Name Theory: What a Writer Wants

A few days ago I was reading a reminder that every character should always have an objective—something that the character wants and that they either strive for or which effects their interactions with others. A character without an objective is just a Mary Sue—there to serve a purpose perhaps, but not interesting or important in their own right.

If characters need objectives, so too do writers. Writers need to know what they want, why they want it, and how it’s going to affect the story. Sometimes they forget this.

Sometimes I read a story and I think, Why does this character collect condoms? Is it just so that in that one scene it creates awkwardness between her and her love interest? Or is there something more to it? Is she compulsive about her health since her mother died of a simple infection? Or did her favorite aunt always send her a box for Valentine’s Day for a “satisfying” year to come? Or did she get pregnant in high school and have to give up her child for adoption and never wants to have another accident?

Frankly, all of my ideas are much more interesting than what the writer of that story gave. The character just liked to collect things. Condoms just happened to be one of those things. Happy coincidence there, eh?

It shouldn’t be. In a story, everything should matter. The setting, the age and career/job of the character, the friends and family in their lives, everything should be important. Why waste a word when you can make it work for you? Why put in a detail with no pay-off for the reader?

Characters need objectives, and writers need to know their own objectives to make the strongest choices to serve the story.

Names are just one way in which the writer can make a choice to say something about their objectives. For example the names can be symbolic, as in a fantasy story where the upper classes have British names and the lower classes have Irish names, or in a contemporary story where the weird teen has a standout nickname like Tin and the cool kids have popular names like Emma and Jack.

At the very least the characters’ names should have a style, such as gender neutral names for the female characters in a society where women are treated as equals to men. (What a concept that is!)

It would be a waste for the character names, or the setting (rural/metropolitan/sub-Saharan), or the objects on the bedside table to not mean something—either to the writer or to the story, and preferably to both. And why would any writer want to miss the opportunity to make their choices matter over just putting in something just to fill a spot on the page.

The readers deserve better than that, and so does the story.

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