by Laura Anne Gilman
Recently – okay, last week – I spent the day working with teenaged writers on their worldbuilding skills. We spent a lot of time talking about the structure of the world, and the details that fill in that structure… and then I hit them with cultural conventions.
I shouldn’t have been surprised they had trouble with it. A lot of adults seem to, too.
A story – a good story, one that pulls you in and keeps you until the last page, is one that’s believable. If you’re writing literary fiction, or a mystery, or a romance, you’re working with a world that people already know. The reader knows, more or less, what a gunshot wound does to someone, or what it feels like to get a love letter, or to lose a friend, or have a fight with their parents. It’s all real, within their day to day experiences (ok, maybe not the gunshot!)
But there’s one thing that can kill a story – especially F/SF – faster than almost anything else. Not the science. Not the plot. Not the dialogue.
Many years ago (how many? The date started with “nineteen-ninety…”) my boss laid down a few basic rules (which were pretty damn funny and I wish I could find that list again) for evaluating slush manuscripts. And right after “character breaks into song within the first three pages” as a demerit, there was “any name with an apostrophe smack in the middle.”
It’s funny, but like so much, it’s funny because it’s true. Fantasy and SF are often rife with names that seem to have been chosen merely to look ‘exotic’ and instead read as “idiotic.” Even without an apostrophe.
So when you’re writing… look at your characters names. No, really look at them. Not for their meaning, or their sound, but how they fit into everything else around them.
[a classic example of apostrophes that work: Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonrider” books, where the change in name indicates a very specific change in rank]
Names are culture-specific, both place and family names, and naming conventions are a wonderful tool for the alert writer. Properly used, they allow you to show a great deal about a culture without being overt or obvious, sliding it into the background for the reader to absorb unconsciously as they go. So ask yourself: why did you choose those names? What naming convention did you use? Do all members of a generation share an identifying aspect (middle name, etc)? Is there a different styling for females than males? Is there a distinction between ‘formal’ names and those used in daily conversation? All of these things are subtle but oh so important bits of worldbuilding, no matter what sort of world you’re building (just ask any Regency reader!)
And, please, are you consistent? If you have “George, Fred and G’neshk” as character names without an explanation of why one of these is not like the others, your readers will laugh themselves out of the book rather than settling in for the ride.
Coming up in Week 28: circling the wagons and sharing the ammo…
Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy. Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future”, was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011. For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman) And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.