Naming the nameless

ON THE PROTAGONIST OF PRIVATEER

She was a character that I’d mused over for… well, years, actually. She went unnamed all that time, but I knew exactly what she looked like, how she sounded, and how she thought. I wanted to use her, but somehow, I could never come up with a storyline worthy of her presence.

(Yes, I’m obscenely superior about these things. No, I pretty much can’t stand myself either.)

I saw her as a sort of mash-up of Keira Knightley‘s body and Winona Ryder‘s face. She was strong, dynamic, commanding, and beautiful in a fiery sense. She had few morals, but would go to the ends of earth for the few things she cared about.

I’d been toying with the idea of writing a pirate story ever since I read Jade Parker’s To Catch A Pirate after it was published in 2007 (making me… a high school sophomore?). This book had me captivated by the idea of a life of freedom at sea. There’s something intensely romantic about a pirate, don’t you think? I probably need to adjust my priorities…

For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to place my poor, unused character into the midst swashbuckling buccaneers until this past summer. I was (unfortunately) watching the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie—you know, the one WITHOUT the main characters in it? *bitter, bitter, bitter*—and as I was watching the woman pirate played by actress Penelope Cruz, I said to myself, “Self, this is an absolutely crap-tastic character. Self, even you could write her better.”

So I went home, and I did precisely that in the only way I knew how; I whipped out my unused character, and stuck her right into the heart of the open seas.

And she fit there perfectly.

But it was harder to write her than I thought it was going to be. She’d been wonderfully complete in my mind, but as soon as she hit the paper, she came alive in exactly the ways I’d never planned—she was ornery and rather tragic, with a dark past and a dark future. I kept struggling to make her readable. I didn’t want readers to veer away from her; I created her, and she was even repelling me. It was so frustrating to see that on paper, she had none of the qualities that made her so appealing in my head. She became fiercely brash and overbearing, and nothing like the character I’d so carefully constructed years ago.

For the first few chapters, I didn’t name her. I couldn’t choose a name for her, afraid that I’d confine her by giving her a single label. *Side-note: I have this thing with names… I literally go to BabyNames.com and read through their lists every single time I name a character. And as a rule, I never name a character until I’ve established who they are on the page.

But this time, I named her and stopped writing the story for a month or so. I named her and dared her to contradict me. And thank God she didn’t, because I’d probably love her anyway.

Charmaine [shar-MAYN]: Origin—English. Meaning—”Charm.”

Allow me to introduce you.

—Samantha Chaffin

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6 thoughts on “Naming the nameless

  1. TheJaneite says:

    So here’s the comment where it’s supposed to go. 🙂
    Oh my gosh, your non-fiction writing style is so much fun to read! I LOVE reading about your writing process. I’m in one sense the opposite when it comes to names- I, too, spend ages on BabyNames.com trying to find the perfect one if I’ve thought of a character, but usually it happens the other way around, and I fall in love with a name that NEEDS a character to wear it! Like Valen….and Waverly….I’m still trying to find characters for those. 🙂 Perhaps that’s why a lot of my heroines seem a bit flat to me. :/ Anyway, it is lovely to hear about Charmaine’s origins. I am so very pleased you’ve continued with her even after her somewhat repulsive, was it? start. Annnnddd….I can’t wait for more. No, your priorities are not messed up, unless mine are too: Pirates are deliciously romantic. 🙂 And I haven’t seen Pirates 4, but I got that feeling from Penelope Cruz’ character as well.
    Ah yes, that is very much what I pictured Charmaine like, though I was thinking long hair. I actually have this weird thing about my characters (heroines) cutting their hair really short…it’s weird. I set myself not to do it to Evangeline, though. 🙂
    Oh, and this is Lydia Albano, by the way- you see how I creep on you? 😉

  2. samchaffin says:

    Hi Lydia! 🙂 Don’t worry, we kind of creep on each other (I’m writing all over your blog, fyi); I’ve mentally dubbed you as my sort of creative-writing-pen-pal. And I love that you’re so invested in Privateer! It makes me feel way less weird about being Esmeralda-obsessive.

    The naming thing makes sense. In fact, I know a lot of people who prefer to do it that way. In any case, BabyNames.com is a brilliant invention. Haha and I expect to be seeing Valen and Waverly appear in a story of yours sometime soon, miss!

    Yeeeah… Don’t see Pirates 4.

    And I know… even though I’ve been trying to continually mention that Charmaine has lopped-off hair throughout my chapters, I can see how someone might think of her as a woman with long silky tresses. The cover is probably misleading. 😉 You understand a writer’s partiality to her own characters, but if I may say so, I’ve always thought that there’s still something distinctly and beautifully feminine about Charmaine, even though she keeps denying it—maybe it’s how physically LITTLE she is or the way she never thinks of herself as pretty but other people seem to see it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the image of long hair can be decidedly feminine, so if Charmaine is secretly super-womanly, long hair might be naturally associated with her character. Don’t know if that actually makes any sense, but it sounded semi-logical in my head… right? Right.

  3. TheJaneite says:

    Oh good! I didn’t know if it was creepy that I thought of you the same way, as my writing-pal. 🙂 So you write plays?!?! That is THE single coolest thing ever. Are you ever thinking of posting any? (No pressure, but….do it.)
    Haha no I just don’t want you to feel creeped out that I comment every time you post and yeah, now I’m subscribed to this, and well…I just really admire you. 🙂 And plus you’re extremely amusing to read.

    Oh, Waverly and Valen’ll show up eventually. Count on it. 🙂 I can’t bear to let a name swim around too long in my head. And since I am so often (to my chagrin and everlasting shame) beginning stories that I don’t finish for years, I’ll find them each a place. 🙂

    Okay, so no to Pirates 4. *checks off imaginary checklist*

    Yes, that totally makes sense!! (This is why writers should stick together; we get each others’ ramblings.) I love what you said, and I totally got it from her- not that you said anything, just….I don’t know, I feel like somewhere in Charmaine is a girl, and it probably only shows itself so far in regards to Kitty, which is also the time when she gets the most protective. I just….I really, really love her as a heroine. I love how she’s so complex and yet so understandable at the same time. You have no idea what an excellent job you’ve done. I think I have a good idea of her as a person, but I am so looking forward to you developing her further! And alrighty, now I’ve got the short hair image. 😉

  4. C.L. says:

    “But it was harder to write her than I thought it was going to be. She’d been wonderfully complete in my mind, but as soon as she hit the paper, she came alive in exactly the ways I’d never planned—she was ornery and rather tragic, with a dark past and a dark future. I kept struggling to make her readable. I didn’t want readers to veer away from her; I created her, and she was even repelling me. It was so frustrating to see that on paper, she had none of the qualities that made her so appealing in my head. She became fiercely brash and overbearing, and nothing like the character I’d so carefully constructed years ago.”

    I’ve been having this exact problem with one of my characters for a year now! This is a great post!

    • samchaffin says:

      Thanks, C.L.! 🙂 I’m so glad you liked it and that you can relate! Stubborn characters are definitely a pain, sometimes, but we shall be victorious, eventually!

      On another note, wow, this post was from a while ago. Having one of those “did-I-really-write-this-God-I-am-so-weird” moments.

      • C.L. says:

        Ha ha! Not a problem. 🙂

        Yeah, I like reading blogs from the beginning. I like seeing where people have been and where they’ve gone. 🙂

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