Naming names

This second draft of the mystery novel I’m working on is the slow one. The first draft was just banging it out on the keyboard as fast as I could, partly to meet my NaNoWriMo deadline, but mostly to prevent my inner editor from thinking about what I was writing. Once that editor kicks in, everything slows way down.

But that editor gets to obsess about the second draft. This is the draft where I find out where the holes in the plot are, and follow up on all those little notes about details that I need to do more research on, and name all those characters I’ve been calling by acronyms, like CORG (Crabby Old Referee Guy) and OHFP (Obnoxious Helicopter Fencing Parent).

Before I tried to write fiction, I thought that I needed to know the names of my characters in order to visualize them well enough to write them, that somehow the sound and rhythm of their names would make them more concrete for me. What I learned from the actual writing, though, was that that was another means of procrastination, like the desire to work out the plot in every detail before I wrote the first word. I discovered I could see my characters perfectly well in my mind, that those acronyms were all I needed to bring them to life to write about them.

I can’t leave them that way, of course. Even if I wanted to—or a publisher would let me—those cryptic labels would evoke—at best—cartoons for anyone else. Like how they behave and what they say, their names should make my characters more concrete to the reader.

Some of my characters already have names. My protagonist, the eventual corpse, and a couple of the major suspects are named. In a few cases, the choice of name has changed my original conception of these characters, but more often, a change in that conception led me to the name.

But I often find myself wondering now why I didn’t opt for a classic locked-room mystery with a finite set of characters. Why on earth did I think setting a mystery at a fencing tournament with 500-900 people over ten days was a good idea? I certainly don’t have to name everyone in that crowd, but I’m going to end up with a few dozen named characters, and after the fun of naming the first few, the process starts to get tedious.

And then there’s that little matter of distraction. When the phonebook doesn’t work for finding the right name, one can turn to the web—it turns out people create character name generators as a hobby. There are fantasy name generators that are fun but useless for my purposes (this one comes up with what sound to me like scifi stripper names), but there are several with real possibilities: Kleimo lets you choose how many you want for which sex, and lets you set the obscurity level. Behind the Name doesn’t do surnames but lets you choose the nationality. And over at Prairie Den, Catherine Tudor has a nice set of links to interesting name generators.

Naming names definitely slows down the writing.

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