THOUGHTS ON LESTER DENT’S “WAVE THOSE TAGS”

If you haven’t read the complete text of the original essay, go back to Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name to get caught up.

Having read what pulp fiction maestro Lester Dent had to say on the subject of characters, from way back in 1940, I’d like to add some thoughts of my own. So, here goes…

It’s long, long overdue that I write a post entirely on the subject of creating distinctive names for fantasy and science fiction characters. In fact, I plan to revise my online Worldbuilding course to give the subject of naming thing, in general, it’s own full week—it’s too important not to address in detail. But until I get to that, looking at the first part of Dent’s “Wave Those Tags,” I found these bits particularly interesting:

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.

I’ve seen advice in other places, usually in the screenwriting universe (a peculiar alternate dimension all its own) that actually attempt to impose a rule that no two characters can have names that begin with the same letter. Though I tend to bristle at seemingly arbitrary rules, especially those that assume a certain low level of intelligence on the part of the reader, there might be a smidge of truth in this. Though I think you can have a Phil and a Pete in your story, especially since the PH in Phil is pronounced like an F, Dent’s example of Morgans, Mermans and Murtons is something you’ll want to watch out for.

This is another important part of your worldbuilding thinking, too, so that if you’re imagining a society based on some kind of real world culture, or you’ve created a sort of homogeneous culture that might have strict rules for names, be careful not to let character names sound too close together. What amounts to “too close together?” If you’re worried they might be too close together, assume they’re too close together and change one of the names. It isn’t scientific, but then neither is any of the rest of creative writing.

Dent made a good point here, too:

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.

I will refer you back to my cautionary tale of common nouns, etc. in place of names that come off as placeholders before you take Dent’s advice too literally. But here’s one trick you can try if you promise not to be too obvious or over use it: Take that placeholder keyword that describes that character, but run it through Google Translate. So if you’re considering naming a character Ghost, or have that as a placeholder, you could call him Mamua instead, which (according to Google Translate) is “ghost” in Basque.

I’ll have to leave you to find the fine line between clever and gimmicky on your own, with a similar cautionary message from Mr. Dent:

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.

So, no Sword McSlash or Astro Spaceson. Sorry.

Oddly, I think this bit of advice from Dent still seems to hold up:

A good hissy, snaky sounding name has helped make many a villain.

Let’s see… the Sith, Lord Soth, Saruman, Strahd, Sauron, Szass Tam, Cersei… Okay, I get it. I’d also add hard consonants, especially K, to that: Harkonnen, Dracula, Katrina Crane… or a little of both like Frankenstein.

Then in the second section, about external tags, those weird hobby things or visible quirks, if given a more subtle hand than Mr. Dent might have utilized himself, can be of real value.

Years ago—more than a decade ago—my wife read a biography of TV star Lucille Ball and couldn’t stop talking about one small story in a long book, and that was that Lucy would horde pencils. She bought pencils and stockpiled them because she grew up poor and—if I’m remembering this correctly—had a traumatic moment as a little girl in school when she didn’t have a pencil—her parents couldn’t afford it. So for Lucy, “success” meant constant access to pencils.

The point here is that every time she sees Lucille Ball on TV, if she’s mentioned at all, in any context, my wife immediately brings up that story. Out of all the rest of that book, this “external tag” of Lucy’s really struck her, and stuck with her for years to come.

And this thing about Lucy’s pencils is interesting to me, too, in that it transitions from Dent’s fairly well thought out look at external tags to where he more or less punts when he gets to the question if internal tags.

Reading Dent’s fiction it’s easy enough to see that less thought—much less—was put into emotional depth than it was to gadgets and explosions. But that external tag of Lucy’s—she obsessively hordes pencils—is actually a symptom of what makes her (as a character) much more interesting. Lucy was filling a whole in her psychological and emotional life with pencils.

Go ahead and assume that pretty much anything and everything else I might write on the subject of creating characters focuses in on this third part of Dent’s efforts. He was clearly uncomfortable with it, but I’m not, and not only shouldn’t you be but you just can’t be. Your characters will live in the emotional verisimilitude, in their internal life. If they’re all external they’ll fall flat on their faces.

The last bit of advice I thought was worth calling out is:

There are many tricks for getting character effects, but probably the best way of securing them is to wade through published material, purloin what seems good, and adapt the idea a little.

Absolutely yes, but go beyond that. Include real people—your friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, etc.—and people from the news and from history… anywhere and everywhere.

And now let’s wrap up by having a little fun with what seemed to make sense, seventy-seven years ago, but that now might make us cringe—or worse:

If heroes have manly names, it may help.

You definitely wouldn’t want a hero named Ripley in your science fiction story, because that’s not manly enough. Instead, make sure that the hero is a manly man, and as for the fairer sex:

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.

I love that Dent says that “apparently” female characters have names like this. God knows he never had women in his stories anyway—and he actually very, very rarely did.

Okay…

External tags are peculiarities of appearance, manner, voice, clothing, hobby, etc. Incidentally, it might be wise to neglect wooden legs, because editors have a horror of cripples in yarns. This taboo against cripples is worth remembering, because it seems to be ironclad.

Holy…

But I have to ask, have you seen a disabled hero in anything?

Hmm…

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to THOUGHTS ON LESTER DENT’S “WAVE THOSE TAGS”

  1. Beverly says:

    “But I have to ask, have you seen a disabled hero in anything?”

    Although, technically, not disabled Luke Skywalker did lose a hand.

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