Most stories start small for me and then accrete, like a pearl in a clam. The story I’m working on now has grown to 8,000 words, and I’m still writing the last scene. My challenge is that it’s a teaching story with a large cast: the teacher, a student teacher, a janitor and twenty-four students. I’m working at portraying a class environment. As the story stands now, I’ve named ten of the twenty-four students (and a couple parents).That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air!
The problem is the impact of those names. At what point would readers toss up their hands and say, “I can’t keep the characters straight,” or would readers realize there are quite a few names, but only the characters who keep popping up rise to importance while the others settle into the background?Either reaction is possible. I believe any writing challenge can be overcome with the right collaboration between a careful writer and competent reader. That’s one of writing’s joys: anything is possible.
As I write the last scene, though, I’m deciding which characters to use. Not all of them will appear, and I realized over the course of the couple weeks I’ve been working on this piece that I’ve lost touch myself of everyone in the story, so I inventoried them. Here’s the list I created with the first page the character appears and then how many times total I mentioned the name:
Ms. Milspaugh pg.1—73 mentions
Andrew Tyndale pg. 1—53 mentions
Jed Rote pg.2—40 mentions
Dove Klein pg. 2—38 mentions
Dennis Cho pg. 12—6 mentions
Cassie-Lasila Arms pg. 13—8 mentions
Paisley Lopez-Sang pg. 14—7 mentions
Len and Amelia Tyndale pg. 14—1 mention
Lisa Fromme pg. 15—1 mention
Toby Gwinn pg. 17—1 mention
Harmony Dlamini pg. 19—5 mentions
Jim John pg. 22—3 mentions
Sharon Hann pg. 23—4 mentions
Ryan Bigelow pg. 24—3 mentions
Hot damn! That’s a big list.
A closer look at number of mentions reveals my cast centers on the top four characters: the teacher who is my protagonist, Ms. Milspaugh, her student teacher, Jed Rote, and two students, Andrew Tyndale and Dove Klein.The rest are supporting cast.
I tried to pick names that reflected different origins to show Ms. Milspaugh’s class, like many real-world classes, comes from diverse backgrounds (my default when I don’t think about it is almost always north-western European). I also didn’t want the names to be visually similar. Different first letters help with this, as do names with different shapes. At first glance, Dennis Cho doesn’t look like Ryan Bigelow, so the eye cues help to differentiate them. I notice I have two names that are hyphenated, which might make them hard to distinguish. I’ll give that more thought.
I did choose a few names from my life. “Milspaugh” was the name of one of my junior high teachers who was memorable. I knew a pair of sisters in high school named “Klein.” One of my sisters is a “Sharon.”“Jed Rote” was chosen because of the meaning of his last name in the same spirit as the naming of Han Solo, Truman Burbank, and Willy Loman.
I love how Charles Dickens created characters. Part of his genius was in giving them cool names: Seth Pecksniff, Mrs. Jellyby, Samuel Pickwick, Uriah Heep and many others. I’m not doing cool naming the same way he did in my story, although I do like the names I’ve chosen. A classroom of characters all named the way Dickens named characters would be awesome, though. What I do want to borrow from him, is his really well-done pocket characterizations. He could create a character in just a sentence or two.
Mr. Ayresleigh (Pickwick Papers) “A middle aged man in a very old suit of black, who looked pale and haggard, and paced up and down the room incessantly: stopping now and then to look with great anxiety out of the window as if he expected somebody, and then resuming his walk.”
Miss Barbary (Bleak House) “She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been (I used to think) like an angel–but she never smiled. She was always grave and strict. She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life.”
Ned Beadwood (David Copperfield) “It won’t do to be like long Ned Beadwood, when they took him to church “to marry him to somebody”, as he says, and left the bride behind. Ha! ha! ha! A wicked rascal, Ned, but droll!”
At any rate, this longish post came from me pausing to create the list of characters in my current project and got me thinking about names and characters. I’m not looking for advice about this ill-advised story problem I’ve written myself into. Writing into story problems is half the fun of creating fiction.