Jeanne: What’s in a Name?

Recently, a friend in my RWA chapter did an advance read of The Demon’s in the Details, Book 2 in my Touched by a Demon series, which came out last Tuesday on Amazon.

demon's in the details ebook coverShe did a terrific job of catching little errors my copy editor and proofreader missed, but in one case, she brought my attention to a problem that I didn’t think was a problem. She pointed out that in the first scene, my protagonist thinks of her father and stepmother as her father and stepmother, but later she becomes less formal, thinking/referring to them as “Dad” and “stepmom.”

There is, she pointed out, a best practice in fiction writing of choosing a single name for each character and always using that name to reference the character.

As a general rule, I completely agree with her. When you have a character that is sometimes called, “Charles,” sometimes “Charlie,” sometimes “Chuck” and occasionally “Binky,” the reader has to stop each time and figure out who this is. While there may be valid reasons for switching names–maybe every other character thinks of him differently, or your POV character thinks of him by different names depending on the current state of their relationship–it’s extra work for the reader. And, in general, we want to make reading our books as easy as possible.

But in this case, I felt differently, for two reasons:

  1. “Father,” “Dad,” “Daddy,” etc. aren’t names. They’re titles. And since each person has only one father, it’s not a significant effort for the reader to track that these are all the same person.
  2. The other reason has to do with point-of-view distance. Here’s the opening of the book:

“Not just no, but hell no.” Georgia O’Keeffe Blackmon glared at her father and stepmother. “I’m not selling John.”

The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows at the north end of her father’s family room—the red sandstone cliffs and cloudless blue skies of Sedona, Arizona—was gorgeous, but Keeffe’s gaze flashed right past it, to the opposite end of the room and a wooden pedestal topped by a Plexiglas case.

Inside the case, an eighteen-inch alabaster statue of an eagle soared upward, wings spread, its gaze fixed on the sky. The translucence of the stone gave the sculpture a transcendent quality. The sheer beauty filled Keeffe with bliss, and her anger moderated a little. Mom had been an incredible artist.

“I’ve been waiting since I was eighteen to take him home,” she said. “After seven years, I’m down to my last thirty days. Why would I sell him?”

Dad responded to her question by burying his nose in his whisky glass, but Lilith, aka the stepmother-from-Hell, spread her hands.

“We’re not asking you to sell it,” she said. “We’re just asking you to meet—”

“—someone who wants to buy him.” Keeffe finished her sentence for her.

Lilith’s lips tightened. Stepmom wore a black leather miniskirt that showed yards of what Keeffe had to admit were shapely and perfectly tanned legs. On her feet were strappy black sandals with five-inch heels. Her red silk top matched her toenails. Chunky red and black jewelry pulled it all together. Keeffe was aware of the contrast to her own outfit—a flannel shirt, faded jeans and down-at-the-heel Doc Martens.

Lilith didn’t appear to have aged a day since she married Daniel Blackmon ten years ago. Probably because she was sucking the life force out of her husband.

There are, by my count, three different ways Keeffe thinks of/refers to her dad in this section (father, Dad, Daniel Blackmon) and three for Lilith (stepmother, stepmom, Lilith).

As I explained to my (really top-notch!) eARC reader, I meant to do that.

If you analyze what happens in terms of POV distance in this opening, it starts in a large room in Sedona, Arizona and telescopes in on a 18-inch tall statue of an eagle. As Keeffe’s focus narrows in on the statue, her manner of referring to her father and stepmother become more casual.

John Steinbeck employs a similar technique in his short story, “The Chrysanthemums.” The first sentence reads: “The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. ”

The second paragraph includes: “A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain do not go together.”

The third paragraph starts, “Across the river, on Henry Allen’s foothill ranch there was little work to be done.”

Fourth paragraph: “Elisa Allen, working in her flower garden, looked down across the yard and saw Henry, her husband, talking to two men in business suits.”

Over the course of the first four paragraphs, Steinbeck telescopes in from a panoramic view of the entire Salinas Valley to a single ranch to a small flower garden on that ranch, and from the entire farming population of that valley to one woman.

This is the technique I emulated when I wrote the first scene of The Demon’s in the Details.

What techniques do you use to introduce your readers to your story world?

6 thoughts on “Jeanne: What’s in a Name?

  1. You also referred to the father a fourth way when speaking of Lilith, calling him “her husband”. I had no trouble keeping track of any of these, and if any appear in the future, I think I’d still know who these characters are. Was her concern about the distance the different names create, making it seem more like omniscient (a la Steinbeck and most writers of his era) than deep third POV? I didn’t read the passage that way, and the different names didn’t pull me out of the scene.

    • I think your ARC reader would have had a more valid point if the story were written in first person, but it’s not. If it were in first person, Keefe would have one way of thinking of (and mentally referring to) her dad and stepmom. But in 3rd person, even close 3rd, and because you’re at the beginning of the story, I think it’s important to throw out all the possible permutations of who these people are. As the story moves forward, I presume you slip into a more consistent way of referring to these people that doesn’t create confusion.

      In my own story (so funny that you mention all this, because I just posted a question in the same vein to the Beau Monde professional group I belong to), I have a similar problem. Nate, the hero, is also Nathaniel Kinlan, who is also The Earl of Rainsford, who is also Rain. My question had to do with how Susannah would think of Nate if she were thinking of him in her head. Many of my colleagues pointed out that it’s a perfect opportunity to show characterization and I didn’t disagree with them…throughout the first few scenes, Susannah actually refers to Nate as “my lord” when she’s addressing him verbally, because she’s pissed at him and wants him to know it.

      But in her head, she’s know him as Nate since they were children (their families were friends and the children played together), then when Nate assumed the title (which he never thought would be his), he told her to call him Rain, which is a shortened, familiar form of his title (and a common way to be addressed by friends during that era). My question had to do with whether she’d call him “Nate” or “Rain” in her head, and ultimately I decided on Nate, because that’s how she knew him for most of her life.

      However, when verbally addressing him, she calls him “my lord” or some other formal derivation of that until she’s won over by his actions towards her. The first time she calls him “Rain” to his face, HE notices and is thrilled, because it says to him that she now sees him as an ally rather than an adversary.

      Meanwhile, close acquaintances of Nate call him “Rain,” and more formal acquaintances call him either “my lord” or “Rainsford.”

      And I’m not even getting into how to address Nate’s triplet sisters. So many rules regarding forms of address back then!

      *sigh* Who’d have thought names could be so much trouble!?!

      • Historicals definitely offer an extra layer of complication, both because of the titles and because of the etiquette around who gets to use what name to address nobility.

        I think the important thing is make sure it remains crystal clear to your reader which character is being addressed/mentioned/thought about. It’s more work, and that extra work needs to fall on the author, not the reader.

  2. I think it’s fine. Maybe it was an issue to your ARC reader in a different book, and she’s hypersensitive to the problem? It CAN be a problem. But here, I think it’s a skillful adjustment of focus . . . the narrative is at a distance and is more formal, then quickly zooms-in to the more personal and informal.

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