does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What’s In a Character's Name?

With only two chapters left to finish the first draft of my work-in-progress novel, I have changed a main character’s name. That may not seem to be a big deal, but it is the first time I have ever done it this late in the process. Usually, by this stage, the characters in a novel or short story have become like real people to me. On an ongoing basis, I have been thinking about and having inner dialogue with, for example, a Juan or a Juana or Abigail. So to now change a Juana into a Miriam is disconcerting [not the names I used].

Names are not mere bagatelles, it turns out. Think what these fictional names evoke:

• Ishmael (Moby-Dick)
• Santiago (The Old Man and the Sea)
• Sancho Panza (Don Quijote)
• Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter)
• Scrooge (A Christmas Carol)
• James Bond (Casino Royale et al.)

These names have turned into archetypal giants. Were they whims of the authors? I don’t know. I just know what their impact has been after publication. Would James Bond have been as evocative if his name had been Walter Qwiatkowski? Hmm, I doubt it, though I really can’t know.

So names are not insignificant, and when my inner sense kept nudging me that there was something wrong with the name I had given my character, I finally paid attention. Thank goodness for Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace function. With a few keystrokes, the deed was done. Interestingly, as I have started writing the next-to-last chapter, using the new name has made the writing easier. I had not realized my shoulders had been tensing up the whole time I was using the old name.

What still remains a question for me is whether the unease with the name happened because it was a poor choice in the first place or whether it resulted from the character’s growth within the novel. If the latter, am I being short-sighted in not letting her have the original name since after all that might help signal the character’s evolution? I don’t know. For now, I’ll just go with the fact that it makes the writing easier. After all, I still can use Word’s Find and Replace again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Troubling the Twilight Stillness

As I near the end of my novel’s first draft, I've turned to reading others' novels to remind me of why storytelling matters as an art. The joy I experienced as a reader has motivated me to provide that same experience for someone else. In particular, a moving passage in Ngugi Wa Thiongo’o’s Petals of Blood has spurred me on. [Thanks Cuban for suggesting I read this novel!]

In Petals of Blood, one of the lead characters, while experiencing rejection from a love interest, talks about being caught “. . . in a twilight gloom somewhere between sleeping and waking, and should I not rest there, and not trouble that twilight stillness with passionate insistence?”

With that passage, Thiongo’o reminded me of what is at stake for me personally. As so many other writers have said about themselves, I can’t not write. Writing is such an intrinsic part of who I am that, though I may change venue and format, I must write. Not writing would be the equivalent of dwelling in Thiongo’o’s twilight gloom. While there are people and endeavors in my life which also evoke passion, writing is a singularly powerful force for generating that experience.

When I feel discouraged in my current project, it is tempting to say, especially since there is no publisher waiting with bated breath for my novel, that I should just quit. Then I ask myself, Do I grab life in a passionate embrace or do I choose not to trouble the twilight stillness?