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More on character names

I recently read Lynn Flewelling’s Tamir Triad (The Bone Doll’s Twin, Hidden Warrior and The Oracle’s Queen).

My absolute favourite character was Tharin, the protagonist’s (Tamir’s) father’s best friend. The man who looked after Tamir when she was a child, and stayed with her as she grew into adulthood.

Now, here is the silly thing. Even though I adored Tharin as a character, I couldn’t get his name straight for the first two and a half books.

Even as I sat down to write this blog I still had to stop and think. “Is it Tamil? No. Damir? No. Thamir? No, not that either. Damn, I have to go back to the book again to get his name. Tharin. That’s right, it was Tharin.”

This is my favourite character in a series I liked enough to read in one sitting.

He wasn’t a point-of-view character, but he was a major minor character. I should have been able to remember his name. Unfortunately, I got bogged down with all the names in the book with combinations of T, M, N and R in them (Tamir, Tobin, Tharin). They all blended together.

Fantasy and science fiction writers often come up with weird names to make the characters sound more exotic, but there are a lot of other things we do to names that confuse the reader too.

One thing you are often taught in the ‘how to write fantasy’ courses is to make names of people of the same race or tribe similar, to give a sense of history and place. Thus in Lord of the Rings you have Elrond, Glorfindel, Arwen and Galadriel, all elves, all with L, N and D sounds in their names.

Lynn Flewelling had a lot of characters whose name started with T or A.

In her defence, Ms Flewelling could well argue that Tharin wasn’t a major character. That the main characters were clearly delineated —Tamir/Tobin, Ki and Arkoniel. Can’t complain about names there.

Now, I don’t say that you should deliberately go out of your way to give your characters wildly different names just so the readers can tell them apart. There does have to be resonance with names, and a language and a people. And even though it does make the story more confusing to the reader, it’s not the worst naming sin of all.

One of the worst, in my opinion, is the word you use as a name that has a totally unrelated meaning, particularly when you know what that meaning is.

Writing progress

Rewrote the police scene, and it’s taking the story different places. That’s the thing with changes like this. If you don’t re-write as you go, you take the story down one path, but the re-write takes it somewhere else. The more you keep writing on the original, the more re-writing you do at the end.…

Which writing course is best for you?

I have been following the Rejecter’s disillusionment with her MFA (here, and here) with interest, because I went through a similar thing when I did a Master of Arts in Professional Writing.

With one exception, my course was a waste of time. Sometimes it seemed that the only thing I learned (outside of that one exception) was that if you wish to write commercially, don’t go to university.

Why not?

Because many of university lecturers had no experience outside academia. They had no idea of what was commercial, and by commercial here I mean business writing as well as fiction.

The one exception was the professor who taught screenwriting. He had been a screenwriter for 30 years before he took up teaching, and it showed in what he taught and how he taught it.

I learned more about screenwriting from him in one semester than I did in the rest of the course.

Sadly, he died in my first year (vale Peter, you were fantastic). The new screenwriting professor had spent his life in academia, and it showed.

The individual professors I had were lovely people, but they really needed some practical experience if the real world about what they were teaching.

My experience was not unique, as the Rejecter’s blog shows, but others have done such courses and got real value out of them.

Interestingly enough, the university I originally contacted to do my MA recommended I try elsewhere, as they didn’t have anyone on the faculty who wrote in the genre I like to work in.

So what makes a good writing course?

Writing progress

Sherylyn’s opinion of Barrain so far… This draft is definitely better, but Mathers simply would not do what he was doing. Mathers is not a ‘bad’ policeman. He would not overlook the obvious. He might start out believing the dead body was Caid, but if all the evidence—and that’s every single piece—points to that being…

Writing that influences the stories you create

All of us have read fiction that changed our life in some way, whether it just be that we read them at a particularly impressive age, or whether the theme resonated with us. But what about the non-fiction, the ideas and articles you may have come across that have a profound influence on what you write and how you write it?

What writing and other ideas influence your own?

Our own influences range, but they include:

  • Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland—technically this is fiction, but we treat it as a non-fiction. The don’t do’s for writing fantasy.
  • The Tragedy of the Commons—we apply this in world building and character building
  • The stages of grief—there are five distinct stages in the grieving process. We use this for character building.
  • The idea that a population will crash when the food runs out—comes from basic science experiments; we apply this for world building
  • Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves really makes you aware of the power of the comma.

There are dozens more.

The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons was written back in 1968 by Garrett Hardin. If you don’t want to read the whole article, it’s summarised in Wikipedia,

The article itself is about population control, and basically it says that

… there is no foreseeable technical solution to increasing both human populations and their standard of living on a finite planet.

Wikipedia, Tragedy of the Commons

The idea is:

(Hardin uses) a hypothetical example of a pasture shared by local herders. The herders … wish to maximise their yield, and so will increase their herd size whenever possible. (Adding extra) animal(s) has both a positive and negative component:

Positive : the herder receives all of the proceeds from each additional animal

Negative : the pasture is slightly degraded by each additional animal

Crucially, the division of these components is unequal: the individual herder gains all of the advantage, but the disadvantage is shared between all herders using the pasture. Consequently, for an individual herder weighing up these utilities, the rational course of action is to add an extra animal. And another, and another. However, since all herders reach the same conclusion, overgrazing and degradation of the pasture is its long-term fate.

Wikipedia, Tragedy of the Commons