Name that character… or not

By Tess Gerritsen

Over on my own blog last week, I shared an email I received from a reader who pointed out a few details she disagreed with.  This was one of her comments:

“If you are talking about a nurse, instead of saying “nurse- do this or that” give him or her a name and refer to them by that and tag the nurse title after the name.”

She was referring specifically to a scene at the beginning of my novel, THE SURGEON, in which my heroine, a trauma surgeon named Dr. Catherine Cordell, must save the life of a man who’s bleeding to death.  Cordell comes racing into the room to find a crowd of medical personnel frantically trying to save the patient’s life.  In this scene, I don’t refer to any of the nurses by name, only by role (e.g., scrub nurse). Multiple voices are speaking in rapid-fire medical lingo, including a disembodied voice from the lab, reporting results over the intercom.  Except for Cordell, the only two characters who are given names are the senior surgical resident (Dr. Littman) and a terrified medical student who’s pulled in to assist. 

Except for Cordell and Dr. Littman, none of these characters shows up again in the book.

The reader felt that the scene demonstrated my lack of respect for the nursing profession.  If I truly respected nurses, her reasoning went, I would have given the nurses names and professional titles.  I wouldn’t just write “A nurse said: ‘I’m not getting a systolic!'”   I’d write: “JT Ellison, RN, said: ‘I’m not getting a systolic!'”

What she failed to understand is that my primary responsibility, as an author, isn’t to demonstrate my respect for every profession that shows up in the pages of my stories.  My job is to keep the pace moving, and to not confuse my readers.

Suppose I did what that reader wanted me to do, and named the nurses in the room.  Imagine how the scene might play out:


            Half a dozen faces flashed looks of relief as Catherine stepped into the room. 

  Ron Littman, the senior surgical resident, gave her a rapid-fire report.  “John Doe Pedestrian, hit and run.  No bowel sounds, BP’s down to sixty over a zip.  I did a paracentesis.  He’s got blood in his belly.”

            Catherine turned to the circulating nurse, whose name was Cornelia Read, R.N.  “Open the laparatomy tray.”

            Louise Ure, another R.N., called out: “I’m barely getting the systolic!”

            Standing across from Catherine was a scrub nurse, whose nametag said “Allison Brennan, R.N.”  Beside Allison was another nurse, Alexandra Sokoloff, who was starting the I.V.   “Where’s our O neg blood?” asked Catherine.

            Zoe Sharp, R.N., hung up the phone.  “It’s on its way.”

            The intercom buzzed.  “This is Brett Battles in the lab,” said a voice.  “I have the hematocrit results.”

            Nurse Toni McGee poked her head into the room.  “Dr. Cordell! Another patient’s just rolled in the door!”

            Catherine picked up a scalpel.  Glancing around the table, she scanned the personnel watching her.  Ron Littman.  Cornelia Read.  Louise Ure.  Allison Brennan.  Alexandra Sokoloff.  Zoe Sharp.  Toni McGee.  She registered each of the names one by one.  Then she looked down at the patient. 

            Too late.  He was dead.  (But at least she remembered everyone’s names.)

Okay, so this is an exaggeration.  But it does illustrate a point: that whenever you introduce a new character by name, you slow down the action.  You’re providing a detail so specific that it forces your readers to pause and make note of it, because they assume that you’ve provided the name for a reason.  This character must be significant.  Why else would you call attention to his name?

I recall reading a scene by a bestselling thriller author (who shall remain unnamed) that takes place on an airplane.  Within three paragraphs, the main character is introduced to about ten fellow passengers, each of whom is given a first and last name and occupation.  I remember thinking that these people must be significant to the plot, and would surely turn up later.

They didn’t.  They were never again seen in the book.  They appeared only that one time, stated their names, and vanished from the story.  To this day, I’m puzzled why the author felt he needed to throw in ten irrelevant names.  I can only guess that he wanted some friends to see their names in a book, so he obliged them — resulting in a clumsy and amateurish few paragraphs.

Obviously, characters who are significant to the plot or who appear in several scenes should be named.  Likewise, characters who contribute significant amounts of dialogue.  But with single-scene characters, it’s up to the author to decide which ones need to be named. 

Just choosing a name is a challenge, and if I can avoid having to come up with one, I will.  Sometimes, though, I’m forced to reach for my tattered copy of  “What Shall We Name the Baby?” so I can dub a character.

If there are several people with the same occupation in the scene, and I want to call attention to a particular one, I’ll give him a name.  For example, if four crime-scene techs are in the room, and one of them makes a startling discovery that results in dialogue, he’ll be the one, and only one, who gets a name.

If the character’s occupational title is too long and unwieldy, such as a “public affairs representative”, I’ll be tempted to call him “Hancock” rather than repeatedly refer to him as the “public affairs representative.”

If there’s more than one cop in the room, and they both have speaking roles, then I may give them names so I don’t have to refer to them as “cop #1” and “cop #2.”  Alternatively, I can make them physically different from each other, and use those physical differences (e.g., “the tall cop” or “the female cop”) to distinguish them.

Choosing the right name isn’t as easy as throwing a dart at the phone book.  Sometimes I’ll spend as much time settling on a name as I do writing the scene itself.  I find myself juggling a number of different issues. Does the name match my vision of the character?  (Which name sounds more like an action hero, Percy or Jack?)  Do I have a believable ethnic mix, or are there too many Smiths and Joneses in the story?  Is “John Green” too forgettable, and should I change it to “Leon Krum”?  Does the book have too many characters whose names begin with S?  Is the name hard to pronounce?  Is it weird or distracting or inadvertently hilarious?

With all these issues to think of, it’s no wonder I’m selective about which characters I choose to name.  It’s hard work!


27 thoughts on “Name that character… or not

  1. Peter

    When I read the scene, of a doctor rushing in to an Operating Room to try to save a patient, my question is: does the surgeon care to know their names? In the chaos of a surgery, the surgeon doesn’t care what the name of the nurse is who gives information or instruments, just that it’s done. Nothing’s more important than the life of the patient. Can you picture the surgeon shaking the hands of a nurse they’ve just been introduced to? No. Maybe after the surgery is over, when everyone’s relieved (or not) that they’ve saved a life (or not), the surgeon can turn to the people around the room and say ‘great job, (fill in hard-to-think-up-nurse-name here)’

    But in the middle of the scene it would strike me, as the reader, as out of place and a road bump to the action. That’s one of the reasons I have such a hard time describing a character, because I don’t want to break out of the action so I try to weave it throughout the story. Though, to be honest, I once had a character who I described everything but hair color (on purpose) as the story progressed. I polled people after they read it as to what she looked like. Most (as in 2 out of 3 or so) said she had ‘auburn’ hair (a word that most definitely never showed up in the book) and were surprised when I told them I never described her hair color. Not sure what that says for them or me, but it always amused me.

    Now, to Amazon to order The Surgeon. Thanks!

  2. Jude Hardin

    Also, Tess, if we’re writing in first-person or limited third, it only makes sense to use names our POV character would know. If the POV character is a doctor running a code, for example, s/he certainly isn’t going to know the names of everyone in the room.

  3. J.D. Rhoades

    Funny you should bring this up at this time. I’m facing this issue in the current WIP. The main character’s a small town lawyer who knows everybody and knows everybody’s story (and knows their secrets). But it starts to bog down when I have to name every spear carrier.

  4. tess gerritsen

    I happen to be really awful at remembering peoples’ names in my own life. My writing may reflect my own difficulties — which is why I tend not to name names if I can avoid it.

  5. R.J. Mangahas

    Good point Tess. To bake it a bit further, could you imagine if a scene took place in an area where a hurricane had just hit and having to name ALL the rescue workers?

    I know one thing. If I ever have a medical emergency, I can come right here to Murderati. Who knew everyone here was in the medical field as well? :-]

  6. JT Ellison

    Tess, both blogs are perfect examples of why you can’t listen to everyone. I read the post on your site, and found it interesting that the nurse who’d written to set you straight had many factual errors herself.

    Rule #1, never have a character that doesn’t move the story forward.

    Naming characters is a pain. I usually make out a list beforehand so I have names within easy mental reach, and use them as cast lists for later books so I don’t have to try to recall if I’ve used something before. If a character can avoid being named, I’m all for it.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Action / scene-wise, it would be confusing to name every single person, especially if they’re not going to have some relevance later.

    There’s probably always going to be a reader somewhere who feels as if their profession wasn’t respected if the characters sporting their profession aren’t named and given at least a brief description. However, as much as there are times when I clearly have a name or title designation (mom, wife, author, daughter, hey-you-with-the-ice-cream)… I’m also going to be a part of a crowd at times (movie-goer, customer, contractor) and it’s not disrespectful to lump me into the crowd into which I have placed myself.

  8. Louise Ure

    My mother (the R.N.) would have been delighted to see my name used in the same context! Thanks, Tess.

    My own troubles with naming characters has led me to a strange solution. I rarely have the right character name handy when I’m writing the first draft, so everybody gets the name of a city. Austin. Lansing. Phoenix. I’ve never used the name Utica as a placeholder.

  9. Melanie

    I love this post! I tend to follow the same guidelines as you, Tess, and it’s wonderful to hear that the way I’m doing it makes sense.

    I had the opposite problem with naming characters after friends — I used friends’ names at first but had to change them because I didn’t think they’d appreciate being strippers and drug dealers, lol.

  10. tess gerritsen

    but some friends will probably love being portrayed as strippers and drug dealers! I had one friend who asked me to make him a serial killer. "As nasty and twisted as you can make him," he suggested.

  11. Rob Gregory Browne

    I had a scene in WHISPER IN THE DARK — a task force meeting that takes place in a police conference room. I wrote it shortly after going on an Authors at Sea tour and meeting a table full of wonderful people at dinner, and I wanted to include all of their names in the scene.

    My editor, wisely, told me to get rid of all the names. My tablemates wound up in the acknowledgments instead.

  12. Pari

    I name the characters that matter.

    But why didn’t you use *my* name in your example? THAT would’ve thrown people out of the story immediately and might’ve proved the point a little too well.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Names are often the most difficult part of the storytelling process for me. I have quite a few "baby name" books, and one of the best I’ve found is, well I think it’s the Idiot’s Guide to Baby Names – I must have left it in my car. It gives the histories of all the names I’ve never encountered in my life. I like my characters to have names that somehow symbolize their personalities or their ultimate character arcs. So I often begin my outlines using the name Character X, until I find the right name or until I go out of my mind.
    I agree with you – you can’t give every character a name. Your post does a great job of articulating the issue.

  14. Sarah Grimm

    I was a phlebotomist for years and have participated in my fair share of codes. Even as the person standing on the sidelines waiting to see if I’m needed or not, those situations are frantic. You’re usually too busy looking at the patient and doing your job to even realize who’s standing around you. Most times it wasn’t until it was over that your brain processes who is in the room with you and who’s voice that was calling out information.

    However, I did get a good chuckle out of the scene with all the names added. Thanks for that.

  15. Wilfred Bereswill

    Whenever I’m introduced by name to a character, I certainly expect them to play some role further in. I occasionally find myself naming an insignificant character and when I go back to proof things, I usually eliminate the name.

  16. Pari

    No offense taken. I was just pointing out how some names would really stop the action — would be a detriment — more than anything else.

  17. Jill James

    Tess, LOL here at the scene with all the names. I see how that slows down the action, but it was kinda cool to read names I recognize of some of my fave authors.

  18. Sylvia

    Tess – what a great story and a reminder to "keep it moving".

    Louise – yes, cities and you can use Utica.

  19. ec

    There are many ways to slow down action, none of them good. I remember reading a fantasy book years ago in which the heroine paused in the middle of a swords-and-spells melee battle to brush back a strand of her long, shining auburn hair. Oy.

  20. Boyd Morrison

    Names are always tough to get right. I, too, thought that Percy was kind of a wimpy name, but I will point out that Percy Jackson is the action hero of The Last Olympian, a bestselling YA novel, so names can be deceiving. Of course, Percy is short for Perseus, but still…

  21. Daniel

    Tess, yes…
    Charles Dickens had a talent for giving his characters names which sounded how they looked and even how they acted; just like a "Tess" WOULD play the fiddle and write fiction which is imbued with a lot of science; I think of Tesla, the guy who invented radio before Marconi, supposedly.
    But, I agree, unless the character is further described (or speaks), then he doesn’t need a name like Murdstone (from David Copperfield, or Oliver Twist, I think)

  22. Allison Brennan

    ROFLOL Chris.

    Great post, and you’re right that names are hard. Even my heroes and heroines are hard. I have a major character in my new supernatural series who has had a dozen names. I can’t even remember them all, but nothing fit–everytime I got into her POV, the name just didn’t work. She was Kira, Thea, Sydney, Tabitha, Laura, Shawn, Maggie, and at least three more . . . until it just hit me. Lily. Now she’s had three scenes and Lily is sticking. Whew. And some are easy, like my primary heroine is Moira and she’s been Moira since day one.

  23. Richard S. Wheeler

    Loren Estleman once wisely observed that a well chosen name can save a few paragraphs of description. Just think of Caspar Milquetoast, and Snively Whiplash, he said.

  24. stovevasout

    Apple now has Rhapsody as an app, which is a great start, but it is currently hampered by the inability to store locally on your iPod, and has a dismal 64kbps bit rate. If this changes, then it will somewhat negate this advantage for the Zune, but the 10 songs per month will still be a big plus in Zune Pass' favor.

  25. Pexscieri

    Zune and iPod: Most people compare the Zune to the Touch, but after seeing how slim and surprisingly small and light it is, I consider it to be a rather unique hybrid that combines qualities of both the Touch and the Nano. It's very colorful and lovely OLED screen is slightly smaller than the touch screen, but the player itself feels quite a bit smaller and lighter. It weighs about 2/3 as much, and is noticeably smaller in width and height, while being just a hair thicker.


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