The message of this week: Keep it simple.
Sometimes simple is better. Sometimes simple is just what your story needs.
In this week’s naming, the writer kept it simple—from the description of this obviously minor character (a truck dispatcher who is not the world’s best driver), to the names the characters (all common and/or popular choices). Keeping it simple was the right choice for the writer, and probably for the story as well.
It’s a lesson worth learning, and one that was driven home yesterday when I stumbled upon another writer’s blog post entitled 5 Red Flags Your Story Needs Revision (Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone). Number 1 on her list was: If Your Story has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision. Her point was one that I’m not sure I’ve made before: Though your story world must be populated with co-workers, waitresses, and others who “do stuff”, these bodies do not need to be named characters. Just as in a movie they will have Policeman Number 3 and Windshield Washer, you do not need to name (or, give a backstory to) every person in your novel.
Names signify that a character is important in some way, either to the plot or to your main character.
Keep it simple. If your main character wouldn’t know the person’s name, then don’t put it in the story. (Obviously exceptions can be made for a story told in third person omniscient, but then take care to name only characters that are important to the plot.)
The same could be said about details. Keep it simple.
I once had another writer say that she always puts some detail about a character when she introduces them, like a description of how they look or how they speak.
That may sound like a good idea, but those of you who have been here a while may recall my thinking on character description: While the reader sees the character’s name repeated nearly every time they are mentioned, the description is there for color (like a set piece in a play). The reader doesn’t need to remember that your character has brown hair vs. mouse brown hair vs. blonde vs. black, unless it is important to the story. The reader does, however, need to remember which character is which (and they will envision each character in their own way, thank you very much). So while it is nice for them to be told this information, it is less important than making the character sound realistic.
So this writer puts a detail in with every first mention, but that doesn’t mean that readers will remember those details or that they will matter much if the readers doesn’t hear the lilt in the voice or isn’t reminded of Lily Potter’s green eyes every so often.
Keep it simple. Put it in if it matters, put it in if readers will care, but don’t make a big deal out of small potatoes (like middle names for every character, or even surnames for most).