On Writing: Is Your Book Too Normal?

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My wife’s department at the university includes a guy named John and another named Jon. The university’s president, provost, and dean are all also named John.

My younger daughter has three close friends (two are boys, one is a girl) who are all named Sam.

My brother’s wife is named Karen, and they named their first-born son Jonah. My college roommate’s wife is named Karen, and they named their first-born son Jonah.

There is a Greenville in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Utah, Georgia, and twenty-eight other states. Well, actually twenty-seven; there are two in California.

Washington is our nation’s capitol. It’s also a state. And it’s the name of cities in at least twenty-five other states. Who was the genius who came up with all of that?

Here’s one from history:

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were friends and intense political rivals who both signed the Declaration of Independence, served together in the Continental Congress, and clashed repeatedly over ideology. They contended with each other for influence during the presidency of George Washington, were rivals for the Presidency in 1796, and, due to an odd aspect of the Constitution as original written (the 12th Amendment took care of this in 1804), Jefferson lost but wound up serving as Adams’ Vice President. Jefferson went on to defeat Adams in the election of 1800. In their final years, their rivalry softened and they became friends again, engaging in a fascinating correspondence. In 1826, Adams and Jefferson died on the same day. It was July 4th.

I’m not going to get into politics here, but there is enough going on in Washington these days to boggle the mind. And I think that it suffices to say that the inter-generational Oedipal dramas of the Bush family, the psycho-drama that is the Clinton marriage, and the seemingly endless stream of tragedies visited upon the Kennedy family all defy logic and reason.

My point in bringing up all of this stuff is that sometimes real life is incredibly odd. There’s a famous quote, usually attributed to thriller writer Tom Clancy, that says, in essence, the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

You can’t have five characters in your novel named John — it would drive your readers nuts and your editor would never let you get away with it.

You could have two political rivals die of old age on the same day — the anniversary of the founding of the new nation they both worked so hard to shape — but it would seem terribly contrived and would probably leave your readers shaking their heads. Or you could force your ruling family to endure loss upon loss, tragedy upon tragedy, but after a while it just wouldn’t seem believable anymore.

We all know this stuff. Truth is stranger than fiction.

But sometimes I wonder if our fiction is strange enough. In writing historical fantasy I am often forced to write things that I would never dream of putting in a purely fictional book. One of the key figures in the Stamp Act riots was named Ebenezer Mackintosh. I couldn’t have come up with a name that good in a million years, and if I had, it would have seemed too over-the-top to use. But it’s real, so I can use it.

In the 1760s, the rector of one of Boston’s finest churches was the Reverend Henry Caner. He plays a prominent role in the Thieftaker books. By the time I learned Caner’s name, I had already named another character — this one purely fictional — Henry. Aside from their names, the two men have nothing in common. One is a prominent minister; the other is a lowly cooper. I thought about changing the name of the fictional Henry, but I liked the idea of these two having the same name. It happens in our lives all the time, and I thought it actually lent a bit more realism to the book. As it happens, in the second book there are three characters named William. All of them are historical figures, so there’s nothing I can do about it.

I think sometimes we are so concerned with making our books clean and readable that we forget how messy the real world can be. I would never advise anyone to name several characters the same thing, or even to use the same name for two characters — or two places for that matter. That really can be confusing, and it’s not something you want to do just for the sake of being different or quirky. But, I would say that if you think you can use the resulting confusion to your advantage, if it becomes a plot point rather than just something goofy, go for it. If there is a reason why rival kingdoms would name their royal cities for the same God or Goddess or historical hero, you could do that, too. I can think of all sorts of ways in which doing so lead to interesting plot points. Or maybe two rival groups in the same kingdom have different names for one city, perhaps the most important city in the realm. That could be useful and interesting as well.

Life is strange, it confounds us, it is filled with oddities and coincidences and convergences that defy explanation. When we write, we try not to confuse our readers and we avoid relying on plot points that might seem contrived or too easy. Again, I would never suggest that an author do otherwise. But I also think there is value in asking “Are my characters TOO normal? Does my world need to be a little bit messier?” Think about it.

What real-life coincidences strike you as odd? What might you do with them in a novel?

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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22 comments to On Writing: Is Your Book Too Normal?

  • Great post, David. Coming up with names that feel different enough but still plausible is a problem isn’t it? When I was writing my latest I wanted a Lancashire name that would stand out in the story’s Georgia environment. I asked my parents to send me a list of names common at the moment back in my corner of the UK, but what they came up with weren’t so much generic old fashioned names (as I had hoped for) but Kylie, Brad and Angelina. Sigh. I went with Darwen, which is the name of a small town in the area, and though they were initially baffled (“But Andrew, it’s not a real name, is it?”) they quickly got used to it when they read it in the book.

    By the way, your multiplying Johns reminded me of the closing Spatacus-esque scenes of Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “I’m Brian!,” “No, I’M Brian!” “I’m Brian and so’s my wife!”

  • You’re right, life can be weird like that. My latest personal coincidence is that only in the last six months have I learned that my dad has had a long-time friend he graduated high school with, who he fell out of touch with but has reconnected with in the last few years. Turns out they both moved to the same suburb of Vancouver, and his son and I went to the same high school and graduated the same year, and knew of each other but ran in different circles. Now, just over a decade after graduation, have we had a chance to connect, and we’ve discovered that we have very similar beliefs and outlooks on life.

    Recently I was asked by a writing friend if I knew “Adam and Anna”, and I said, “Yeah, of course,” and it turns out to have been a completely different couple.

    There’s also the possibly-more cliche issue that my darling husband’s mother was a single mom, and his father may or may not be a famous musician. (And since DH is not one for getting wrapped up in scandal, he won’t be pursing it, but it’ll make for a great story to tell our eventual kids.)

    Definitely lots of fodder, there. 🙂

  • David> Fun post! My most recent coincidence (and it is small) is that I went to a con in GA this weekend (academic one). I called a friend in Atlanta, asked if she wanted to have brunch on Thursday. Turns out her daughter goes to preschool two blocks from where the con was. We got to have brunch, I got to meet her daughter, and it was nice…

    I don’t quite know how to use coincidences like the ones you mention in fiction. I have events that have consequences, or that answer questions (where did the money come from? Why are these folks here now?). But usually what happens is that what looks like an odd coincidence is actually deliberate on the hand of some character. It also would be hard to have the “same name” coincidence in fiction. It might make an audience a bit irritated.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    So, I’ve got almost 70 names recorded for my WIP… I recently broke down and let some of the side characters have the same first names. It’s interesting how names do seem to cluster in real life, though. A friend of mine is surrounded by a whole slew of people named with variations of Anne/Anna.

    My personal set of weird coincidences has to do with family structure. All four of my kids’ grandparents are the youngest of their families, all with two older sisters, though my parents both also have one oldest brother. My father’s father died when my dad was little, and my husband’s mom’s mom died when she was little. And I could keep going for quite a while. Hmmm… In that light, it seems less worrisome that three of my main characters lost their mothers at an early age.

    It’s these sorts of things that make me understand why numerology exists.

  • I love coincidence. Just adore it. The hubby and I were in Atlanta for a book signing, and Rod said, “I wish I knew where Bill Blakely lived. He moved here about five years ago.”
    I said, “Yeah, I wonder how he’s doing.”
    As we were speaking, we got on the escalator and looked up and Bill was getting on the escalator at the top. We started yelling at each other, passed each other, turned around and visited and had lunch together in the mall food court. Weird. Bill never went to that mall. Ever. It was his first time there. Ours too.

    But dealing with RL truth vs fictional truth, I’ll add a comment. When the AKA (Gwen) was writing medical mysteries/thrillers (some were more one than the other) my editor and publisher kept saying, “This is too weird. No one would believe that this happened in a small rural county.” And I’d say, “But it happened. Just last year. Chester County *is* weird.”

    It eventually got so bad, they refused to sign me to write a fifth book in the series unless I moved the series to Chicago. Why they picked ChiTown I have no idea. I’d never been there. But the sales numbers dropped on book three (horrible horror-style cover and they slotted the book for the romance aisles, but that’s another publishing screamer) and the series died a natural death. As I look back, I am glad it did. I got to write fantasy! Coincidence???

  • David,

    I actually used some naming in my first book like you mentioned above. The nation of Agralond, developed from the original Agraland, a land which was conquered by the armies of King Agrathorne I. His eldest son, King Agrathorne II, named the nation as a tribute to his father (and partly out of his own vanity). The main roads, squares, and gates are all named after fictional leaders of the nation and sprinkled throughout the story. They helped make the place seem real.

    This reminds me that I’ve not done the same depth of historical name attribution in my current book, something I’ll need to remedy to give it the same character. Thanks for the reminder.

    As for a strange coincidence, a friend sent me an email last week, asking if I wanted to go for coffee. I didn’t get the email because I’d already left my house for a walk. In my walk, I cut through a parking lot I never cross because it’s a dangerous death-trap, and low and behold, my friend walked to her car and we nearly bumped into each other. When she learned that I hadn’t received her email, we were both a little freaked out at how things happened.

    I like what you’ve done with the naming in Thieftaker. It sounds right up my alley.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Nice article David.

    I know of many name coincidents, but my favorite is my friend from high school who married my best friend’s brother. Paula Cassella and Paul Cassetta. She only had to change two letters in her name, and, at that, all she had to do was draw a line through the l’s to make them t’s. 😉

  • A.J, love that scene. Yes names are a problem, and actually harder for me in real world settings than in alternate worlds. I think that’s because I associate names with people I know of the same name, and so naming a character becomes an exercise in NOT having him/her be a surrogate for someone I actually know. Odd, I know. But naming characters does seem to have gotten harder as my work has become more real-world based.

    Laura, re your husband’s parents — yes! I find those sorts of the things so compelling. So much possibility for exploration — as long as you change the names to protect the innocent…

    Emily, that’s the challenge, isn’t it: Finding the balance between working with coincidence, and flirting with contrivance. It’s a struggle, but it can also take you in cool directions.

    Hep, those sorts of coincidences and convergences run through my family, too. And my wife’s. And our two families together. Sometimes it just seems spooky.

    Faith, you bring up a whole other issue — Fate! There was a job I wanted desperately when I was still applying for academic positions. I didn’t get it, of course, and instead Nancy got her position here in TN. Then I tried to get a teaching position here, and that didn’t work out either. I was crushed at the time. But if I’d gotten one of those jobs, I never would have started writing fiction. And if we had taken a different path, we probably would have decided to have kids at a different time, and we would not even have the children we have today — different times, different cells. The mind boggles.

    NGD, thanks. I’ve had similar experiences where I do something in one book, but then lose sight of it in the next. And I often need a reminder to get back on it, too. Best of luck with the new volume.

    Jagi, thank you. Those names are amazing. Saved them a fortune on monogramming, I bet…. 🙂

  • “I would say that if you think you can use the resulting confusion to your advantage, if it becomes a plot point rather than just something goofy, go for it.” Well said, David. This is the aspect that I think nails it; **using things to your advantage.** Normal is the enemy–readers get plenty of that in their everyday lives–but weirdness for its own sake doesn’t fly either. The difference between lazy/normal and intentionality/weird is vital.

  • It’s stuff like this that reminds us of that cliche; ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’

    My particular WTF story involves auto crashes. On the 4th April 1983 I was in a motorcycle crash. I learned later that it happened at 7.30pm … fast forward 10 years to the 4th April 1993, driving home from work one rainy evening I hit an oil slick and rolled my car. It was 7.30pm.!

    (I spent the evening of 4th April 2003 at home – nowhere near any vehicle of any kind!)

  • The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension had a few characters named John. Well, lots. Way lots.
    And Twin Peaks got away with being weird. Well, weird for most people.

    So recently, I read Kat Richardson’s Greywalker.
    She included a character known as “Skelly” which was strange, as my last name isn’t all that common.

    I let that pass, but then she mentioned Dome Burger, where I get Teriyaki on a regular basis. Hmmm.

    An adult store known as “Adult Fantasies,” and a red-headed goth chick cashier? I’ve a goth chick friend who worked as cashier at Fantasy Unlimited, which is in the same location referenced in the book.

    There were a few more uncanny similarities, leaving me feeling a bit spooked.

    Coincidence? Or stalker…

    Neil Stephenson did the same thing in Cryptonomicon.

    If I come across anyone writing about a house halfway up my street, I calling the police.

  • Razziecat

    My parents had four kids. Our birthdays fall on March 10, May 10, Sept 1 (!) and Oct 10 (of different years). This was not planned. Not sure if that would seem too weird in a story – maybe if all four were on the 10th of a month, an editor would feel it’s too odd to be believable.

    The strangest coincidence I’ve ever seen was a lottery drawing that took place on Sept. 11, 2002, one year after the attacks. The number that came up was 9-1-1. Not kidding.

  • My husband’s sister’s daughter is named Mikayla. My sister’s daughter is named Mikhaila. My granddaughter is named Michaela. They were all born the same year.

    My half-brother (father’s son) and my half-sister(mother’s daughter) are Chris and Kris. Also born in the same year.

    My great-grandmother died on my brother’s birthday, my father died on my grandmother’s birthday, and my grandmother (his great-grandmother) died on my son’s birthday.

    It may all be coincidence and weird, but its true – and I don’t think I could get away with it in a book unless there was a curse involved…

  • My two best friends in the whole wide world are both named Lauren.

    And they’re roommates.

    ‘Nuff said 😀

  • Edmund, thanks for reinforcing that point. It all has to work, to be integral to plot and character and setting. Weird for weird’s sake won’t cut it.

    Widder, that is totally freaky. Yeah, I would have stayed in on that date in 2003, too. And I’d do it again in 2013…

    Roxanne, does Kat live in your town? Sounds like it. But yeah, keep 911 on speed dial…

    Razz, that is strange about the birthdays, and way weird about the lottery. Using this stuff in a book would be tough, but it could be fun, too.

    Lyn, we have one like that in our family, too. My grandmother (father’s side) died on my mother’s birthday. My mother died on the birthday of my brother’s wife. I figure it’s an in-law thing.

    Raven, having met all three of you, I can safely say that yours is the weirdest of all….

  • I’ll weigh in because it’s fun:
    When I was growing up, the local doctor’s surgery had 3 doctors: Michael Brown, Michael Browne and Michelle brown. None related, just all applied for the job. So the receptionist always asked: “The woman, the one with the beard or the one with glasses”

    My Dad moved to Melbourne, shortly afterward he met my mum who had moved to Melbourne from Perth.
    I moved to Melbourne, shortly afterward I met my wife who had moved to Melbourne from Perth.
    At my wedding, my mum found out that she went to high school with my father-in-law.
    I think I could get away with a doctor’s surgery with 3 doctors all named the same so long as that looked like it would lead to a case of mistaken identity only to end up not.

  • mudepoz

    My life is normally a weird melange of synchronicity and absurd. Not so much with names. Well, a lot of people know me as Mud, but that’s not so odd.
    I went to school with a Pete Maas. One of my good friends/colleagues/buppy people is named Kim. So is her husband.
    I discovered I was high school friends with this Kaelin dude who’s name changed from Brian to Kato. Now that was weird.

  • I thought the quote was attributable to Mark Twain and went this way: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

    I’ve occassionally mused on this as well: especially about the names of characters issue.

    In my current novel project I’ve got an important city that has has gone through three names through its history. The present name is just a linguistic drift from the previous name, but prior to that the name was changed to something dramatically different at the start of a new nation. Several cities have the same sort of history.

    But I’m too chicken to try to write a story with multiple same-named characters.

  • Also… I don’t have any amazing coincidences in my life at the moment… but my favorite historical example is the side-by-side comparison of the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations.

    The two were elected a century apart: 1860 and 1960. Both had a vice-president named Johnson (Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson). John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theater. Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy while Kennedy was riding in Lincoln Continental (manufactured by Ford) and Oswald was later arrested in a theater.

    There are a few other bizarre coincidences between the two. In reality just coincidence, but I’ve always imagined some cosmic link between the two… I just wouldn’t know how to put that into a story.

  • John, thanks for the stories. I love the medical practice. I think that could be a great short story, though I have no idea what I would do with it.

    Mud, I would think that with a name like yours, you would have lots of interesting name stories!! Thanks!

    Stephen, I think that Clancy was probably paraphrasing Twain, or maybe just coming to the same conclusion. I use that city name thing in the Southlands series. As you say, history is filled with examples of conquerors renaming cities. You should try the human name thing –it’s really not that scary. And yeah, the Kennedy-Lincoln thing always freaked me out.

  • TwilightHero

    (Inner math geek stirs after long slumber)

    Hmmm. This reminds me of the concept of randomness. That image of a field of dots in various clumps, clusters of two or three or four, and the lonely ones all on their own? Or the generation of incredibly long strings of numbers. It’s easy to forget that on a grand scale, meaningless connections are just as likely as no connections at all.

    I’ve got to admit, the idea of adding coincidences on purpose as part of the plot – ‘using things to my advantage’; I like that line =) – never occurred to me. Maybe I should try that sometime.

    As for my own weird coincidence…I have a middle-aged neighbor with the same name – first and last – as me. He was named for his father, who lived with him until he passed away a few years ago. For a while there we were the old one, the young one and the middle one…

  • Wayne McCalla

    A little bit here as well… I have two sisters Denise and Diana. My best friend has two sister-in-laws, Denise and Diane as well. Both Denises have/had a husband name Dan.

    Neighbors in New Orleans had daughter named Tracy who was dating a guy named Tracy. Both of his parents were both called Carol, Carole or Carroll.