THE LETTER A
by Melodie Johnson Howe
In The Scarlet Letter, the character Hester Prynne is burdened and shamed by the letter A. But at least she got a little nookie on the side, (as much as Hawthorn and the puritans allowed her) to earn her adulteress label.
I too am burdened by that notorious letter. Not for having a fling but for creating female characters whose names end with it. For instance in my novel I have Nora, Bianca, Vanessa, Celia and Latisha. And of course Diana Poole. Bones, who is copy editing it, was beginning to have trouble keeping them apart.
I know that a writer should use distinctive names for her characters. Names that don’t confuse the reader. Bert and Bart are too similar, unless she’s
going for humor. The writer Bob Crais says don’t name a character Fred, because then you have “Fred said” all through your book.
When I tried to figure out a new name for the charter Vanessa, I immediately came up with the name Cara. But that was too close to Celia. Wait. I could change Celia’s name to Belinda. That’s nothing like Vanessa. I mean Cara. But Belinda could be confused with Bianca. So I’ll call Bianca Karen! That name is too harsh sounding. Not to worry, Bianca can be Vanessa since Vanessa is called Belinda. I mean Cara. And Latisha could be changed to Bianca since I don’t have a charter named Bianca. Or do I?
Names aside, Bones had another problem. He explained that when Diana is in a scene talking in the present she is sometimes making connections with the information she is hearing to another character in the past. That’s confusing because he can’t remember the other character.
My fist response was very rational. I would burn my novel. My second response was more mature. I would tell my husband that he is not a very careful reader. Thank God, I did neither. Holding my tongue and my pages I trudged back into my office. Glaring at my computer, like a baseball player sneering at his bat when he doesn’t make contact, I sat at my desk.
Slowly, my brain began to work. The vengeful writer turned into a thinking one and I realized what I had done. I had used a minor character, her name ending in “a” to convey important information. Diana, when asked thirty pages latter, how she knew this information, remembers the minor character. But since this person is not seen again or talked about the reader isn’t going to remember either.
I don’t have this problem when writing short stories. The truly minor characters should create atmosphere or serve a function that create a sense of reality such as bartender, receptionist, etc. And none of their names, if they even need one, should end in the letter A! And yes, they can convey a piece of information that directs the protagonist because the story is short and the reader will remember it.
To paraphrase the gentleman who said, “The rent is too damn high.” I say, “The novel is too damn long.” I can hardly wait to get back to writing short stories.
Bones just read this column and said it was confusing.