Name Theory: Keep Your Ignorance to Yourself

Last weekend I found this posted on Twitter: Hate it when I google the name of my character and find it’s a real person. Can I get away with Michael Andretti (I’d never heard of him)?  My reply: No. He’s way too well known.

That smart writer did her research (Googling the name), got some feedback (I wasn’t the only one replying that the name was a no go), and changed the name. I definitely think I’m going to add a main character name search to my box of writer’s tools.

On a related note: I know a lot of writers who think that they don’t have to worry about spelling or basic fact-checking because “that’s what the editors are for”, but that kind of lazy thinking is only going to lead to lazy writing. It’s a don’t, for sure.

This week’s Character of the Week is a similar situation. The writer didn’t notice that the name she chose for a General, General MacArthur, was the name of a famous and some may even say infamous General in the US Army.

This isn’t a religious sin, but it is a writer’s sin. A writer needs to know as much about the world of his or her characters as possible. A writer needs to try to be as knowledgeable and as smart as his or her character. And, a writer needs to be in touch with the world around him or her.

Obviously, no one will ever know everything. No one will even know everything about their subject, or every name of every celebrity. But, before you start writing you should do your research, and if at any time you find something that you should have been aware of you need to make sure your ignorance doesn’t taint your writing.

Even I am not immune from making mistakes (I know, you’re shocked). I once suggested the name Zachary Morris for a character and only realized 15 minutes later that that was the name of a Saved by the Bell character. I immediately contacted the writer and withdrew that suggestion, and told the writer why. I would never want someone to unwittingly make that kind of mistake because of me.

In the case of the “other” General MacArthur, the writer wasn’t embarrassed about her mistake, wasn’t particularly disturbed by it, and didn’t even think it warranted a change. I was horrified by the lackadaisical attitude.

Anyone who knows about military history is going to know the name (and many other people besides), and all of those readers, who are this novel’s target audience, are going to wonder about the name choice. Is the writer writing a parable about a “MacArthur” type person? I the writer writing about the historical General’s real descendant? Does the writer know anything about the military at all?

In this case, the ignorance of the writer is waving like a red flag for all readers to see. This makes me think that the writer will never make it. This writer is too immature, too ignorant, and too lazy to ever be a professional. No matter how much promise the rest of her character sketch shows, this is not a novel I would want to read and it’s not a novel I think an agent or publisher would consider.

If you are a writer (and if you’re here you probably are), I would suggest you run your characters’ names by your writing group, by your followers on Twitter, by Google or Yahoo!, and/or by a simple Wikipedia search. Don’t get caught using a celebrity’s name, a historical figure’s name, or a character’s name by “accident”. Keep your ignorance to yourself, and put your best foot, and best words, forward.

Be a professional, and success will follow.

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