCs in the way fantasy and sci fi has portrayed them in the past.
My friend loved Game of Thrones and was making a great deal of headway in Clash of Kings. She read my own writing, and made the comment about me giving names to give names. I asked her to pay attention to what Martin did. She was still in Game of Thrones, but the next time she read it she watched carefully for the treatment of Martin’s characters. Despite not being an English major (why would anyone choose anything other than English), she saw what I was going for.
Try to name your characters, no matter how important. Give them a few unique features. Make them memorable and loved in a paragraph or less. Then do what Martin does and slit their throat, have them fall to their death, or maybe for variety use a baby alligator.
What are your thoughts on the power of names in making characters real, as well as giving them back story?