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Thursday, December 1, 2011

What's in a name?

The last time I wrote here about my composing process, an unplanned character had just sauntered onto the page of my new book and addressed the protagonist, Liz Venables, as "monkey girl."  As of that writing, I didn't know who this was, what he or she was doing in the novel or what was going to become of the story I thought I was going to write. According to my synopsis, The Ghost Doll was supposed to be a much darker book than Fool's Journey, but here comes this clownish character changing the sultry tone of Chapter 1.

Many writers admit that their plot has been interrupted by the entrance of a new character. Often, too, the characters reveal their names. I've ended up with some odd names for characters --Hippolyta, for example-- and if you don't let them have their own way, they will fight you throughout the novel. This new interloper in The Ghost Doll says his name is Oscar. Fine, but not just Oscar: his name is Oscar Maier. Accepting though I might be of auto-creationism in fiction, I could only shudder. Sure, the surname was spelled differently than the commercial product, but a character named Oscar Maier is necessarily a weenie.  And why would there be a weenie in my lovely, dark ghost story? Unless the story had changed itself when I wasn't looking. It wanted a little humor perhaps? It didn't want to take itself so seriously.

In a way it was a relief. Spending the next year or so writing a dark book didn't sound like much fun -- and clearly the book agreed. Once I let Oscar into the story, it flowed. better. Suddenly there was banter instead of all that tedious introspection. I discovered that Oscar  was Liz Venables' half-brother. Admittedly, he a weenie, but good-natured, not too bright, dangerously inept, generous, spacy and gay. Liz needed someone like Oscar in her life to keep her spirits up  in order to confront everything I plan to send her way.

Many writers attest to experiencing this phenomenon, this point when the manuscript assumes a life of its own. Perhaps it explains how Shakespeare came up with Romeo Montague -- a Scotsman in Verona?
 Och! Whit leam kithen thro' yonder windae? (But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?)
It's a good sign, though. When writers have to chase after characters, it must mean their books are alive, and their stories are playing out almost independent of governing hands. Weenie or not, Oscar tells me I've tapped into the source and I'd better stand back and let it flow. Knowing that writer may have little more control over the story than the reader keeps me humble, and reminds me to honor the Muse, whatever she may send my way.

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