OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt a recent Facets of Fiction workshop one of the novel writers announced that she was going to change the name of one of her characters.

She has the story complete, and is going through the process of editing, re-drafting, and filling in the bits that have been skipped over. The group has been used as a sounding board for this, and it came out in discussion that there was a minor, but not unimportant character, that we had all failed to connect with. Only mentioned a few times, he was nevertheless a significant other in the life of the main protagonist, and it was important that the reader had a strong and sympathetic interest in him. Not only did we generally not care about him, we felt that we hadn’t got know him at all, and one of the reasons for that may have been the name.

The story is set mainly in north Cumbria, but the characters have a distinct Scottish, and Irish background and culture. The minor character, however, had been given a name that didn’t resonate with either of those iconic types. In fact, the two letters of the name seemed to come from an Asian background, or even to be a made-up nickname. It is perfectly feasible, and common, for parents to draw names from other cultures, and even to draw them from unexpected sources. Moon Unit springs to mind. But that’s in real life, and novels aren’t real life, and only ape the parts of it that contribute to the story.

Picking an unusual name for her character had distanced him from the rest of the story, a distance that was not contributing as an element in the story. It turned out that the novelist too was struggling to imagine him, and failing to see clearly what he was bringing to the story. More importantly, she hadn’t sorted out what she needed him in the story for. Tinkering with what he did, or said, or thought, or what was said about him, by the narrator or the other characters, was not solving the problem. Indeed, any writing that referred or related to the character was being inhibited by that lack of clarity.

Changing the name was an unexpected strategy for dealing with the problem, but on reflection, a very clever one. It recreated the character for both reader, and writer, enabling both to get a new look at who was being presented, and at what his role actually was. Answering the self-posed question of what he was to be called, rather than the more obvious one of what he was meant to be, revitalised the writer’s understanding of what he was. Choosing a name that suited both him, as imagined, and his role in the wider story, required both to be envisioned more fully.

It’s said that Dickens was unable to proceed until he had the names of his characters. It’s said too, that even when character names are drawn at random from some unprejudiced source they will skew an author’s perception of the characters to which they are applied. The names we come up with give not only identity, but also a label, a fingerpost to how readers might respond to the characters they are attached to. To change the name of a character at a late stage in the writing process must be to galvanise the writer into a re-imagining, not only of the character, but of the story in which it is embedded. Yet it also made the process of of choosing the name somewhat different from usual. For here the story as written was tending to define the role, and name of the character that would be needed to fill the perceived hole in the narrative.

If, like me, you enjoy experimenting with how your stories are written, you might like to take a ‘failed’ attempt, and look at changing the names of one or more of the characters. Will that in itself enable you you to re-imagine the story?