Sunday, March 11, 2012

What’s in a Name? Or… With Apologies to Those Named “Milt”

Birthplace of the character formerly known as "Milt"

I don’t usually spend a great deal of time thinking about the names of characters. They usually just seem to fly out of the ether, I insert them, and they stick, or at least that has been my experience.

So when I began the story I’m writing now, I didn’t think too much of it when one of my major characters decided he’d be Milt. I stuck the name in, and kept writing. As time went on—despite growing ever more excited about the story and knowing Milt was going to be quite important—I found myself not that interested in writing the scenes with Milt in them. I rationalized that it was because though Milt is very important, he’s not physically present for a lot of the book.

But as time has gone on, and the first half has taken a more solid shape, I started to wonder if I was actively avoiding him. I had trouble knowing who he was. He was coming across as sniffly. He seemed thin, too tall, too often pushing a pair of glasses back up onto his nose. Oh no, he was growing buck teeth and a lisp and telltale bumps, which would soon be pimples. He was a stereotype of a sidekick, and a weak, uninteresting foil for my MC. I couldn’t get hold of him, and I really had no desire to.   

Then in Australia, on a long train ride in the Outback, though hot little rural towns and vast parched fields spotted with sheep and huge old gum trees, I had a little epiphany. It felt that the character I wanted Milt to be would thrive in this kind of demanding environment. I could see him climbing over the rusted car bodies and water tanks beside the train line, chasing his mates through the bush, roaring like a dragon. He was gravely voiced, shortish, and stocky, tough and quick with a grin—and he most certainly was not named Milt.

Another name began to whisper, to shout, and then take hold. About two weeks ago I replaced “Milt” with this other name (which still starts with M).  It’s one of the best writing decisions I’ve ever made. I know who he is at last and it has opened up new dialogue, new scenes, and unraveled parts of my plot I had no idea about. It has affected the entire project.

What’s in a name?  If my experience is anything to go by, a lot when it comes to your characters. They have to resonate for you—and if they do, I think they’ll have a better chance of resonating for your audience, because you will know them. You’ll better convey who they really are to your reader.

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