Learning from NaNo: Placeholders

One of the biggest problems I’ve had with my attempt at participating in NaNo is how the emphasis on speed interferes with the ability to produce good names. Names are important to me, to the point where I can ignore the question on Mary Sue litmus tests about whether the name means something relevant because just about everyone has a meaningful name. But here I am, trying to get quantity rather than focus on precision, and usually doing my writing on the trolley or somewhere else where I can’t reach my name book, and these new characters just keep popping in.

Now, I’d sort of had this problem before, when running my game, but it came out as somewhat different. Part of it was that language family didn’t matter quite as much; the players spend a lot of time in a place which is an absolute linguistic melting pot (so I can just use one of the numerous names I decided sounded cool but never found a use for), and even when they’re not I can usually just string a few syllables together and call it a day, or find an excuse to not provide a name for the character in the first place (I’ve done this a few times when names were asked for). Part was that I knew the world better, so I felt more confident tossing names into the mix.

This story, though, was different; since I plan on publishing eventually, and for a number of other reasons having to do with my source material, I want it to at least look consistent. As a result, when I first reached the point where I needed to give someone who wasn’t either Natara or one of my viewpoint characters a name, I nearly stalled. I didn’t have a name for her, and since she was a foreigner by the standards of Khadijah et al., I needed to come up with a language family as well. In this case, I shrugged and left a blank spot, and as I continued scrawled in reasons why only one of the other characters introduced in this scene was going to get a name. In fact, the reluctance to give names turned into part of her characterization.

I soon found two problems with just leaving a blank. One, of course, was what happened when there were two unnamed characters in one scene; I got away with it the first time, because they played different enough roles, but when I later wrote Tabari listening to a debate between several of the people who’d served as his mentors, leaving blanks just confused me. The second was when I went from longhand to digital; just leaving blanks would give me more annoying colored underlines than I needed, and might run the risk of taking longer or missing sections entirely when I found or invented names for the characters and came back to replace them.

So when someone first mentioned the name of the country that the first unnamed character and her underlings came from, and I couldn’t come up with a name to just insert, I considered leaving it blank, but decided instead to refer to it as [That Country Over There], in brackets. (No, the benefits to my wordcount weren’t lost on me.) This soon spread itself to my other unnamed characters; I’d just give them a designation like [Teacher1] or the like, scrawl it somewhere so I’d know it was taken, and then do a find/replace when I got around to coming up with proper names. As an added bonus, it let me get to know them before naming them, something I’ve rarely gotten to do with new characters.

As for the names? The initial unnamed character and the other original blank received theirs. The latter became Kalev, not chosen so much for naming as because I felt I needed it quickly. On the other hand, the no-nonsense leader of the group sent to bring Natara back to their country became known as Yachne, “hospitable”. (I liked the irony, and I think it might be helping me push her into greater complexity. Eventually.)


  1. Shinali says:

    Ahh, yes, the fine art of placeholders!
    I lucked out tis year in that most of my secondary and tertiary characters are celestial objects, and while 2006 RJ103 is awkward, it is workable (and incidentally is itself a placeholder of sorts, just not by me. Most lesser-known celestial objects get such lovely, tidy names as “(50000) Quaoar I Weywot”)
    However, my prior NaNovels had that come up a lot. I actually had the library in my first one have over the door: “[City's current name municipal library with the word "memorial" in the name] with [city's former name municipal library] barely visible behind it” so yeah.
    Most of the time I just write some underscores and move on (like “We’ll call ___ later” or “Past the ___ AU mark”) but that’s not for missing names (unless it’s a one-off with no other descriptor like [the girl with glasses] or [the doctor]) that’s for when I can’t figure out who they’d call or can’t be bothered to google the distance from the sun to neptune.

  2. anarkeith says:

    My characters usually evolve from their names, so I can’t really be of help. However, it might be worth grabbing placeholders for related characters from related sources. That way they’re thematically linked and you can edit them more easily later. I recently used subway station names from Athens as a name-theme. They’re pretty cool names!

  3. Ravyn says:

    Shinali: Makes sense.

    Anarkeith: Mine usually do too; it’s part of what’s been making this one so difficult.

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