One thing about writing. You need to keep the product coming. A couple of years ago, while I was waiting on edits for The Yearning, I knew I needed to get my second novel underway. At that time I had about 30,000 untidy words down on a novel titled Saint. This unruly gathering was destined to become Being Jade, but not before it tortured me through several crises, one of them being the names of characters and the title.
Character names and titles are important. I want mine to be relevant, meaningful in some way and reflective of some aspect of the character or theme of the book. My initial title, Saint, captured what I thought the novel was going to be about. Banjo was painted as the good guy and his wife, Xanthea (pronounced Zan-thee-ah) the sinner. My idea was to question our definitions of saintliness as the novel evolved, particularly for women.
Why? Because when we think of a woman being a saint we automatically render her sexless, but Xanthea was hypersexual, which automatically precluded her from being a saint, no matter how ‘good’ a person she was. I wanted to contrast the conforming ‘goodness’ of Banjo, who refused to rock the boat, with the perceived ‘badness’ of Xanthea, as she defiantly fought for justice and fairness.
It’s not how it turned out. Just goes to show, what you think you’re writing may not be what you’re writing at all.
It soon became clear this novel wasn’t about saintliness, but something else. I began to oscillate about the title. I was a confused. What was this thing really about? My storyline got tangled up and I lost sight of the bigger picture. So toward the end of 2012 I booked into a plotting workshop with Toni Jordan at Writers Victoria in search of some clarity.
At that time my main characters were Banjo, Lissy, Sassy and Xanthea. In the workshop Toni’s questions pushed me to understand their motivations. What did each of my characters want? How did their goals intersect and obstruct each other? What were their flaws and how did they get in the way?
All day I wrestled with the realisation I didn’t know my own characters. I didn’t know what they wanted for themselves or from each other. I stretched and pushed and interrogated my vision of them until my head felt fit to burst. My storyline unravelled before my very eyes and for the first of many times to come, I wondered if I was up to this task. Second novel syndrome bit and it bit hard.
Before I left for the day Toni looked at me and said gently,
‘One more thing, Kate. Your character names. If they are too unusual or strange they can make it difficult for a reader to connect to them.’
I hesitated. She knew I was already struggling and this piece of advice might well be the one that would undo me.
‘Just think about it, okay?’
I nodded and went home feeling a both despondent and strangely illuminated. I understood the weaknesses in my story so much better after that workshop, but had no idea how to plug them up and make it work.
All the way home on the train I thought about what Toni said about my characters names and reflected on my feelings for them. I love my characters completely. COMPLETELY. Once they exist they travel with me everywhere. I talk to them and they talk back. Their names were flashes of insight, selected by the creative power. Questioning them felt strange. I knew the biggest problem woudl be Xanthea. It was a made up name, it didn’t exist anywhere. It just popped into my head and I took to it because it had a mythical ring to it.
And a little light bulb went off in my head.
Mythical was the problem. My characters were like little gods on the page. By giving them inaccessible names I was potentially making them inaccessible as people. They had evolved more as archetypes than human beings, which would make it difficult for readers to connect with them. I understood what Toni meant. If I was to write them convincingly I needed to make them more ordinary, more like people we might know, or could at least imagine.
Delighted that I’d discovered something I COULD do with my manuscript, I changed their names. Banjo became Mick, because that was as ordinary and likeable an Australian name as I could think of. Xanthea became Jade, because it in the sacred sexual practice of Taoism, the vagina is referred to as the ‘Jade Gate’ and the gem jade represents purity. And Sassy, which was short for Cassandra, became Cassandra or Cassy. I wanted to keep that name for her because her character was like the mythical Cassandra, holding the gift of prophecy and the curse of never being believed.
As soon as I changed the character names the characters opened up to me in an entirely different way. They deepened, their flaws emerged, as did their complexity. When I wrote from their point of view it worked. Except for Banjo. Banjo came to me fully formed (like Athena came from Zuess). He wasn’t Mick and when I tried to write him as Mick his personality changed. So I kept his name. Banjo suited him and it gave me the unconscious creative connection I needed to write him authentically.
At last I had a way into the story. Or so I thought until I started writing again. It was then I was confronted with the real and inevitable stumbling block. My protagonist, Banjo, was dead. And as I wrestled with the problems this scenario presented, the writing of “Saint for want of any other name” came to a screeching halt.
Next week – Journey to Jade: holding your nerve