Should a character’s name mean something?

The other day I had to introduce a couple of new characters in my novel and, as usual, this meant I had to pause and figure out what their names should be.  Why is this so hard?

This rule covers some of the basics–don’t confuse your readers with names that are too similar to each other; don’t give a character an ethnic name unless the ethnicity matters…  But there’s a deeper level at which a character’s name may feed into his characterization.  Or not.

Many names have connotations, and a writer needs to be sensitive to them.  “Brittany” says something to readers about a character, and “Edith” says something different. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an Edith who is trailer trash.  But if that’s what you’re up to, you’d better take a little time and explain what you’re doing.

So, the basic question is whether you want the character’s name to carry some of the weight of the characterization.  The more important the character, the less you want to rely on this, I think.  Even Dickens pulled back from his wonderfully evocative names–Havisham, Magwitch, Gradgrind–when it came to his most important or serious characters–Copperfield, Brownlow, Summerson.

Anyway, after ten minutes of pondering the state of my fictional universe, I welcomed Mrs. Fitz and her son Biff into it.  Will they survive my rewrites and second thoughts?  Only time will tell.

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Ideas big and small

One of the reviewers of Summit on Amazon said that he’s always amazed by how writers come up with their ideas.  How do writers do it?  Beats me.  But I’d like to make a distinction between big ideas and little ideas.  Big ideas are what this reviewer was talking about — in the case of Summit, a Russian psychic falls in love with an eccentric American pianist.  The CIA and KGB become involved.  Stakes are raised.  Twists and turns ensue.

Big ideas are a dime a dozen.  Anyone can come up with them.  A while back I threw one into a blog post for anyone to take.  For an author, the key to a big idea is whether you find it interesting enough to devote a year or two of your life to fleshing it out.  My friend Jeff Carver had a big idea about a place called Shipworld that he’s spent a decade or two fleshing out.

Little ideas are the key to fleshing out the big idea.  They are the twists and the turns.  They are the scenes that give the novel meaning.  They are the inspirations that make writing more than just a craft.  They are what make writing fun.  In Summit, my favorite little idea involved a minor character, some of those nesting Russian matryoshka dolls, and a double-cross.  I was really happy when that idea occurred to me!

I’m about 25,000 words into the first draft of my current novel, which is the third adventure of my post-apocalyptic private eye, Walter Sands.  I have needed one specific little idea for weeks now, and a few days ago it finally came to me. Yay!  It helps makes sense of an important subplot of the novel, in a way that also allows me to add some backstory about the world Walter inhabits.  Plus, I think it may solve this problem.  Now that I’ve come up with it, I can’t see how the novel could possibly have worked without it.

Now I just need to come up with a few more little ideas, stir them around with another 50,000 words of craft, and I’ll be done.