Friday, October 8, 2010

What Do Your Characters Call Themselves?

Have you ever stopped to think about the connotations of how characters refer to each other? What do they say in third person and what to they say directly? How do they refer to themselves? How do they think of themselves?

Dr. John Watson. Watson. Dr. Watson. John.

Each name has connotations. "Dr. John Watson" is his title, and what he might be introduced by, but nobody is going to call him by that name. The only time you use such a full name is when you're trying to get attention - like a mom who is angry, or when calling across the street and trying to be heard. Holmes calls him just "Watson" which has a collegial implication, close and formal at the same time (more about that in a minute). "Dr. Watson" is formal, and what cops and tradesman and clients call him. "John" is what his wife calls him.

Sometimes it's obvious. When I wrote Wife of Freedom, I didn't have much trouble with Mary, the protagonist. She's a casual woman, and while strangers might call her "Mrs. Alwyn," she thinks of herself as "Mary" and so does everyone who knows her. Her husband was similar. Being more outgoing, and he's a minor celebrity, so he gets called "Jackie" even by strangers.

But I came across a problem with Mary's lover. Though he has no title, he is a nobleman, and an officer. He has identities up the wazoo. Among his equals, he's called by his last name, under formal conditions he gets the honorific "Honorable" added to his whole name, and those in the army refer to him by rank. Mary thinks of him as "Henry." But how does he think of himself? He seemed to have a varying self-image - thinking of himself by last name in situations where his social rank mattered, and by his first name with Mary.

He was trouble to write, I can tell you. But th does reflect his character. His self-esteem is a little shaky. In the end I wanted to be consistent and so I went with "Henry" in his point of view. For one thing, even if he thought of himself by rank and family name, he's a bit of a little boy inside, so first name seemed appropriate.

I'm having a problem with a secondary character in the work-in-progress. John Houk is a local contractor who succeeds by being an overall nice guy - he's friendly to everyone, goes out of his way to give people temporary work, even if it means doing it under the table. But he's not close friends with any of the point of view characters, so they tend to think of him as "Houk." But his personality is such that I can't imagine anyone calling him anything but "John" when speaking to him.

This has led to the strange experience of writing a scene where Rosie interrogates Houk, and refers to him in dialog as John, but in thoughts as Houk. With results like this:
"John, did you see the shooter?" Rosie asked Houk.
Okay the sentences are not that awkward, and I think they work, but I guess we'll see when the alpha readers get to it.

In the meantime, today was a bearish day. Instead of a day off, and going to see Sunset Blvd., I was at work wrestling malfunctioning printers. And then everything else just continued to malfunction for a while. So I decided I had to have something succulent for dinner. Nothing is more succulent than homemade baked hot wings. (Store bought - even from the best restaurants - tend to be dry.)

(I'll be happy to post my recipe, if anyone asks.)


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sounds like your character isn't behaving! Wants to think of John as Houk, even when you don't want her to. :)

How about if she actually stumbles at the beginning of the conversation and calls him Houk, then amends it to Mr. Houk, and he asks her to call him John? Of course, down here, he'd actually say, "Houk? Call me Johnny." :)

The Daring Novelist said...

No,this is what happens with all the characters. It's natural. It's a tiny town and everybody knows each other from birth.

(Rosie, by the way, is a guy. Uncle Rosie, or Sheriff Walter Rosewalt. He's another with a different name in different points of view.

And then there's the guy they call Zero... I think I'll have to talk more about the name thing.