I began thinking about this blog entry during my read through of George R.R. Martin’s Nightflyers novella two Sundays ago. It’s always at the forefront of my mind in my creative process to be thinking about creating memorable characters. Martin is usually very good at this, along with world building, establishing interesting lore, and at times letting side characters ramble about the history of Westerosi (Westerosic? Westerosan?) shoestrings. So, it was a bit of surprise that I didn’t find any of the characters (besides Royd) in Nightflyers to be particularly engaging in the beginning. In fact, I was down right confused as to who was who, and how many characters were even on the Nightflyer on this mission. Now, Nightflyers is one of Martin’s early works, being published in 1980 (and later expanded), so I think he gets a pass on this minor gripe with the novella (and, besides, it more than pays off to keep reading until the end).
But, it did get me thinking about what elements contribute to a reader finding a character memorable?
Now, first off, one thing that I think contributes to my difficulty with Nightflyers’ characters is their names. They’re multi syllable far-future things with odd spelling and unknowable pronunciation. I think fantastical and made up words/names are great, when they’re easy for us to process and remember, at least. I think it can be done, without making the reader scratch their head every time a character is in scene as they attempt to decipher their name. And this isn’t to say that complicated or foreign spelled names are a bad idea, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Learning new things about our surrounding world and different cultures is one of the best things about reading. I’m specifically talking about things that are supposed to sound alien (non-terrestrial) to us, the reader.
Something that stood out to me in The Guns of Avalon, the second book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series, is the chapters where Corwin gets attacked by a group of hell cats from the black road (stay with me here). Now, in the story (spoilers), Corwin is in hiding on a Shadow Earth called Avalon, healing from his wounds from the events that took place at the end of the first book. He quickly takes several of them out with his sword Grayswandir, but the last one makes eye contact with him before it finally bursts into flames. In that moment, it knows him, and calls him “opener” (referring to how Corwin’s curse created the black road in the first book) and asks why he’s attacked them. Later, Corwin is attacked again by a large winged creature from the black road while he’s asleep with a woman from Avalon. Corwin avoids eye contact with the thing because he fears it will know him. And, as he’s about to deliver the killing blow, they make eye contact.
Now, obviously, I’m not just highlighting an action scene and talking about cat demons and shadow Earths because they’re cool (but they are). The main reason why this scene stuck with me for over fifteen years is because, throughout my life since reading these books, I’ve realized that what these scenes illustrate about names and knowing people is as true for real life as it is for fiction.
A name is a powerful thing.
Names hold power.
Think about it. When someone creates a new pen name or pseudonym, it’s so hard for us to call that person by any other name than what we’ve always known them as. But, those that get to know the same individual by their pen name will have the same trouble identifying them with their legal name. Hell, there are some celebrities that have two different personas, and there are whole conspiracy theories around how those personas can’t be the same people, etc. Names are powerful.
They affect our immediate perception of people.
They give us power or hold us back based on our own insecurities or memories surrounding them.
So, maybe the first step in creating engaging characters is to create a name that resonates with ourselves and our beta-readers? That might sound vague, but I feel it’s true. It’s certainly a subjective idea, though, and something that I can’t even say is a skill. It’s a gut feeling. Am I telling you to trust your gut? Maybe. I think it’s more complicated than that, though. In order to trust your gut, you’ve got to have the right instincts, right? And who’s to say what instinct is right? Individuals who find the name Corwin of Amber (Chronicles of Amber) or Roland of Gilead (Dark Tower series) interesting and original my also find names like Takeshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon) or Melantha Jhirl (Nightflyers) to be contrived. (To be fair. I like all of these names. Though, I feel that Nightflyers’ main mistake is having too many like-sounding names next to each other, which does not help the problems I outlined above.)
I guess, the best way is to remain open minded about your character names, and listen to feedback on them.
Now, finally, I’ll address why I used an image of the kids from Stranger Things playing D&D around a table as the featured image for this blog post. I’m no stranger to tabletop RPGs and I think DMing/GMing them has taught me a great many things about storytelling, immersion, and world building. Before Roger Zelazny died, he too got into playing tablet top games like D&D according to his close friend George R.R. Martin. There’s something magical about D&D and other games like it, because it does something for your imagination that many other things can’t. D&D can act as a sounding board to the average reader or person that might get into one of your stories. Sometimes I’ll introduce elements into a campaign that I might want to develop further into a novel or short story at some point. If my players respond well to it, or don’t, I know whether or not I have something that could be further explored. It might be worth testing out (and, consequently, could be a good place to test out some of the names you might like to use in the future, heh).
I think Stranger Things is also a very good example of a good character driven science fiction horror show. Its characters are memorable and they resonate with us. Especially one particular character. And her name is just a number. Eleven is a fantastic character, and she stands out partly because of her name being a number. It’s odd. It’s simple. And yet it immediately hints at her back story.
Anyway, I think I’ve done enough rambling about names for one blog post, don’t you think?
In the next parts of this series, I’ll be talking about POV, reader immersion, and character backstory and personality traits… probably in no particular order. Heh. Thanks for listening to me ramble!