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