September 14, 2010

Alphabet Soup

Dedicated to anyone who has ever sat through the ending credits of a movie for a reason besides wanting to see if there was a teaser at the end, or because you lost your keys on the dark theater floor.

The ending credits of a movie are full of extras. So at what point does someone’s role earn them the title of “Shop Clerk #3” verses no mention at all? At what point in your novel does a character deserve a name, and when should they just be given a title or nickname?

First, a game: Below is apicture of the daughters of Triton from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Now correctly identify one of the sisters (besides Ariel). I’ll even give you the names:
Attina, Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Adella, Alana

If you need a hint, here’s a short 40 second video clip of their introduction from Youtube:

I’m betting if you watched the clip, your answer “Aquata,” the one with the blue tail. Solely because she was the first one introduced or because her name is a variant of “Aqua” meaning ‘WATER’ (which is usually blue). If you answered Adella or Alana you automatically failed since they didn’t even get screen time while singing their names. Answers are at the end of the blog.*

If the daughters of Triton were characters in my book, they wouldn’t have been given names.

My general rules to avoiding Character Soup:

# Avoid the lunchroom setting. Your character may be popular at their workplace or at school. This doesn’t mean we want to meet all of his/her friends the first time they sit down to eat. Slowly introduce the group of friends by having your main character bump into their two best friends in a hallway—before they reach the populated group gathering. Save the yearbook exchange for the high school reunion planning committee.

# Give characters titles or occupations rather than inventing a name for a person who will only be in one or two scenes. The headmaster of the school, the nurse, the waiter, the guard, Queen Victoria, Captain Jack Sparrow, Sensei.

This can sometimes lead to pronoun over usage or confusion of the “he/she” variety. I counter this by giving nicknames to these characters.

Here’s an example from “Austenland” by Shannon Hale:

“His every blink was slow and deliberate, reminding Jane of a frog. [...]He was saying something in lawyer-ese, but Jane was distracted. She was trying to figure out what besides the measured blinking made him seem so amphibious. His taut, shiny complexion, she decided. And his eyes being so wide apart. And his salad green tone. (Okay, he wasn’t actually green, but the rest was true.)

I’ll bet Shannon Hale could refer to this character at the end of the novel by “Toad-face” and you’d know she was talking about the lawyer.

# For secondary and tertiary characters who must have names. The easiest trick is to give the reader something to visually or audibly associate with the character.

Flaws stand out more than perfections. (Which is more iconic for Harry Potter--the scar on his forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt, his jet black hair, or his mother’s green eyes?)

The catch with using mnemonics is that if you put in too many, they will stand out less. Give titles and nicknames to as many irrelevant characters as you can, then for the ones that matter, make a reference to one of their specific mannerisms or visual traits each time you mention their name again.

* Andrina has a lavender tail. Arista has a red tail. Attina has an orange tail with and wears a crown-like tiara similar to her father's. Adella

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