A tag once asked me whether I preferred character-driven stories or plot-driven books. My answer was: a mix of both. You can have a mind-blowing plot ruined by bland characters as much as you can get the most amazing characters let down by the weak storyline. Still, there is one thing I need to truly enjoy a book: one character. One Chosen One. To hate or to love, to root for or to push under the train just when it comes in. It got me to thinking about the creation of those characters. I often wonder about their birth, and name-choosing is an inevitable step in the process, at least for 99% of the books we read.
Thomas Enger, whose latest book Cursed is a success, has something to say about names in stories!
No, it’s not YOU
by Thomas Enger
When you’ve written a novel, or maybe even a few of them, you have created a certain amount of characters. I haven’t done the actual count, but in my Henning Juul series I guess I have created well over a hundred characters. All of them aren’t full bodied characters, of course, but characters nonetheless. People with names. Quite a few of them with full CV’s and quite down to the minor characteristics and personalities, too.
This can, for many reasons, be a problem, because it’s hard to keep track of them all, and to come up with new characters all the time that aren’t mirrors of previously created ones. Also, you have to name them. Give the surnames and last names, sometimes even middle names, if that suits the character. It’s actually a lot more work than what you might think. And you have to be a little bit careful with what you name them.
Let me explain what I mean.
When I first started to think about what kind of characters Henning Juul should be surrounded with at work, it was natural for me to think of people I knew from my time as a journalist. I have met with and worked with hundreds of people in the media, so I picked a few characteristics here and there, and I moulded all of them into new characters. It could be eyes from one person, hairstyle from another, teeth (yes, actually) from a third and ordinary demeanour from a fourth. Maybe even fashion style from a fifth. All of a sudden I had a new character. And then I named her Heidi, for instance.
For those of you who have read the first Henning Juul novels, you know that Heidi isn’t a very nice person. She is somewhat harsh to the people around her, very bossy. She’s a “my way or the highway” kind of woman, and a lot of people dislike her very much.
That’s not a problem in itself. The problem, for me as a writer, is that I know or have known maybe ten Heidi’s in my days. Real ones that aren’t anywhere near the Heidi from the book, as Heidi is quite a common name in Norway. And I know for a fact that quite a few of those acquaintances thought I was writing about them…
What made matters worse, was that I had worked together with a Heidi in my newspaper, and right after Burned was released, the first novel in the Henning Juul series, she was made editor of domestic news, like Heidi Kjus is in my novel. So A LOT of people thought I was writing about my former colleague, which I wasn’t. Not in the slightest.
This isn’t a problem just for the Heidi’s.
I know quite a few people who have Henning as their first name (my father, for instance). I know a few who are called Iver (a friend of mine has a son aged ten or something now, and for some reason she thought I was writing about him, even though Iver is in his mid 30’s…). When I write about a doctor, for instance, some doctor friends of mine think that I’ve used them as models for the characters.
Sometimes I do use things in my close proximity. Whenever I write about a family of four, for instance, I may be prone to use stuff I know from my own personal experience. But it really is funny, and a bit of a nuisance, too, how people I know tend to read themselves into the characters I create. I very rarely do. But I’ve learned from experience to be a bit careful about these things.
So what about Heidi, you might ask? How did I resolve that situation?
Well, I e-mailed her afterwards and explained what had happened, and that I in no way think that she is a bad person. She thankfully accepted it with no hard feelings.
The other Heidi’s … well, I guess I have to e-mail them as well. Maybe a bit late now, perhaps. It’s been almost seven years…
I am lucky to be friends with an author who actually used my name in a book (yes, I am talking about you!) and it is quite fun. I admit of being proud and happy about the gesture but would I still be happy if said character was a real pain in the bottom with every flaw you can think of? Maybe not!
I understand how tricky it must be for authors to find inspiration all around them or to draw it from memories and experiences to create characters when it may lead to the kind of awkward situations Thomas Enger describes. Still, it is bound to happen, unless you are a hermit who comes up with names no one has ever heard before? But then, how would you know, because you wouldn’t have friends to check if the names were available?! And with all those “creative” parents, good luck finding brand new names!
Sometimes, it’s good to remember it’s fiction, and a name is just a name! (unless you’re told that the character is your double!) I like to think that writers dissect everything and take bits and pieces to create something new, so nothing comes from the same place and no one’s ego is to be hurt.
Writer friends, have you experienced the same issue? How do you choose your names and do you keep the person’s qualities, flaws or personality attached to the name when you build your characters?
Everyone else, have you ever come across your name in a book?
Thomas Enger’s book Cursed is currently on tour! I haven’t read it yet because my obsessional need to read series in order has prevented it to happen but the first books in the series are waiting for me. In the meantime, you can check the amazing blog stops below!