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in one thousand or fewer words.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Why Not Name Your Main Character?

This isn't a rant, but a serious question: why wouldn't you name your main character within the first sentence or so?

So many stories (especially short-short stories) have only "he" or "she" as the main character; some will start with the pronoun and then give the name later. But a name is so powerful! Consider the difference between the following opening sentences:

"She sat on an outcropping of rock that jutted out of the mountain."

"Martha Whittaker sat on an outcropping of rock that jutted out of the mountain."

"Svetlana Dushovsky sat on an outcropping of rock that jutted out of the mountain."

"AnunciaciĆ³n McGrew sat on an outcropping of rock that jutted out of the mountain."

"Elise de Martin sat on an outcropping of rock that jutted out of the mountain."

"Dr. Alexa Martin sat on an outcropping of rock that jutted out of the mountain."

"Libby sat on an outcropping of rock that jutted out of the mountain."

You get the idea. These women are, in order: an abtraction, English-sounding, Russian-sounding, racially mixed or an Hispanic woman married to an Irishman, French, educated, and casual or perhaps a woman (or girl) of the country. The abstraction is in many ways the least powerful, yet probably 80% of the stories I get have an abstraction as the main character -- a bare pronoun, not a name.

Why do that? I'm serious that this isn't a rant: if you have thoughts on the subject, please add your comments below.

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2 Comments:

Blogger bunnygirl said...

The problem with character names in flash is that it can be hard to work them naturally into the narrative in such a short word count.

First person is particularly tricky, since most of us don't go around thinking of ourselves by name, especially first and last name. Our friends don't usually use our last name when speaking to us, and they might not even use our first name very often. (I have one friend who typically just says, "Hey!")

So unless the story takes place at a doctor's office, police station, or some similarly formal place, it's hard to work in a full name for the main character.

Third person is a little easier, but introducing a character by both first and last name can still feel awkward, depending on the story's setting and the flow of plot and dialogue.

In informal settings in real life, we're often introduced to each other by first name only. Even in some business settings, you're as likely to be directed to "Angela in Payroll" as to "Angela Barnsworth."

Using last names in settings where they're not normally encountered in real life creates distance between reader and character. The story risks sounding like a police blotter report, and who wants that?

Personally, I try to include names whenever it feels natural to do so, but it doesn't always work out that way. I recently wrote a piece about two young people living on the streets of Santa Fe. I finished the story and only then realized neither character had a name. But upon reflection, it seemed right that they remain anonymous. Isn't that how we perceive people on the margins? They have no names. They're just "those people."

Anyway, this is all good food for thought. And it beats the heck out of working. Speaking of which....

February 5, 2008 1:46 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

It occurs to me that this should really be in the forum. Here's the link.

February 5, 2008 3:22 PM  

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