I’ve been running an online Pulp Fiction Workshop, which uses as its starting point author Lester Dent’s famous “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot,” and you’ve seen it quoted here several times in various contexts. But Dent (co-creator and principle author of the classic Doc Savage stories, among many, many other stories across multiple genres) had more advice to offer his fellow authors. With some previous posts touching on character names, and my apparent reluctance to get into that all-important aspect of fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding: naming people, places, and things, it’s a good time to find a common starting point. If Dent can start us talking about plot and story structure, maybe he can start the conversation in terms of characters as well.
To that end, let’s spend the next few weeks looking at Lester Dent’s essay “Wave Those Tags” (aka “Tag ’Em”), which was first published in the 1940 Writers Digest Yearbook:
This, again, is a personal opinion…
Here is a formula. It is a formula for creating characters to put in fiction yarns.
A blueprint, to say it another way, for making characters.
Now… before launching out in this character blueprint, it might be a good idea to borrow some sales psychology and build up the thing a little. To show, in other words, that it’ll work—that it is being used successfully.
While there seems to be some wariness about admitting it, most writers apparently work to formula to a great extent. Most pulp writers have seemingly devised a sure-fire masterplot, and have been writing and selling the same yarn over and over for years. A surprising number of the slick* authors seem to do the same thing. And there appears to be an inclination among editors to have their own idea of a formula for a yarn, and not buy anything that doesn’t fit. They call this the groove, or the slant.
[I’ve edited out a few notes from the original Writer’s Digest editors here, preferring to stick with Dent’s central point. —PA]
In order to write a story, it seems best to start with a plot and characters. Yarns can be written without either one, but it may be a little difficult to make a living selling them.
Whether the plot comes first, or the characters, seems to be a subject for argument. One method is to build the characters, then dope out a plot in which they strut their stuff in their respective manners. The other system is to construct the plot, then manufacture characters to fit it. Possibly an argument can be avoided by saying: start out the way that seems most convenient. Professional writers make both systems work. Most of them apparently mix the two systems.
Since this isn’t about plotting, it might be best to say nothing more about plots.
Possibly the initial step in creating a character should be.
FIRST—FIND A NAME.
It is very doubtful if the name is the most important step in creating a character—but it does seem to be the natural first thing to do.
Names are convenient as handles. But it helps if the characterizing doesn’t stop with merely finding a name. One of the loudest squawks from editors is that so many characters are just names being dragged through yarns.
Making the name of the character different from that of any other actor in the story is usually a good idea. Should there be Morgans, Mermans and Murtons in the yarn, somebody may be inclined to become confused.
It may also be nice to have the name sort of express the nature of the character—convey some suggestion as to his manner, appearance, nationality, occupation, or something. This gag appears to be quite widely used.
Examples: Dashiell Hammett used a detective character named Spade, which was a hard digging instrument quite in keeping with the name… Another writer of whodunnits, Rex Stout, seems inclined to make use of predatory animals as a name source—Nero Wolfe and Tecumseh Fox being two instances. A further analytical dissection of these last two names might lead to the surmise that, in the case of Nero Wolfe, the name Nero was used because it conveys the idea of a guy who is inclined to fiddle while Rome burns, which the fiction character at times apparently, although never actually, does. The name Nero might also have certain inherent leonine qualities. The Tecumseh Fox name might be analyzed as implying a man who was as sturdy and inscrutable as the old Indian chief, externally, while actually being as sly as a fox… Erle Stanley Gardner has had great success with a character named Perry Mason, although here an analysis might approach conjecture. A mason is a builder, and the word parry means to fend off: which is the way the character works—fending off numerous enemies while building his cases. (No guarantee went with this paragraph of mindreading.)
If heroes have manly names, it may help.
Taking a thesaurus and looking up words with strong, manly meanings, then improvising upon them, might be a trick worth trying.
In the pulps, this approach to name-making often is obvious. Pulp hacks are guilty of characters with such names as Click Rush and Mace and Lash.
Apparently the names of flowers and pretty things are frequently used for the beautiful young heroine in the yarn. The thesaurus could be consulted for these, too.
A reliable old gag for getting names for foreign characters is to open an atlas, look at the map of his native country and pick out a town, river, mountain or anything that has the flavor, and use that.
Foreign language words for trees, flowers, food or such things can be used, providing one has a book on how to speak the foreign language.
Villains may possibly be made to sound like rascals by using harsh, unpleasant names. Example: Didn’t Hammett use a villain named Gutman?
A good hissy, snaky sounding name has helped make many a villain.
Telephone books can be a source of names, or of confusion.
The gag of using expressive names, while a much-used one, might possibly be overdone. The comic strips make use of it to an extreme degree, but editors of fiction magazines may prefer that it be tamed down a little, made more subtle.
Now… here is the next move in creating a character:
Next week… SECOND—FIND AN EXTERNAL TAG.
* In the parlance of the day, slick = the highbrow magazines printed on higher quality paper vs. pulp = lowbrow magazines printed on cheap wood pulp/newsprint paper.