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!