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The Name of the Game

If there is anything that puts me off about the process of writing, it is the part where I have to figure out what to name the characters in my short story or novel. Short of pulling names out of a hat, I do everything humanly possible to come up with interesting names. Names that reflect the personalities and quirks of my characters.

I think it is important for the main protagonists in your manuscript to have names. I’m talking about the characters that drive the narrative and contribute towards the progress of the plot. The reader should be able to connect with them from the first instance and a memorable name helps build that connection. Look at it this way, don’t you remember people you meet who have interesting, even unusual names? It is the same with the person reading your work.

I do not believe that all characters, especially the insignificant ones, need a name. Too many names can lead to unnecessary clutter and readers may get distracted. In a pacey crime novel for instance, a reader might get confused with too many names. In short stories, characters don’t necessarily need names. Ernest Hemingway didn’t believe in giving all his characters names. You must read A Clean Well-Lighted Place to understand what I mean. The latter is one of his finest short stories.

When I was writing Mr Eashwar’s Daughter, naming the characters was a huge challenge. Since my book was a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I wanted the names to have some similarity to the characters in the original novel. So Anne Elliot became Anamika “Anna” Eashwar and Commander Frederick Wentworth was Farrokh “Freddy” Wadhera. But I didn’t name the characters on a whim. Farrokh’s parents were music enthusiasts and they named him after Freddy Mercury while the Eashwars were landed gentry and Eashwar was a title they adopted.

A few rules that I follow. You might find them helpful.

Do your research well: It is always a good idea to research the period you are writing about or even the region or country and then name your characters accordingly. Inaccuracies stick out like a sore thumb and readers’ can always tell.

Unusual & interesting: I like names that have an interesting ring to them, quirky names even. Or names that reflect the personality of the character I am writing about. Mrinalini from Dragon Aunty Returns! was a staid, prudish Bengali girl and I thought that name would be perfect for her. No offense to anyone I hope, living or dead.

Does it sound good? That’s the question you must always ask at the end of the day. Does the name have a pleasant or unpleasant ring to it? (depending on your character’s traits) Would you give your own child the same name? Your book is your baby, isn’t it? Give it the same importance then.

A word of advice: do not name your characters after your friends, relatives or lovers. It is never a good idea unless they ask you to do it or you get their permission in advance. Make sure you get it in writing so that they can’t take you to court later. Just kidding. Store the note safely somewhere though!

Click here to find out how authors named their famous characters.

It all starts with a diary

The idea for my first published novel, Dragon Aunty Returns!, a rom-com set in Gurgaon, took shape out of a blog post. My blog, Gurgaon Diaries (which is a book now but more about that later), was about my experiences (mostly hilarious) living and working in the Millennium City where I’d moved from Kolkata. One of the entries was about a woman whose distinguishing feature was her dragon tattoo and her malapropism among other things.

My blog had a modest following in the early days and when I published the post, everyone loved her. Well mostly. There were those who stopped talking to me and inviting me to their parties because they felt I had written about them. More about them another day.

Over the course of writing that post, Dragon Aunty took on so much colour and life that I felt I had to write a story about her misadventures. She couldn’t … she wouldn’t .. be confined to a 500-word blog post. It was almost as though she had taken on a life on her own and I had to follow her orders. If you get to reading the book, you will agree. She is that sort of woman. Bossy, pushy but with a heart of gold.

And there she goes hijacking the plot again!

What I wanted to stress on is that it is a good idea to maintain a diary or even write in a blog every day. You can write about ordinary things, everyday things, whatever you want – but write you must. Give simple things colour and meaning, some sort of structure and who knows, a story may emerge from there. Like the couple you see quarrelling when you are out on your walk or the odd man who spends all his time in the balcony, smoking.

Mind you, I am not telling you to turn into a stalker. All I’m asking you to do is observe. Pay attention to your surroundings. Look out of the window, write down what you see. There may be a story hiding behind the strange looking plant in the neighbourhood park or even the car that hasn’t been washed for days. What happened to the owners?

It doesn’t always have to be something extraordinary. I find so much meaning in ordinary things. It is a good habit to form and a great way to mine for ideas if you are planning to write a short story or even a novel. Try it and let me know how it works out, will you?