Dodging Prison & Stealing Witches

Why did you do that thing with the girls in chapter 40?

Question from Chibifurby on Discord:

One thing that came to my mind when reading this new chapter (Chapter 40 of DP&SW), more of a literary question, when we were introduced to Clare and her friends it seemed like there was an effort to purposely leave out the names of the other girls at first. Which in my opinion is fine if their names are going to be introduced by someone else saying the name…but then a page down and the names are narrated as way of introduction. Nothing wrong, per say, with doing it like that. Just makes me wonder why bother with the excessive use of pronouns before their names were revealed.

Answer: There are several reasons why I wrote it the way I did. Let’s discuss three of them.

The first is, as @sfu alluded to, these three girls aren’t major characters. While they might well make a few more appearances, the story is never going to be about them.

The second is to ease the scene’s learning curve. We have four characters in this scene, three of whom are totally new, and one of whom is a recurring character making her first appearance in this book. Not being sure who is who for even one line would cause a scene like this to crash and burn quicker than anything you could imagine. All that follows is designed to help avoid this catastrophe.

Names Vs. Characters

Now, who a character is is quite different from what their name is. A name is an abstract identifier that has very little meaning outside of the context of a person. Introducing three names all at once and then expecting the reader to remember who’s who as they learn who the characters are is clanky and something I often rip on other writers for. By delaying giving each character a name, you can let the reader get a feel for who someone is before you ask them to learn that abstract identifier. It gives the reader something concrete to hook the name onto in their mind.

Also, by spacing out each name drop, we give each character a tiny section after we learn their name during which they are the focus. This further solidifies each character in the reader’s mind, allowing them to more easily distinguish who is who.

Ideally this character learning curve would be done over multiple scenes and chapters rather than in one scene. The closer you introduce characters to each other, the more difficult managing that learning curve is. Look at the expert and purposeful way JKR manages her characters in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone.

Character Learning Curve in Philosopher’s Stone

Chapter 1. Massive scene introducing the Dursleys then segue into introducing Mcgonagall and Dumbledore (Also foreshadow Voldemort).
Chapter 2. Harry Potter
Chapter 3. Mini adventure (effectively giving us a whole second chapter to learn about our protagonist)
Chapter 4. Hagrid and Voldemort
Chapter 5. Draco Malfoy (Briefly introduce Quirrell)
Chapter 6. Ron and Hermione
Chapter 7. Briefly introduce Snape
Chapter 8. Properly introduce Snape

That takes us to halfway through the book and all the major players are now in place. Think about that for a moment — in order to make sure we really knew who was who, JKR spaced out the introduction of the major characters over the whole first half of the first book.

Dialogue vs Narrative

Now, lets talk about delivery mechanisms for giving character names. To understand why I used narrative voice to do these info drops, you first have to understand what the effect that narrative has on the reader, as opposed to dialogue, and why you might want to use one over the other. One thing Narrative does is distance the reader emotionally from the scene. Dialogue on the other hand, draws the reader closer.

One of the purposes of the two Clare scenes in this chapter is to act as an emotional buffer between two far more serious scenes (Luna in hospital wing and Alexandra’s fight with Harry). These Clare scenes are here—in part—to give the reader an emotional rest. Thus they are filled with light hearted narrative, similes, metaphors, and jokes. This gives us license to do things we might not otherwise do. Having said that, it’s important that the reader stays engaged. Lets look at how the scene in question plays out.

We are first introduced to three girls, in order — the first, the second, and the third. Each one receives characterisation and the reader is forced to remember who is who by that characterisation as well as by their temporary names, which at the moment are also the order they were introduced in — First Girl, Second Girl, and Third Girl. Order is far less abstract than names, so our brains hold on to this information more effectively.

Later on, once we’ve learned a bit about the girls, comes the first name drop

The second girl gave her a weak smile. “Must be nice having an older boyfriend. I don’t think I’m pretty enough for the portkey port.”
“Oh, Jane, no! You’re beautiful!” said the first girl. She was the kind of person who believes that true beauty is a function of confidence and that everyone would be a lot happier if they just believed in themselves. After all, she went out without make-up or properly done-up hair all the time and boys still tripped over themselves to please her.

Here we see the first of the three girls names being dropped in dialogue, bringing the reader closer, with a highly emotional sentence. That high emotional sentence then sustains the reader through the following, rather long narrative paragraph, before being rewarded with a joke.

Now, I could have also introduced the first girl’s name here with narrative, but we’d only just learned Jane’s name, so instead we let the scene move on a bit, leaving just the first girl and the third girl unnamed.

Eventually, after Jane snarls at the first girl, we come to the first girl’s name drop. By this point, we know both Jane and the first girl reasonably well and there’s really no point in holding off on her name any more. However, there also isn’t any good moment to drop her name in dialogue without it sounding contrived. If this were a deep POV scene, this would be a problem, but because we’re already making liberal use of narrative to pull the reader back from the emotion of the previous scenes, there’s no problem in simply dropping said name in with narrative.

Jane took the magazine and started reading with the intensity of a blowtorch channeling fiendfyre.
“I suppose it can’t hurt,” The first girl finally conceded. Her name was Sarah and she’d been the de facto leader of most of the girls in her year group since they’d first been introduced to the magical world six years ago.

The third girl doesn’t get nearly as much characterisation as the Sarah and Jane get, but since we’ve given the first two girls names, we’re pretty much obliged to give her name as well. So we wait for a bit to let the reader solidify Sarah’s name with her character, find an opportune moment, and drop her name as well.

“I’ve heard rumours about dark magic,” said the girl with the older boyfriend. Her name was Henrietta. She looked around the room before lowering her voice to match Sarah’s whisper. “I’ve heard there’s a spell that completely locks up your body so you can’t move even a muscle. You can still see and hear and everything, but you can’t do anything else.”

And then, after a few paragraphs with Henrietta as the focus, the reader is now fully understanding who is who and we can carry on as we want. Now, all this isn’t to try and get the reader to remember who these three girls are forever. That would take a lot more effort. All this is merely to ensure that the reader understands who’s who within that one scene.

Dialogue Isn’t a World Building Panacea

There’s also a third point behind using narrative rather than relying only on dialogue. Names in dialogue are like speed bumps. People do use them, but they have a time and place, and we know that. Because of this, there simply aren’t that many opportunities in natural speech to use someone’s name without sounding awkward. Of course, as writers we can shoehorn them in, but we have to be aware that intelligent readers will know what we’re doing. They can see it. They’ll read that line of dialogue and think. “Ah, that character used that other character’s name right then because the author needed to let me know what their name is. Not because they’d normally actually say that.” That tiny thought can badly break flow, even worse than using narrative, especially if you’re introducing a lot of names at once, like we are here.

Of course, the flip side can also be true. Some readers, for example, have been beaten over the head that ‘showing’ is always preferable to ‘telling.’ This is a general truism that almost every writing school teaches with the subtly of a brick thrown through a window. The reality is often rather more complex than that, and there comes a point in a writer’s craft when ‘show don’t tell’ ceases to be useful advice on its own. However, this doesn’t change the fact that many people believe it to be true, and when they see something that they know could be shown rather than told it flags their internal editor and takes them out of the story.

Some fights simply can’t be won one-hundred percent of the time 🙂

Again, I’ll say that if I were only introducing one character in this scene, I likely wouldn’t bother with this whole pronoun dance thing. I’d just drop the name near the start through dialogue, narrative, or even description, and build the character from there.

I’m Still Learning

And finally, I’ll remind you that I’m still very much a journeyman, not a master. I’ve no doubt that in a few years I’ll be able to handle such a scene with far more grace than I did this one. This was simply my best current attempt to handle what is quite a tricky scene to pull off.

– J.M. Coombs (LeadVonE)