Sunday, January 17, 2010

Name Soup

How many characters can we absorb at a time?

In working on query letters and pitches, I've become conscious of the "name soup" that can happen when too many characters are crammed into that tiny space.  Like a party in a tiny apartment, there's no elbow room and no way to keep track of who's who.

What about in the novel itself, though?  How many new characters can we introduce before the reader needs time to breathe and process?

I suspect part of the answer lies in how we introduce them.  Don't start a ticker-tape parade for a minor character who serves a limited function for a few pages.  Conversely, if the character is important, they need to stand out.

I wonder how much genre and audience play a role.  Do readers expect a large cast of players in certain books?  Readers of sci-fi and fantasy will be more prepared for strange names than readers of a modern-day crime thriller.  What about the number of names to keep track of?

Speaking of strange names, we can make up the craziest names we want, but let's make them pronounceable.  Even if the reader might assume a different pronunciation than we intend, it needs to be possible to come up with something.  Too many fantasy novels evoke my "Pat, I'd like to buy a vowel" reaction.

Now that I've posed the question, I'm going back to check the first scene at the foster home.  Have I thrown too many names in too small a space?  Hopefully not.


Marcella O'Connor said...

I don't if the names have to be pronouncable, but I think if you have someone named Zghibooby, you shouldn't have someone else named Zghibibby, because there are too many similar letters for my small brain to differentiate between the two. Often if I can't pronounce the name, my brain just names them something else. But too many characters with similar names, and I just can't cope.

R.C. Lewis said...

Good point, Marcella. Similar names are a problem to be avoided at all costs. I think I changed a name early on when I realized it was too close to another that came up later.

I still think some level of being pronounceable is necessary, though. At least, you have to be able to easily come up with a reasonable way of saying it. Your example, for instance, I would instinctively say the "Zgh" as a French-sounding "J". And those names are still kinda catchy.

I guess what I was trying to say is that I prefer names not be an uncomfortable conglomeration of letters that stop me cold every time I get to them.

simon said...

After years of writing English coursebook material, where space is at a premium, I've got into the unbreakable habit of nearly always using short names. Rarely anything above two syllables, and all very pronounceable, even if they're made up. Eg. have an old guy who's always repeating himself, called Loop.

Simon B