HI, TALL GIRL, MY NAME IS EYE PATCH, PLEASED TO MEET YOU

Bear with me this week while I vent my frustrations with the vile horror of descriptive placeholder semi-nicknames to differentiate thugs and other tertiary characters who don’t seem worthy of a name, but Eye Patch or Tall Girl may as well be names, so you just fucking named them.

This comes up, usually, in fight scenes in which the hero is confronted by cultists, thugs, goons, or other agents of the villain. These are people the hero doesn’t know, and usually end up dead or otherwise dealt with. Their value to the story is in the fight scene itself and no farther. So the easy thing to do—and what really worries me is that authors feel it’s the clever thing to do—is have the POV hero give them little descriptive nicknames so the guy with a sword becomes Sword, the guy wearing sunglasses is Sunglasses, the woman with red hair is Redhead, and so on and so on. This might seem like a good way around the one scene, one POV dilemma we all eventually find ourselves in: How do I show this properly so it makes sense when the POV character is missing information?

My advice, rather than fall back on this—and I’m gonna say it out loud people—hackneyed cliché from Hell, is find a way to write about them without naming them at all.

Here’s a paragraph from the Conan novel The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard, as he wrote it:

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As the voice shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to him than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of a yard-long blade. He split the man’s skull—ducked another swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled a man with his left fist and stabbed another in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. A bearded tribesman, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of his garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet the man who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

There we see him simply writing around the fact that Conan has no idea what these anonymous tribesmen’s’ names are—and he’s Conan so we know he doesn’t care. That last bit is important: we know Conan doesn’t care what their names are.

But what if, because he prided himself on his detailed worldbuilding, Robert E. Howard, if not Conan, cared what their names were? It might sound like this:

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As X’Changa shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to Conan than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of K’Jungo’s yard-long blade. He split K’Jungo’s skull—ducked B’Loonga’s swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled Z’Namo with his left fist and stabbed T’Allgirl in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. E’Nuff, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of E’Nuff’s garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet E’Nuff, who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

Now, reading this, I’m being told that their names matter, that these are characters I need to “track” for the rest of the book. This goes back to what I’ve said before about the concept of Chekhov’s Gun and the Mental Inventory. You’re asking your readers to take mental inventories of people, places, things, etc. as they read your story. The weight you give certain things will be picked up on, and your readers will expect those things to pay off in some way. Even if I hadn’t given up and gone to obviously silly joke names (maybe the worst cliché of all) this would still be unnecessarily confusing for what it actually means in the context of the whole novel.

So then, is it made better with super-obvious placeholder names?

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As Shouter shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to him than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of Sword’s yard-long blade. He split Sword’s skull—ducked Knife’s swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled Eye Patch with his left fist and stabbed Tall Girl in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. Beard, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of Beard’s garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet Beard, who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

I’ll answer for you. It isn’t made better, it’s made silly, and maybe if you’re going for silly, okay, but I bet you, like Robert E. Howard, aren’t going for silly in a scene like this.

Still, I will admit that there are times when this device might be useful, but if you feel it is—and you’re the only one who can know that, at least until a decent editor comes along—go ahead, but at least create nicknames for those unnamed characters. Nicknames, as opposed to what I’ve called placeholder names or descriptors like Tall Girl, say something about how the POV character sees those unnamed characters, and in so doing, says something about the POV character himself, as in this example from the short story “A&P” from a very different author, John Updike:

The girls, and who’d blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad), leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.

Here the fact that the POV character, a teenage boy who is reacting on an almost primate level to three teenage girls he doesn’t know but who he wants to be seen as defending, informs the nicknames he chooses for them. We know more about him as a character because of the nicknames, and may or may not feel more or less positively inclined toward him as a result.

But just looking at a character and saying, “she’s tall, so I’ll call her Tall Girl,” or “he’s wearing an eye patch so his name is Eye Patch…” I’m going to have to ask for more thought than that, from you and from your POV characters.

 

—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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3 Responses to HI, TALL GIRL, MY NAME IS EYE PATCH, PLEASED TO MEET YOU

  1. Dawn Ross says:

    Good food for thought. I had a scene where my MC referred to the leader who captured him and his team as ‘the leader’. There is a lot of interaction between my MC and the leader, so this title I gave him came up a lot. A beta reader suggested I give him a nickname instead. I tried it, but it came across as cheesy. What do you think about calling him ‘the leader’ or by his rank ‘the general’?

  2. Good point. One of my favorite authors writes a protagonist who does this. BUT when she does nickname people, you know they have become important to the story. These people continue to be referred to by the nicknames throughout the series, so the nicknames become their names. Also, the names are unusual as a rule, especially the further she got into the series.

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