What’s In A Name?

Rescued from Larry’s page on the Book of Faces -Jack


Just a random rambling thought from a writer about our characters.

Recently I saw my work getting compared to another author, who in proper literati snooty circles, is supposed to be so much better than me (he shall go unnamed, because this isn’t really about him, I’ve got nothing against the dude, and in fact thinking about it this could apply to a whole bunch of different authors too). We’re both fairly well known, only he’s got way more “prestige” (and marketing budget!), and both of our books get mentioned on the internet a lot, but I always get dismissed as the right wing, explosions and monsters and guns, pulpy guy. The other guy is always a *real* writer.

But then I noticed something else. In all those discussions, when talking about the *real* writer, nobody, none of his fans or readers, ever mention any of his characters’ names.

Never.

Meanwhile, any discussion of my stuff, the fans and readers are talking about Owen, Jake, Faye, Ashok, etc. They name character names.

Always.  

Not only do I not see people name any of the character names from those Great Works Of Literature, I kind of doubt that very many of his fans could even remember their names if they tried.

My stuff? Fans talk about the secondary characters by name, ten or fifteen years after the book came out, like they are real people they know. Most of my readers remember names like Milo, Dorcus, Gutch, Skippy, Ed, Gretchen, Melvin, or G-Nome, or they were secondary characters at first but you guys liked them so much they turned into main characters, like Earl, Franks, or Toru. Even in my lesser known works, I still see fans mentioning names like Cleasby or Lorenzo.

When people talk about my books they’ve read, even if the subject is something else, it is always ultimately about how the characters relate to that subject. And then you guys go nuts trying to cast them, because they’re vivid in your head.

Now to be fair to George Martin, who I think is a lazy sack of sloth, he’s good at creating memorable characters. When you see his books discussed, even for those of us who only read the first one and then got bored and didn’t read the rest, we know the character names of all the main characters in the series because when his fans talk about the books, they discuss the characters. There are lots of books I’ve never read, where I can tell you at least the main character’s name (and probably some secondarys) just off of the conversations I’ve seen on the internet.

With Rothfuss, you hear his main character name a lot (Kvote or something) so I know that’s the main dude even though I’ve never read either book. Couldn’t tell you any other ones.

I couldn’t tell you a single name from any John Scalzi or NK Jemesin novel based on that same criteria, even though you see discussions about their books online.

Jim Butcher is good at this. Even if you’ve never read any of his books, everybody who is into books and online with book reading friends knows who Harry Dresden is. Now obviously naming your series after the main character is cheating. 😀 But you get you point. Even if you’ve never read Jim’s stuff, you’ve seen names like Michael Carpenter or Bob show up in fan conversations enough that even if you’ve not read the series, you’ve got the general idea.

I’ve not read many of Brandon Sanderson’s more recent books, but when I see conversations about his work, every single time, fans are naming character names. I have no idea of the context, but his fans clearly do, and they talk like those characters are people they’ve met in real life.

Steve and I have talked about this on the show, but some books aren’t really character based. They are idea based or setting based, and the characters are just kinda there so the idea can proceed. Personally I find that sort of thing boring, and the idea/setting only becomes interesting if I care about the people who inhabit it.

In the case of the online comparison that got me to thinking about this, the *real* writer’s got some GREAT VISION the book is about, but it’s populated with cardboard people the readers will forget about fifteen minutes after they’re done. While the pulp hack knuckle-dragger also has nifty ideas, but then populates it with people the reader files away in their memory as if they’re actual humans they know.

Bestseller Life, from Michaelbrent Collings
Don't Be THAT Guy

45 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?”

  1. “And then you guys go nuts trying to cast them, because they’re vivid in your head.”

    Yeah because we know MHI would be a multi Billion dollar movie series if done right. And that the only reason Hollywood isn’t making them yet is because You and your fans are “evil conservatives”.

    So fuck those pinko commies for not doing what the fans want and would shower money on because we’re “wrongthinking people”.

    Well, at least I can enjoy watching Hollywood bleed out…

    1. Grimnoir is the one I want to see. Faye Vieira wreaking havoc on the airship would be so incredibly epic, if done right. If I had Bezos money, I’d be making a big budget prestige TV show adapting it right now.

      1. Larry could do that, but said Bollywood studio(s) might not be able it if the FX cost too much, so one way or another, he’s back in H’wood.

        1. I don’t think there’s much need for CGI in the series, especially early on. The demons and automatons are the only things that really stand out as needing it in the first book. The first is very stealthy and the second is covered with heavy snow. Plus CGI is all remote.

          Actually, come to think of it, the biggest issue I can see with a SotFW live action is that the demon descriptions are deliberately vague and a visual medium would require a definitive. Kazuma Kaneko did some great and horrific Indian inspired demon designs in the past and IIRC is freelance now. Him doing the demons would be cool.

          1. The demons would have to be epic anime looking things. Sleek, black, in my imagination reflective like a black oil slick. And the large scale battles would need some very competent choreography. It could be done if you had real talent, and no money, but talent is usually expensive too.

          2. No, the demons are not vague. I know exactly what they look like. The first two we see; They have a real anime look. Long front arms shorter back legs. Three digits of huge sharp talons. Black reflective skin, in my mind like an oil slick. The skin is always like that, but their shapes vary. The biggest one in the graveyard has webbed feet, and is kind of more frog like.

  2. I’ll be darned if I can remember any of Clark’s or Asimov’s characters yet some of Heinlein’s are old friends, especially anything he wrote during the 50s and 60s. Yet, I enjoyed them all at the time.

    Still the authors I reread, communicate ideas and characters simultaneously.

    1. I remember reading someone comment that Asimov’s most memorable character is a robot and I was like yes, that tracks.

      1. Salvor Hardin, Hober Mallow, and Elijah Baley stuck with me pretty well. Daneel ended up being the most important character ever, for all time, so it’s not real a fair comparison.

  3. Hey Larry if the hoity toity class of writers think people are just objects to forward the plot, they could save themselves a lot of work by using the same name for all their characters. For instance.
    “Francis loaned Francis 500 hundred dollars.
    But Francis refused to pay up. So Francis called his friends, Francis, Francis, and Francis to go give out some country justice.
    When they got to Francis’s house, Francis’s wife Francis, said her husband was off fishing with his father, mother and two brothers, Francis, Francis, Francis and Francis. With their dog Francis. In France. But later, Francis
    found out that Francis hadn’t gone fishing, but had changed his name to Francis to conceal his identity.
    And Francis never did get his money back.”
    See Larry, much simpler!

  4. Do you ever get the feeling, in these online discussions about a “real” writer’s latest release, that 80% of the commenters haven’t actually read the book, and are just there to follow the crowd and heap praise on a fellow right-thinking automaton?

    Just like how the vast majority of bad reviews you get on Amazon are from people who have neither purchased nor read your books?

    That certainly would explain why they don’t remember the characters’ names, wouldn’t it?

    For me, as a reader, interesting and relatable characters and their development drive the story; the plot isn’t something that just happens to them. Imagine re-writing Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series with events just happening to random, nameless townsfolk. No growth, no meaningful dialog, no lessons learnt — it’d be boring as hell! No thanks!

    1. Had just scrolled down here to say that first part. I’ve actually talked face to face with people who crow about certain works of litch-ra-chure, but when involved in a conversation about it, unwittingly reveal they either didn’t read all of it, or any of it.

      Even my oldest – who turned pretentious commie douchebag despite being raised better – took some of my more well-known books of classic litch-ra-chure to put on his shelves for display. On my first visit to his house I was relieved to finally solve the mystery of where my books went. Not being too upset, since what parent wouldn’t be pleased to discover his kids reading good books, I tried to start up conversation about which ones he liked. He reluctantly admitted that he hadn’t read any of them, then further admitted he just kept them for appearances.

      1. Appearances are fine and good, but if they fall apart with the slightest scrutiny, the person looks foolish as well as vain.

        Personally, if a book is on my shelf, I’ve probably read it — and re-read it a few times. Books I haven’t yet read — or which I’m in the midst of reading — usually are not on the shelf; you’ll find them on the nightstand, the coffee table, in the car (for when the wife is driving), or other places where I might find myself with a few extra minutes to pick them back up. When I’ve finished it, then it goes on the shelf.

        Appearances matter, but substance is better. If someone visits my house and asks about a book on the shelf, I’d rather enjoy a good conversation about it than have to sheepishly admit I haven’t read it.

        Hopefully your oldest grows out of his pretentious phase and realizes the importance of being well-read over appearing well-read. (And returns your books, though if he actually read them I’d consider it a fair trade. 🙂 )

        1. Two things I’ve never understood:

          Why is it so important to some people that other people think they’ve read a certain book?

          If it IS that important to them, why don’t they just read the damn book? Instead of lying about it?

          1. My thoughts exactly.

            poser: (noun) a person who acts in an affected manner in order to impress others.

            Posers look like fools when they’re found out (and they almost always get found out eventually).

            Some things people pose about are hard to achieve, requiring significant investments in time, money, and energy.

            But reading a damn book costs little — a nominal amount of money and a few hours of time. If the book is already on your shelf, then it’s just time.

            With such a cheap investment cost, I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t put in the time to know a subject instead of just pretending.

  5. I do remember John Perry, the main character from Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War.” I was following his blog when the book came out and he explained how the last name came from Steve Perry of Journey fame.

    That said, even though I remember the main character’s name and that the book was told from his point of view, for the most part he seemed like a passive observer that the plot just happened to. I don’t remember much else about him.

  6. Brandon Sanderson also invented a fictional alphabet (two, actually) and put snippets of both as part of the illustrations in the Stormlight Archives. Fans on the dedicated fan forum went nuts deciphering the notes and compiled the alphabets. And there are people who learn to read, write, and speak Tolkien’s Elvish language.

    Compare that to the praise heaped onto the Real Authors’ books. It’s just praise. Just words. Nothing more.

    IMO, having the fans pick apart your books, obsess over the characters, over the world, is the greater praise. Imaginary movie casts, shipping possible relationships, obsessive attempts to decipher what the prophecy means, calculating the orbits of the moons over Roshar… can any of those authors of real literature boast fans with that level of dedication?

    I don’t think so. I do think that MHI, the Stormlight Archives, and Lord of the Rings will be read long after those pretentious literati are forgotten (which I give about a decade).

    1. ^^ THIS ^^

      You know it’s a good piece of writing when fans don’t just enjoy it, but immerse themselves in it. Especially when the author goes to the trouble of creating a whole language (or three, a la Tolkien), and the fans go to the trouble of learning them enough to carry conversations.

      Tolkien’s fans learn Elvish (a few learn Dwarvish), Jordan’s fans learn some Old Tongue, Roddenberry’s fans learn Klingon (fandom isn’t limited to writing). Goodkind’s fans learn some High D’Haran (though IMO, that’s a half-ass attempt at creating a language — it’s a glossary of word substitutions; the grammar and syntax are still English — but it’s there).

      I doubt most “Real Authors” bother with languages this way, and if they do, their readers aren’t immersed enough to pick them up. Their fictional worlds (many of which aren’t fictional at all; the story is fiction but the world is the same one we inhabit, or a ridiculously-cruel caricature of it — think: The Handmaid’s Tale) lack the depth and nuance of classic, time-tested sci-fi and fantasy.

      You can’t immerse yourself in a puddle.

  7. Just for fun, I’d like to know who Larry was compared to. I mean, Philip Roth knew his weapons, but Portnoy never turned them on his mother, and Rabbit could have laid down covering fire while winning the basketball tournament in the first book.

    It must be Joyce Carol Oates. Her characters take no s*** from anyone.*

    * I’m joking, you realize, having never read any of their books.

    But seriously, “do you talk about the characters as if they exist” is an eye-opening observation to me.

  8. Well the common thread is that all the memorably named characters have short names (two syllable or less), are easy to spell, and easy to pronounce.

    “you guys liked them so much they turned into main characters, like Earl, Franks, or Toru.”

    Toru wasn’t intended to be as major a character as he was? Can’t imagine how a Toru-less or less-Toru version of the story would work.

    1. I don’t know about easy to spell or short, judging by people who listened to the audio trying to write the names of the characters from Son of the Black Sword. 😀

    2. Glen Cook talked about his editor pushing easier names which led to the Black Company names being basically simple nicknames even for the villains (Limper, Lady, etc) compared to past novels of his.

  9. There’s a certain type of person who doesn’t like anybody more interesting than them, even if the anybody is completely fictional.

    The type is “insufferable“.

    Now, there are stories where characters don’t matter. These are almost all short stories where the reader is expected to project himself onto the main character. I couldn’t tell you much about the main character in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”, or Clarke’s “The Sentinel”.
    Which is clearly NOT what we’re discussing here.

  10. It’s a shame about Martin and his magnum opus. I really enjoyed his prose and think he got a lot of things right. But his obsession with overly flawed characters and court intrigue got me to the point of boredom as well. Then there’s the creepy old man wish fulfillment vibe.

    I’m trying to read the second book now and I’m just continuing off and on out of spite.

    Rothfuss is another one that wasted a lot of potential. Good prose and style, and yeah, he gets you inside MC’s head, but by the time you hit the end of the first book, Kvothe is about as not-believable as he is unlikable. Which sucks even more, because, he’s the only character Rothfuss obviously gives a shit about. Everyone else is there to orbit the MC. Only read the first book, with no plans to finish the series, which obviously mirrors Rothfuss’s plans.

    I’ve only read Larry’s Forgotten Warrior series (though I will get around to MHI soon) and though I suck at remembering names, I get a clear picture of every major and minor character when I think about scenes from the books. I know not only why they do the things they do, but I give a shit. I get to a new chapter and see who’s POV and think, Oh good! I was so into what was happening to that guy, that I forgot what was about to happen to this guy.

    I suppose that’s the key difference between writers like Larry and Real Writers™. Sure, most writers understand the basics that the MC (and minor ones to a lesser degree) are supposed to do things to influence the plot, but you make the reader care by having things happen to the characters. If some of the things that happen to the characters are a result of their own actions, now we get a believable character. And if those actions are a result of some trait the character possesses, we get depth of character.

    Larry and Butcher are two guys who hit all those notes. If only they were Real Writers™! 😉

    1. I got something like four books into Game of Thrones and gave up. I had to conclude that Martin must hate his readers. Every time I started rooting for a character, that character would get killed off. Sometimes with such lack of fanfare that I could only imagine Martin, sitting at his keyboard, giving a dismissive shrug as he wrote that part.

      Good luck if you really want to get through them all.

    2. “I get a clear picture of every major and minor character when I think about scenes from the books.”

      I see this as one of Larry’s greatest talents. Upon reading the first page of just about any of his works, I have a visceral sense of the setting. Re-read the Prologue of Hard Magic. Before his son can even start talking to the much-despised Okies, I am already fully transported into the universe. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet, or even the details of who these folks are, but I can smell the dust, and feel the heat, and everything that follows just fills in the universe with a fluid story like honeyed milk pouring out of a pitcher.

      I’m a reader, not a writer, but I think it works and is so unforgettable because Larry uses the setting to inform the characterizations, and vice versa. I’ve not just read about the characters, I have *been* there and experienced them.

  11. I think part of the change in SF, from a literature where ideas were the driving force, to one where the characters become far more important (but where ideas still are vital), is due to the differences in the publishing industry.

    In the early years of SF (lets say 1938, when Campbell really took over Astounding, to 1950, when F&SF was a year old, and clearly established) original SF was published in the magazines. And, in the magazines, the novels were not the primary form of an SF story. A typical issue might contain a fraction of a novel, a novella or two, and a half dozen novelettes and short stories. And the modern series pretty much didn’t exist. Yes — Doc Smith had his four-novel Lensmen series, and there were a few others. And I don’t really count the single headliner pulps — things like the Shadow, or Captain Future, or Doc Savage (or Burroughs, as the genre predecessor of them all).

    So you’re not working with 80,000 words. All you’ve got is 10,000 words with a novelette, or 5000 for a short story (or a tenth that, if you’re Fred Brown). And you’ll never see those characters again — the next story will be about something and someone entirely different.

    Which doesn’t give you a lot of words to develop a character. It does give you enough words to explore an idea. So a young Asimov can write “Nightfall” — which I can certainly remember, but not the names of any of the characters. And all I remember about the main character in Clarke’s “The Star” is that he was a Jesuit (which is important), not his name — which we aren’t told — but the final paragraph still hits decades after I first read it. And I have no memory of the names of the cardboard characters in Fred Brown’s “Answer” — but the story is 250 words of perfection.

    But you can’t do that for 80,000 words. And certainly not for a five book x 80,000 word trilogy. The characters, as well as the plot/ideas, need to keep the reader going.

    So, for me, the changes in story length mean that the basics need to change.

    1. I think that, in a lot of the older short stories, the MC didn’t really need much personality, because his personality was how he solved the problem. What kind of engineer or scientist or military guy was he? What were his skills? Did he make jokes as he got through heck? Like that.

      Also, they had reader-insert appeal, sort of like a romance novel, except that the appeal was solving problems or shooting the baddies, or possibly talking to the aliens. Since you were there inside his head, the hero’s name didn’t matter so much, just like the heroine’s name in a romance novel often doesn’t matter until you reread.

  12. Characters that you can’t remember the names of, and if someone says them you still don’t care. Yes, this is absolutely a thing. A really common, really bad thing. Big in the Hugos I guess.

    To me, a story is what you get when some-thing- happens to some-body-. The thing that happens is the problem. Who it happens to is the guy who has to SOLVE the problem, or at least deal with it.

    A werewolf is a problem, but merely recounting a tale of mayhem as this thing runs around doing whatever it wants is going to get boring. Likewise, Owen Pitt is just some guy. A story about his adventures in accounting is going to get boring.

    Put Owen Pitt in the same room as the werewolf, now you’ve got something.

    Stories are supposed to be about people doing things. If I don’t care about the people, the story lost 90% of its pizazz already. It -can- be done, like Keith Laumer’s Bolo stories, Saberhagen’s Berserkers, the names of the side characters, nobody remembers that. They remember the Bolo. I guess the MC doesn’t have to be a person every time, right?

    Lately I find myself rooting for the monster/alien/whatever to hurry up and KILL that annoying tool of a main character. The Laundry series, perfect example. MC who’s name I can’t remember needs to die, hurry up stupid monsters.

    Conan. Slippery Jim DiGriz. Honor Harrington. Holly freakin’ Newcastle. I want to read about how those guys and gals are going to kick the werewolf’s ass.

  13. I remember all of the characters in Skylark of Space. And the same for all the characters in the Lord of the Rings. OK and the Hornblower books and the Swallows and Amazons and it’s hard to forget any Ringo or Weber character. I too, read the first book or two of grr Martin but never saw even an instant of the show.

    OK, as I think about it now. I read and remember the books where the character was the thing. I like Gaiman but I really cannot tell you the name of a single one of his characters and I really enjoyed reading Stardust and Good Omens.
    OTGH, really enjoy Chris Nuttall and J.S. Morin too.

    Oh. and you need to write faster. Give it some stick!
    regards,
    dc

    1. Swallows and Amazons was a significant influence on my childhood. In fact, when much older we got a kit from Swallowboats (out of Wales) to build a boat that is more like Amazon than Swallow, but still, they understood the lure of those boats. I just ordered a complete paperback set that was apparently reissued in 2022.

  14. Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith. Conan and Kull. Mike Hammer. Nevada Baylor and Dina Demille and Caldenia ka ret Magren.
    Mercedes and Adam Hauptman and Sherwood Post.

    Earl, Julie, Holly and Z. Jake and Vera.

    All names I remember because the authors made them alive.

    I re-read the books over and over because they give me pleasure, not to impress someone.

    As a side note, I consider Larry Correia’s books to be every bit as good as Robert E. Howard’s and Mickey Spillane’s.

  15. Not just the names, but the places. I just finished Tower of Silence and the addition of Xhonura (see? I remembered what the locals call Fortress, forgive spelling) and the “Land beneath hell” is just amazing. Absolutely love the series.

    Also I found that listening to “Sky Void of Stars” by Katatonia goes GREAT with Saga of the Forgotten Warrior.

  16. Name of the Wind? Kvothe? He’s memorable because I want to beat some sense into that feral little shitheel.

    He was a little mama’s boy brat, then he went feral, and for all his supposed brilliance he’s a stupid little dork who doesn’t think before he speaks and rides a combination of luck and convenience through his troubles.

    I don’t want to read Wise Man’s Fear because I don’t want to throw the book through a wall due to being THAT annoyed that Kvothe did something stupid again.

    That being said… I don’t remember the other character’s names.

    I remember the roles they fill more than anything.

    The moneylender/you know what stand it girl.

    The owner of the super bard bar.

    The couple of friends defined more by their nationalities than anything.

    The gruff teacher of the machine shop with the light bulbs.

    The assholes who run the college.

    But other books? I remember names and faces come to mind.

  17. “Knuckle-Dragger”. That’s always been one of my favorite names, you just don’t here it much. Or maybe you do, Larry!

  18. Im not sure. OK, I love HP Lovecraft. And Ive read everything he wrote, including weird collaborations. I remember the names of the Old Ones. But I never catch the names of the people. I remember locations. RE Howard is also a favorite. One of the reasons I love Larry is that he reminds me of him. Of course we know Conan, and likely remember the names of a few of the girls, Olivia, Belit, Valeria. And the wizard Pelias was so cool. Ok. I guess I do remember them.

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