To name someone or something in literature is to give it breath. To write “The woman in the white suit” is one thing. To write “Emily Johnston, the woman in the white suit” is quite another. A woman is a part of the plot. Emily is part of the story. Both may have lines, but only Emily is likely to have a history, even if it’s a brief one.
The names themselves are often important. A name is the first gift a person receives. They are intentional labels that speak of the culture and the temperament and aspirations of the family. Emily is tender. Paul is strong. Elizabeth is nobel. Names evoke the spirit of another. Nicknames are given to and usually accepted by people whose qualities are representative of their qualities – unless they are ironic, like a “Shorty” for a tall man.
For writers thought should be given before awards a name. The named person plumps a story and adds complexity. Emily has importance. A character too richly drawn may turn the reader’s eye from the main story. Too few characters can make the tale thinly drawn.
Success comes down to the writer’s craft. Hemingway did quite well with one character in “The Old Man and the Sea.” Dickens and Tolstoy used dozens with clear success. There is no right number. Just remember, writers, that a character is a guest in your work who must be provided for and attended to.
Last week the outline to my new novel was a mare’s nest of plot threads. Or perhaps a bridge to nowhere would be a better metaphor. The SCBWI conference., notably Steven Malk’s talk, has energized me to do a better job.
One problem I’ve had historically with this process is my anxiety over the word outline. The term denotes an empty shape. A hollow thing. It connotes the tedious list my dreary teachers and professors forced me to write.
My process in this past week was to simplify and focus the plot. It was drowning in recursive complications. After ripping out the unwanted text, the storyline now has loads of room to roll out an organic sequence of events with believable character development.
Then I began to write, not a list, but a warm narrative of the action. Though I laid the plot points out in chronological order, I composed them from the edges toward the center, leaving open spaces to be filled in as a write the text itself. From this narrative I should be able to create a bulleted list to make even the most stern professor proud.
This weekend I’m attending the 18th Annual Writing and Illustrating for Children Conference in Redmond, WA (home of Microsoft).
This is an excellent SCBWI Washington event with over 400 attendees. The highlight for me is six breakout sessions on writing, editing and publishing. These are very helpful, as is the chance to meet editors, agents and a host of local and nationally known writers. Mostly, though I’m in it for what I can learn.
The weekend is beautiful. No rain. Sunny and 75. Seattle really is one of the best places to be in the world in the summer.