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February 22, 2012

Katie Robison: Veni, Vidi, Vici

For me, the revision process invariably means slicing away superfluous text: words, sentences, even entire scenes. It can hurt to let things go, but tighter prose is worth the sacrifice.

While revising DOWNBURST, I learned that sometimes you also have to cut your characters.
My protagonist, Kit, has a habit of assigning people nicknames—a coping strategy for dealing with anxiety. Sometimes she chooses a name quickly, based on a person’s prominent characteristic (hair color, height, etc.), but often her epithets are more creative, like dubbing a leering doctor and his nightclub-going brother Dr. Heckle and Mr. Jive.

This quirk functions advantageously in a couple of ways. For one thing, it reveals some of the layers in Kit’s personality and clues the reader in to moments when she’s feeling uneasy. For another, it allows me as the author to provide a clearer narrative: the story is written in first-person, and when Kit is viewing a scene full of strangers, description can get really wordy really fast.
Early in the book, Kit is forced to go on a road trip (of sorts) with some other teenagers— originally, twelve people. Three of these were given the names Veni, Vidi, and Vici, from the famous phrase attributed to Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Veni was your average teenage boy who looked like he had just crawled out of bed and barely managed to show up on time (thus, “I came”). Vidi was a short girl with glasses (“I saw”), and Vici was a large, muscular fellow who looked like he played on the football team (“I conquered.”)

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While I thought these names were clever, they quickly proved problematic, for a number of reasons:
  1. The rationale behind the naming was hard to convey and therefore hard to understand, 
  2. Vici looked like he had a girl’s name (the fact that Latin v’s should be pronounced as w’s didn’t help), and
  3. it was difficult for my readers to differentiate among “all those V-words” with the result that they stopped caring about the characters altogether. In fact, it was hard to keep track of any of the teenagers. There were simply too many of them.
So I pulled out my scalpel and said goodbye to half of the kids, including Veni and Vidi. I kept Vici’s character, but I changed his name to Titan. It was simpler and catchier, and no one was going to mistake him for a girl.

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Strunk and White tell us, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.” To that, I would add that a book should contain no unnecessary characters—especially if they have confusing names!

Revising can certainly be painful, but clearing away excessive details will always make your text stronger. And when you see the end result, you’ll want to brandish your knife and shout, “I came, I saw, I conquered!”

Learn more about Katie Robison 

Read my full review.

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