Naming Characters: A Few Do’s, A Few Don’ts

I’ve just set out on the mission to rewrite #rockstarnovel, and in comparing names in the full first draft to some changes I made in the partial (unsuccessful, abandoned) rewrite draft I attempted, I’m wondering what I was thinking.

Two names got changed literally because the originals weren’t conducive to creating a memorable or useful ship name. No, that’s not vanity on my part as an author, hoping for fandom shipping. The characters are rock stars, and at one point they do something eminently shippable on stage. Social media goes nuts over it, thus, they need a good ship name.

But then, I changed another band member’s name, for no apparent reason, while leaving the other three of the principal cast untouched.

And even more strangely, if I changed the name to avoid having two characters start with the same letter of the alphabet, when I changed the name it still started with the same letter as another character’s name? Neither pair are so similar I think it would be confusing to a reader, but I still try to avoid that most of the time.

Name frustration in my reading doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it drives me batty. In a series of several romance novels I read, several main characters had incredibly similar names, to the point where I would legitimately confuse them. There was a Piper, and a Tyler, and they were different genders so that wasn’t so bad. But then came Tucker, who was friends with Tyler, and they were both men. Can I be blamed for getting T—er and T–er confused as I read? I don’t think so.

So that author had a preference for -er names that stuck out, but it’s more common that I get inundated with names that begin with the same letter, or sound too similar when spoken. In What We Need to Survive, the character Mark was actually named “Will” for a while, but in reading it out loud to myself during the editing stages, I thought it sounded too much like the main character’s name, Paul. Two male four-letter names that end with “L.” So I changed it. (Actually an astute reader pointed out to me that in the first paperbacks, I missed a single instance of that name change, and he was like, “Wait, who’s Will?” I fixed it the same day.)

All of this leads to my rough (and adaptable) hierarchy for choosing names that won’t confuse your readers.

1. If you’re writing fantasy in any form, you might be making up a lot of your names to suit your world and any language you might or might not be constructing to go with it. Either you’re putting in the work on your own, or you’re helping yourself out with name generators. Good luck, and feel free to ignore any of the rest of this list that doesn’t apply, because I’m concentrating on existing names in the real world.

2. Start with any names that need to have a particular meaning, are in a foreign language to the one you’re writing in, need to match a certain historical period, etc. Put your research in for that as necessary: as an example from my own work, in #spookyromancenovel, my hero is a Japanese-American, and I wanted a good last name that had some relevance to the story, so I chose Ishikawa, because “ishi” means “stone.” And the point of the story is to save him from being transformed by a curse into a gargoyle. Now, I didn’t stretch myself too much to make this too cute–Ishikawa is a reasonably common Japanese surname, and the other half, “kawa” for “river”, isn’t of any particular importance. And his first name, Noah, is one that I randomly chose before I’d even decided on his heritage, and no, it’s not a Biblical reference, it’s just a name I liked enough at the time to pick, and it stuck.

3. Once you’ve got those names chosen, you’ve probably still got some unnamed characters. For the sake of your readers, choose names dissimilar from the ones you’ve already set. If your main character’s name is Bob, don’t name his best friend Ben (same number of letters, same first letter) or Rob (avoid rhyming names!) If your heroine is Melissa, her coworker shouldn’t be Melanie (same first syllable) or Alyssa (not quite rhyming but really close.) Now, to some extent within families, siblings can have similar names if their parents do that to them–I knew a family of nine kids when I was growing up and all of them, boys and girls alike, had “J” names–but if you’re going to do that sort of thing deliberately, then there should be a story reason, and you should still do whatever you can to make those somewhat-similar names distinct from each other in whatever way you can.

4. Yes, in real life, friend groups and sets of coworkers and what not are going to have doubles (or more) of the same name. There were eleven Elizabeths in my freshman class at college, and most of them went by “Liz” and two of them were assigned to each other as roommates, which we all thought was cruel of the housing department. I dated two guys with the same given name in a row, once, though fortunately for me the second one went by a nickname; and that was the same name of my biggest junior-high crush, who I never actually dated. No, I don’t have a thing for men named that, it’s just really common! So if you want to reflect this sort of commonality in your work (which you absolutely don’t have to) you can get around the potential for confusion by having doubles that include an important character and a minor or offscreen one (“Yeah, I’m Brandon, and so is the head of my department at work and the guy who makes me my coffee at Starbucks every morning”) or by having two major characters with the same name go by different nicknames (Cathy or Kate for Catherine, for example–derived from the same source but quite different.) Though if you’re going to do that, you are drawing attention to their names in a way that might seem silly if the story doesn’t require it in some way.

5. One last note: we all have names that, for whatever reason, we don’t like. Either because of some past association with a person of that name, or you don’t like the way it sounds, or whatever. But you can use that to fuel your mood when you’re writing a character you don’t want your readers to like. Not that they’ll have the same association with the name that you do–that’s not likely at all–but the feelings you have in writing a character with a name you find distasteful will (probably) seep into your writing about them, and your audience will pick up on that. So “bad” names aren’t always bad, if you use them to your advantage.

I think that’s everything. I hope that’s everything. It’s a lot, and as always with any writing advice (whether from me or other sources) it might not all apply to your style in general or any given project you’re working on. Absorbing and using writing advice is always a synthesis of what you already do and what you want to try–some of which might not work for you.

Essential Skills for Writers: Reading Critically

Story time: I have a post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder since July 2017. I last added to it in February 2019. Its working title: “If You’re a Writer, Read These Books.” I started it when I read The Poisonwood Bible, and it seemed like a thing everyone could learn from. Whenever a book or series struck me as having something particularly strong about it, from a writerly perspective, especially if it was rare in my experience, I put it on the list.

The problem was that it took me almost two years to come up with three entries for it, and I never actually wrote the whole post. Here are my notes, which for posterity’s sake I have not altered at all:

The Poisonwood Bible: this is how to juggle five (!) different first-person narrators with profoundly different character voices. Not necessarily the best for pacing, but you can always tell who’s telling you their story by the word choice and tone of the narrative.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Using show don’t tell to define the main character, who hardly ever speaks. Clear characterization through reaction to other people.

Graceling Realm and/or MaddAddam series: multibook “trilogy” structure doesn’t have to be chronological if you plan carefully for it

But I never wrote that post, and now I never will. I’m going to write this one instead.

It’s not my job as a writer to tell you which books to read to get better; it’s your job to learn from the books you choose to read.

So when I say “read critically” in this context, I don’t mean “read like you’re going to trash the book in a review.” I have definitely learned a great deal from committing to reviewing every book I read, but a) that’s a lot of work; b) reviews are generally for sharing and not everyone wants to share their thoughts; and c) you’re not necessarily going to pick up a new tidbit of learning from every book you read. I’ve read four books so far this year, but I’m only going to mention three of them.

So what did I learn from…

Full Dark, No Stars? This doesn’t apply to me directly, as I write novels and not short fiction, but I definitely find anthologies more enjoyable when a theme connects all the individual stories somehow. I saw this before, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness–those novellas had a strong central theme. On the flip side, it’s why I found Ray Bradbury’s The October Country relatively hit-or-miss, for example, despite loving his work in general. If I ever do write short fiction again (I did a lot of stories and poems in high school and college, not so much since) I will put together collections that “go” together, rather than a random sampling.

Sunshine? This one hit close to home, because the most pressing issue I had with it was something I struggled with myself in the first draft of #spookyromancenovel: overindulgence in world-building. In Sunshine the title character will go on pages-long tangents about interesting but ultimately obscure facts about her world; in the NaNoWriMo-fueled race to finish #srn’s first draft, I did exactly the same thing. If a thing was interesting and I had thoughts about it, I wrote about it, even if it broke the scene into pieces. Perfectly fine for a first draft! But in Sunshine it got to print that way, and while I enjoyed the book, I consider that its biggest flaw. In #srn’s second draft, I cut as much world-building as possible based on relevance, shortened the rest, and left copious questions for my beta readers at the end of each chapter begging them to tell me where it was too much and where they had questions.

Autonomous? This gave me an even stronger example of not seeing the forest for the trees–as hard sci-fi this was so focused on building the tech of its world that it left hanging a huge number of questions I had about the societal and political structure that created the setting for this story. While its over-indulgence in world-building did mess up the pacing too, it was more that I felt like I was getting to examine this new world through a microscope but never being allowed to look out a window. The bigger picture just wasn’t there.

If I boil this down to writing advice snippets for consumability:

  1. Central themes can enrich and connect the various stories in anthologies.
  2. Over-indulgence in world-building details can bog down the pacing of a novel.
  3. Consider the scale of your world-building; don’t focus strictly on the micro and ignore the macro (or vice versa.)

Have I seen this advice floating around before? #1 and #2, yes, definitely. I don’t really think I’ve seen anyone address #3 in any great depth (not saying it doesn’t exist, only that I haven’t been exposed to it.) But even if I knew the first two bits of advice already, finding them illustrated so clearly in my reading drives them home more than just reading an article someone else wrote about those bits of advice. And “discovering” #3 for myself is even more powerful.

This advice applies equally to positive and negative aspects of your reading–admire and emulate the things you find successful, even if the scale is too ambitious: I wouldn’t tackle five first-person narrators in one go, but I could use my experience with The Poisonwood Bible to help me craft two or maybe three distinct personalities. And avoid or minimize in your own work the things you don’t like in what you read. Which seems an obvious conclusion when stated so clearly, but the how of getting there is the important part.

Let’s Talk about Tropes #11: The Character in the Fridge

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I just watched the first episode of The Boys this week.

I have not read the comics, but I’m loosely familiar with Garth Ennis’ style from Preacher; I’ve read the first volume and intend to read the rest, and I watched the first season of the adaptation but lost track of it amidst the ninety million other shows to watch and haven’t continued. I know what kind of headspace his work creates, how gory, brutal, disturbing, and darkly humorous it can be.

I was also forewarned by both my husband (who has read the source material) and a good friend (who binged the entire show before I started) that this story is intended, in basically every way possible, to be upsetting and make the reader/viewer uncomfortable.

Brilliant success, there.

A lot of seemingly good people in this story do a lot of horrible things, but it’s the inciting incident that sets the tone, that grabs you by the stomach and makes you want to puke. So, obligatory warning, spoilers below for the first episode of The Boys.

On the surface, I was thoroughly disgusted by Robin’s death. It’s gore on a level I rarely see, for starters, with the slow-motion blood-drenching. When the camera pans down to show Hughie still holding her dismembered hands, I felt actively sick. And then, as I had time to absorb the implications of what happened, I was sickened by the apparently poor choice of having the white protagonist’s girlfriend be a woman of color and immediately get killed, because that’s a good look. (That being said, I don’t know what her ethnicity was in the source material, and I’m generally pro “colorblind” casting, it never bothers me if a canonically white character is cast as non-white, unless it creates other racially charged issues, as it may have done here. Or may not have.)

And, on a meta level, we all know fridging characters is bad, right? Especially when it’s a woman, especially to spur on the story of a male protagonist.

Yet, here, that’s actually the entire point.

As I watched the rest of the episode and saw that fridging a character was only the very tip of this horrible, horrible iceberg, I realized Robin’s death is emblematic of all the collateral damage the Seven, and superheroes in general, have caused, and that the story probably couldn’t have started any other way. What else would have caused Hughie, slightly neurotic and generally Everyman as he is, to take on the most powerful cadre of superheroes in the world? What else would have so gripped and angered the readers/viewers with its senselessness, its casual cruelty (especially after A-Train’s later scene, joking about Robin’s death,) and the combination of its horror in the moment, and discovering the horror of how very commonplace similar incidents have been?

I spend a lot of time and word count talking about tropes and how not to use them, how to avoid the common pitfalls involved, and before watching The Boys I probably would have said it’s impossible to fridge a character to good purpose. I would have been wrong. Ennis takes the laziness out of this trope by using it quite deliberately to evoke the expected reaction for his own story goals; proof that even the most overused tropes, the ones we consider the worst, the laziest, the least useful, still have their place when carefully thought out.

Let’s Talk About Tropes #10: There Was Only One Bed

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First of all, a quick apology: somehow I neglected the Tropes series for over a year? I really didn’t feel like #9 was that long ago. Also, in checking over past subject matter to make sure I didn’t repeat myself, I discovered that the title format changed partway through, because I’m not great at consistency when I’m juggling this many projects, apparently. I’m making a category for them so they’re all available in one place if you want to catch up.

Now, about the beds. What do you do when you need to up the romantic or sexual tension between a couple? One answer is to put them in any situation where there’s only one bed to share. They could be traveling together and there’s a mix-up with their hotel, or they didn’t have a hotel to begin with and they’re pulling over into some cheap place that only has one room left, and guess what–there’s only one bed.

I love this trope, and I hate it. It can be handled well (anything can!) but there’s so many easy traps to fall into, so many assumptions made by the creators who use it.

1. In mass media, this trope is entirely heteronormative. “Oh no, a boy and a girl might have to share a bed! What will happen next?!?” But on one hand, not all boys are attracted to girls, and vice versa. This trope is pulled out to put the not-couple in a questionable situation where we can assume hanky-panky might ensue. But where are the subversions where it’s no big deal because the guy isn’t into women (or the reverse, of course?) Why doesn’t this ever get paired up with the gay best friend trope? (Not that that isn’t a problematic one, too, but that’s for another post.)

2. On the other hand, why doesn’t “one bed” every raise any alarm bells for same-gender pairs? In high school, I went on a trip to Toronto to see The Phantom of the Opera as a part of the National Honor Society. Obviously all the hotel rooms were segregated by gender, so I was sharing a room with two queen beds in it with three other girls. I drew the short straw and had to sleep beside a girl I barely knew, whose first name I think I remember but last name, no clue. (To be fair, this was just over twenty years ago.) Why didn’t that raise any concerns to any adults? What if that girl was a lesbian? What if I was? (I identified as straight at the time, now I know I’m bisexual. I didn’t start anything with that girl or either of the other two in the room–but if I’d been a boy, all hands on deck, it’s a nightmare!) If a boy and a girl are in danger of having sex with each other simply because there’s only one bed, why not two boys? Why not two girls? Why not two of anybody, regardless of gender identity?

3. Which brings me to the third problem. Yes, the trope is generally trotted out to be specifically about sex, to create the will-they-won’t-they tension. But that only reinforces negative stereotypes about men/boys and predatory sexuality. Why can’t two people share a bed without sex being a specter hovering over the situation? Why do we assume the men/boys won’t be able to control themselves and take advantage (or try to take advantage of) the women/girls? A) Why can’t it be the girls lusting after the boys; or B) why can’t these two just act like rational human beings and understand that sleeping in the same bed doesn’t mean sex is happening? (It’s sort of forgivable when we’re talking teenagers who don’t have the life experience, necessarily, to make good/safe choices, but when I’m reading an adult romance novel that falls into this trap, I usually walk away disappointed. Men aren’t hormone-driven chauvinist pigs, and when they are, they shouldn’t be the hero of the story!)

That isn’t to say that two people can’t be uncomfortable with sharing a bed, ever, at all. If one person (character) has personal space issues; if they have real reason not to trust the other (though this brings up the larger issue of whether or not the two of them can even share the room at all, let alone the bed;) if one admits to being a total cover hog, or a tendency to toss and turn, or anything else that might make the other person uncomfortable sharing a bed with them. There’s no reason not to be considerate, after all.

And this isn’t me, O Great Author Elena Who Knows Everything About Everything, telling you not to ever use this trope. (/sarcasm) It’s popular for a reason. It’s a back bone of fan fic, especially alternate-universe fic, everywhere, and since I don’t read a lot of that these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if the more progressive fic authors are already dismantling the classic trope in the ways I’ve taken issue with. (And probably a few ways I haven’t even considered yet.) As with all my Tropes posts, I’m asking you to consider why you’re writing a character or situation the way you are, and if there’s a way you could break free of the same old patterns everyone else uses. And if you choose to follow the pattern, if you’re doing so deliberately, that’s fine. Just take the time to examine the tropes you use and make sure you’re not writing them out of laziness, and you’ll be fine.

 

Writing Homework #20: Create a Style Sheet

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With my rewrite for #spookyromancenovel entering the home stretch, I’ve been thinking increasingly about the future line-editing stage and what I can do to make it easier on myself.

Looming large in my list of regrets from previous novels is the fact that I never made a style sheet.

From Romance Refined: “A manuscript style sheet is a critical tool for authors, editors, and proofreaders to use for ensuring consistency within a single manuscript or across a series. Traditionally, a copy editor creates a style sheet as they edit, and they pass that style sheet to the proofreader so they can adhere to the same conventions.

I’ve nudged at the edges of this topic before, but never covered it completely, so here goes.

In a traditional author-publisher setup, the style sheet, as described above, isn’t something you’d generate yourself, since you’re not your own editor. However, for independent authors who, whether by choice or necessity, do some or all of their own editing, this is going to save you time and stress throughout the editing process. And, of course, even most traditionally published authors spend a lot of time polishing their manuscripts before sending them in, so it’s not a bad idea to work up a personal one to ensure your submission is as clean and shiny as you can make it.

So what goes on a style sheet? Anything that will help you provide consistency in tone and appearance throughout your work.

That’s vague, but some of it will depend on your writing style and the project itself. I can give you some good places to start, however, based on my own experience:

  1. Any word or phrase where you choose your preferred usage. I covered this in my post on multiple accepted spellings. If you have to decide between two or more options, make a note of which you choose, so you’re not like me, looking it up again later, or worse, doing a Ctrl+F in your first book’s file to hunt down what you decided when you need to refer to it again in book three.
  2. Any word or phrase you’re deliberately avoiding. Not to be conflated or confused with filter words; let me explain. The best example I have from my own reading is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Universe series. In it, she never uses the word “thing” to refer to an object, situation, or concept–“Thing” is reserved for use in the Viking/Icelandic sense of a governmental meeting. The base culture of her alternate-history fantasy is French, and simply doesn’t have that word as we use it in modern English. If that seems like a pretty big ask for an author, it is; “thing” shows up on overused-word lists all the time. But your “do not use” word list doesn’t have to include anything so fundamental or pervasive–in fact, you might not start out with any prohibited words at all.
  3. Anything that defines character voice. For this, an example from my own works. In the What We Need series, Paul starts his sentences with “Well,” a lot. In the early drafts of What We Need to Survive, that wasn’t specific to him; during edits, I eliminated it from other characters to clean up the dialogue overall while giving him a more pronounced vocal style. I kept this up until book three, when, through long exposure, Nina has unconsciously picked up this tic and uses it occasionally.
  4. How you handle ellipses. Three periods with no spaces? With spaces between? Are there spaces before and after, or not? I’ve read various articles debating the truly “correct” form for ellipses, but I’ve seen several ways of handling them across published works, so there’s still probably an element of choice, at least if you’re an indie author. Note down whatever you decide on.
  5. Any special punctuation or formatting guidelines stylistically unique to your project. I’ve seen books that italicize internal monologue (common) but plenty that don’t, leaving it in plain text like so: “She thought, I don’t want to be here right now.” I’ve seen books that use alternate characters in place of quotation marks when the characters are using telepathy to communicate, like so: *This is stupid,* she thought at him. (Granted, that was ages ago when I was a kid, but I remember it, because it was so strange.) A much more modern issue–how do you format conversations via text? I just read a book that uses actual text bubble images, to make it look authentic, but in plenty of other works I’ve seen it handled exactly like dialogue, only the tags or context around it mentions it’s a text message; I’ve seen texted conversation formatted in bold, both with and without quotation marks; I’ve seen italics as well, though less commonly, since (as above) many authors use that for internal dialogue and don’t want to confuse the reader by making italics perform double duty.

What all of these examples boil down to is essentially this: if you have to make a decision about how you want something to be handled in your manuscript, then it probably needs to go on your style sheet so that a) you remember what you chose down the line, whether you’re coming back to the project after a break, or writing a long-running series; and b) during the editing process you can make certain your style is consistent.

As you continue to write, you might find yourself splitting your style sheet into a master sheet and a project-specific sheet would be helpful. You’re not that likely to want to change how you handle ellipses, but anything character-specific won’t transfer between projects that don’t have the same characters. This leads me to my last piece of advice: label and DATE your style sheets so that you know what they are and when you created them. Your style might evolve over time; you might decide there’s a better way to do something in your next book. That’s fine. But you wouldn’t want to refer to an outdated style sheet for a new project, in that case, and with the amount of note files and draft versions and other associated digital junk that can accumulate around even a single book project, a style sheet is something you wouldn’t want to go missing or use incorrectly, when its entire purpose is to make your writing better.

Writing Resources: 4thewords

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Last month, I described my early experience with 750words, which I’d been introduced to via social media. I was using the 30-day free trial, and I had many good things to say about it.

I’m not retracting any of it, but I’m also not using it anymore, because a week later, my Tumblr dashboard one-upped itself by throwing 4thewords at me instead.

4TW is a true gamification site for writing, with quests to undertake and monsters to “fight” and rewards to earn. For that, I already like it better than 750words. What’s more, though, it provides a better interface for organization, as shown above by my #spookyromancenovel project. Customizable goal/deadline combos; individual files to write on, rather than “days” on 750words, which are not editable after the day is over; the ability to add a book cover; total word count and total time spent writing.

I’m sure I haven’t even figured out all of its features in the almost-two-weeks I’ve been using it.

Also, I didn’t fudge those numbers. As of last night, I really have (re)written 33K of my novel in 12 days.

Gamification like this heavily relies on the “just one more” principle. Getting started is still mostly up to your own executive function–there are rewards for maintaining a daily streak, of course, but you still have to do the work of sitting down to write. And the daily word count necessary to maintain the streak is minimal–a mere 444 words.

But once you get started, it’s easy to say, okay, I’m going to finish this quest today. And when you do, you realize you only need one more item to finish a different quest, so you fight a creature that drops that item. Then you see you’re only 500 words away from finishing another quest, so you pound that out.

And so on.

If 750words boosted my productivity by existing, then 4TW boosts it more by being reward-driven, turning the worst parts of inhumane game design (I’m looking at you, Skinner boxes and lack of reasonable exit points) on their ears, incentivizing writing instead of pointless in-game tasks designed to keep you playing longer.

(Yeah, I’m bitter, I played World of Warcraft for years after it stopped being more fun than not. Investment’s a bitch like that.)

As I said, and will repeat, I’m not walking back anything good I said about 750words. Those analytics were cool and helpful, and I’ll miss the word clouds. But it’s designed primarily for daily journaling, while 4TW is designed for writing, and it shows in the features and mechanics.

(Also, it should be noted: while I haven’t yet paid for subscription time on either site, 750words is $5/month, while 4TW is only $4, and apparently it’s possible to redeem in-game currency to lower that cost. I don’t know precisely how that works yet, but from a writer’s standpoint, I feel that 4TW provides more value.)

When I ended my post on 750words, I said that I would continue the free trial and decide if I would subscribe. I did not–I switched to 4TW after two days of using them both concurrently. And I will be subscribing to it when my free trial is over.

Dialogue Prompts: #spookyromancenovel Edition

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I am deep in the throes of rewriting #spookyromancenovel, and I am coming across some real gems, some honestly golden nuggets of dialogue in the midst of all the crap I’ve got to change, polish up, or cut completely.

Bonus: out of context, some of them are ridiculous! My favorite kind of writing prompt!

So have fun with these. Technically since they’re from my own work which I intend to publish, I should tell you to change them a little so as not to infringe on my copyright, yada yada, but a) you’re not stealing scenes or story ideas from me since they’re single lines, and b) I’m offering them for prompt purposes.

On top of that, the entire first half of the rough draft came entirely from writing prompts I was given during #fictober18. So it’s time I give some of that love back. Go nuts!

  1. “You know the rules. Prove it’s you.”
  2. “Your fault for being tailed, if that ever happens.”
  3. “My last hideout got taken over by wolves.”
  4. “Everything with you is blood lust and quick death.”
  5. “I’ll let you sleep again when I’m done.”
  6. “Why did you stay away so long this time?”
  7. “You’re the only person in the whole world who’s on my side.”
  8. “Will you be offended if I eat an entire pepperoni pizza by myself?”
  9. “I can’t tell if you’re kidding.”
  10. “I know I seemed calm, but I was panicking inside, you were dying.”
  11. “Scavengers do have their place in the food chain.”
  12. “How can you ask me not to pursue something that might save you?”
  13. “Maybe that will give me some inspiration.”
  14. “I can’t protect you if I can’t get to you.”
  15. “Don’t make this a habit, okay?”