Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The Writing Coach: Give ’Em a Name

 

There is an old saying that, “Every person is the hero in his own story.” In writing fiction, every character is the protagonist in his own story, or at least he thinks he is the protagonist. To create believable characters, we have to respect the characters. This matters for our protagonists. This matters for our antagonists. And it even matters for those side characters we plan to kill off on the next page “off-screen.”

To properly respect a character, we ought to know at least a little about them. We ought to know their name as a first step. That doesn’t mean that it has to be used in the story, but we ought to respect the character that much. Our protagonist is walking down the street and happens to notice an odd sort of fellow who is wearing a purple Robin Hood-style hat with a green feather? The reader doesn’t necessarily have to know his name is Fulgencio Z. Buffalobreath, or that his name at birth was John Smith, but he changed to to be more distinctive, but the author should know that.

In Moby Dick, Melville has one line referring to Captain Ahab’s wife, if memory serves. A modern female author got to wondering about this smallest of side characters and wrote a book about her. That is what any author should be able to do for any minor character they have created.

Now, let’s look at a specific situation I mentioned above. You have some disposable character you’re going to kill off to put your protagonist(s) into a situation or to show how bad the bad guys are. Unnamed character #1’s being killed off does not have the same impact as Chief James Scuffer of the United States’ Navy’s being killed off. It doesn’t have the same effect on you, the author. It doesn’t have the same effect on your readers. Invest enough in your victims to at least give them a name, and probably to share it with your readers. Chief Scuffer will appreciate it. Trust me.

Are there any side characters from fiction whom you have encountered where you would like to know more about their story? Are there any peripheral characters whose name you would have liked to know? Have you seen this done well? Have you seen it done poorly? What do you think of the advice, Ricochet?

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    This is sort of related to some of my posts from last month:

    https://ricochet.com/798641/if-i-were-the-king-of-grammar/

    https://ricochet.com/804967/if-i-were-your-writing-coach-id-take-away-your-exclamation-point/

    https://ricochet.com/803296/if-i-were-your-writing-coach-i-would-start-you-at-the-beginning/

    https://ricochet.com/802428/if-i-were-your-writing-coach-i-would-advise-a-different-point-of-view/

    • #1
    • October 29, 2020, at 10:06 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. Sisyphus Coolidge
    SisyphusJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Cool. I’ll spend the rest of the day offing side characters. Spice up my comedy of manners. Or my autobiography. Can’t decide which.

    • #2
    • October 29, 2020, at 10:09 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. She Reagan
    SheJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind here. I think he did it well. So many offhand remarks by Sherlock Holmes about cases that Watson never got to writing about…

     

    • #3
    • October 29, 2020, at 10:15 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    Cool. I’ll spend the rest of the day offing side characters. Spice up my comedy of manners. Or my autobiography. Can’t decide which.

    Depending on the genre, fiction writers can be the world’s worst serial killers, and then it gets blamed on their characters instead:

    • #4
    • October 29, 2020, at 10:21 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    She (View Comment):

    Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind here. I think he did it well. So many offhand remarks by Sherlock Holmes about cases that Watson never got to writing about…

    Have you ever read his poetry?

    • #5
    • October 29, 2020, at 10:21 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Sisyphus Coolidge
    SisyphusJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Nicked Frank and Claudia at the Pentecostal service, a bold new direction for a quiet scene of POV character snootiness. And the doorman at the Ritz with the wedding ring delivered for a tenant got the name Roderick Blaine moments before his very untimely death at the hands of a serial poisoner. I’m thinking a school trip is in order next. Maybe an amusement park. Sixth graders, gang members Freddy and Chico and a bossy lawyer’s kid name Benedict. One goes missing. No spoilers, but Freddy goes all room temperature. All of this could have been avoided if I’d only skipped this conversation.

    Oh, the humanity.

    • #6
    • October 29, 2020, at 10:49 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  7. Sisyphus Coolidge
    SisyphusJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind here. I think he did it well. So many offhand remarks by Sherlock Holmes about cases that Watson never got to writing about…

    Have you ever read his poetry?

    Doyle’s or Watson’s?

    • #7
    • October 29, 2020, at 10:49 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  8. Mr Nick Member

    I recently read The Expanse books having got into the tv series on Amazon Prime. The authors (James S.A. Corey is the pen name for two writers) are very good at bringing back side characters.

    One of the ‘point of view’ characters from the first book is a cop whose partner disappears quite early on, only to reappear as a POV character in book four and then disappearing again (well, the final book in the series is yet to be published). 

    They do it with others too. Good series if you like science fiction. The authors are quite liberal (climate change features heavily), but one of them has a really good grasp of history.

    • #8
    • October 29, 2020, at 11:00 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant: The reader doesn’t necessarily have to know his name is Fulgencio Z. Buffalobreath, or that his name at birth was John Smith, but he changed to to be more distinctive, but the author should know that.

    So, not one of the Joplin Buffalobreaths then.

    No finer family in these United States than the Joplin Buffalobreaths.

    Not at all like the no-account Rolla Buffalobreaths.

    • #9
    • October 29, 2020, at 11:09 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Stoppard took two minor characters from Hamlet and came up with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, one of my favorite plays.

    • #10
    • October 29, 2020, at 11:14 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  11. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):

    Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind here. I think he did it well. So many offhand remarks by Sherlock Holmes about cases that Watson never got to writing about…

     

    The Giant Rat of Sumatra!

    • #11
    • October 29, 2020, at 11:14 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpringJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I am a reader, but not a writer and I really love these threads.

    • #12
    • October 29, 2020, at 11:52 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    Arahant: Have you seen it done poorly?

    The name George R. R. Martin springs to mind. Among others. Knowing who your side characters are is one thing. Diverting from advancing your plot to providing more and more viewpoint characters and never finishing your series doesn’t do anyone any good. Well, it is A Song of Fire and Ice. Not finishing that might be a service to the literary world. 

    Telling the story of too many side characters is one of the signs of Plot Kudzu. Save it for sequels and spin-offs. Fully fleshing out your side characters in your notes in order to give them personality and impact on the world as Arahant is suggesting is an excellent idea. But yes, I have seen it done poorly.

    • #13
    • October 29, 2020, at 12:10 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  14. She Reagan
    SheJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind here. I think he did it well. So many offhand remarks by Sherlock Holmes about cases that Watson never got to writing about…

    Have you ever read his poetry?

    Not that I recall. Should I?

    • #14
    • October 29, 2020, at 12:36 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    If I am going to kill a character, I want their death to have impact. If they are a villain, they should be menacing yet understandable. We can see why they are on the evil side. For a good character, we should empathize with them – I try to write so you can imagine yourself in the foxhole next to them. In a way, I feel like I owe it to them not to leave them in the background.

     

    • #15
    • October 29, 2020, at 1:45 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind here. I think he did it well. So many offhand remarks by Sherlock Holmes about cases that Watson never got to writing about…

    Have you ever read his poetry?

    Doyle’s or Watson’s?

    Doyle’s. Watson’s was a bit staid.

    • #16
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:48 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    I am a reader, but not a writer and I really love these threads.

    Thanks.

    • #17
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:51 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. Boss Mongo Member

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):

    Arahant: Have you seen it done poorly?

    The name George R. R. Martin springs to mind. Among others. Knowing who your side characters are is one thing. Diverting from advancing your plot to providing more and more viewpoint characters and never finishing your series doesn’t do anyone any good. Well, it is A Song of Fire and Ice. Not finishing that might be a service to the literary world.

    Telling the story of too many side characters is one of the signs of Plot Kudzu. Save it for sequels and spin-offs. Fully fleshing out your side characters in your notes in order to give them personality and impact on the world as Arahant is suggesting is an excellent idea. But yes, I have seen it done poorly.

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I invest time to read approx 422 pages in the rather (very) boring travels of a character, then he opens a door and gets fried by a dragon. Incident has no effect on the plot.

    Martin wasted my time. Martin can pound sand. He’ll never finish that series. HBO sundered any choice of that. But I’ll never put another shekel in his pocket again.

    • #18
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:53 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):
    Telling the story of too many side characters is one of the signs of Plot Kudzu. Save it for sequels and spin-offs. Fully fleshing out your side characters in your notes in order to give them personality and impact on the world as Arahant is suggesting is an excellent idea. But yes, I have seen it done poorly.

    Amen, brother. Preach it. As I said, the readers don’t have to know everything. Especially about that incident in fourth grade. We just don’t talk about that. But it is why Fulgencio is wearing that ridiculous hat.

    • #19
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:53 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  20. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    She (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind here. I think he did it well. So many offhand remarks by Sherlock Holmes about cases that Watson never got to writing about…

    Have you ever read his poetry?

    Not that I recall. Should I?

    Do you like Kipling’s poetry?

    • #20
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:54 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    If I am going to kill a character, I want their death to have impact. If they are a villain, they should be menacing yet understandable. We can see why they are on the evil side. For a good character, we should empathize with them – I try to write so you can imagine yourself in the foxhole next to them. In a way, I feel like I owe it to them not to leave them in the background.

    Exactly.

    • #21
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:57 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. Boss Mongo Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    If I am going to kill a character, I want their death to have impact. If they are a villain, they should be menacing yet understandable. We can see why they are on the evil side. For a good character, we should empathize with them – I try to write so you can imagine yourself in the foxhole next to them. In a way, I feel like I owe it to them not to leave them in the background.

    Exactly.

    Awesome. Thanks. You’re not making Mesa Vantage go any quicker, you know. But you’re making it go better, so I’ll suck it up.

    • #22
    • October 29, 2020, at 5:16 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):
    You’re not making Mesa Vantage go any quicker, you know. But you’re making it go better, so I’ll suck it up.

    Making things better is my raison d’être.

    • #23
    • October 29, 2020, at 5:20 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  24. Boss Mongo Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):
    You’re not making Mesa Vantage go any quicker, you know. But you’re making it go better, so I’ll suck it up.

    Making things better is my raison d’être.

    Yeah. That’s you. You’re a giver.

    • #24
    • October 29, 2020, at 5:26 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  25. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    I’m not sure he’s quite a side character, but my favorite character (and the one I always wanted to know more about) was Bridey, who does get a bit of a back story but no first name, in Brideshead Revisited. This quote in particular was so telling of the character, and seemed to open up a world of unexplored possibilities: “It’s something in the way my mind works I suppose. I have to turn a thing round and round, like a piece of ivory in a Chinese puzzle, until – click! – it fits into place – but by that time it’s upside down to everyone else.”

    Tolkien also has two characters, Erestor and Glorfindel, who don’t get a ton of fleshing out in The Lord of the Rings series (although Glorfindel gets a lot more bio in the Silmarillion, I think). But even the little that we do see suggests a kind of charming love/hate relationship that would have been interesting to explore. 

    Two Southern Gothic (at least in some senses) authors are masters of the craft in creating tantalizing side characters; the sheriff’s wife in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Father Rinaldo Smith in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. (And Jack and Miss. Maudy in To Kill A Mockingbird).

    • #25
    • October 30, 2020, at 9:13 AM PDT
    • 3 likes