The Critics’ Corner
with Cheryl W. Ruggiero and Don Webb
The Challenge 417 Response Names in ‘Left Behind’ appears in issue 418.
[Cheryl] I like what you wrote in issue 418 on pronouns in “Left Behind.” I do give student writers feedback on their work and I know exactly what you mean about confusion: so many he’s and she’s that the reader gets lost.
I also get frustrated with first-person narratives that have no name for the narrator. It gets very tiring when talking or writing about such work to have to keep repeating “the narrator says...” or “the narrator sees...” Names have power, and it’s usually best to have or give one.
[Don] Thank you for the positive feedback, Cheryl; it’s good for morale. And I agree with you about names: speaking for myself, I can say that a name is a good thing to have.
Seriously, though, the students you mention also need negative feedback. And “negative” does not necessarily mean “bad” or “snarky.” It’s a kind of course correction: “That doesn’t work, for this reason. Maybe something else will.” Writers who aren’t students must provide their own negative feeback or find a writers’ group that will.
Let’s consider a few cases. But first we need a few guidelines, most of which you’ve already suggested:
Names are just plain convenient. As you say, how else can readers talk about characters? We’ve seen submissions where characters were named only “I” and “He” and “She” and “They.” I remember one where we had to refer to “She#1” and “She#2,” and so forth. And there was another that had two different first-person narrators — until it switched to third person. And none had a name. I had no idea who was doing what. Honestly, you’d be amazed...
Authors may know whom they’re referring to, but I sometimes have not the foggiest notion. And I suspect that, on rereading, the authors would be stumped, too.
I agree that names have power. It’s common knowledge that names can help bring a character to life much as the faintest hint of a costume can help an actor’s performance. Some writers even give their characters provisional names according to personality, e.g. “Mr. Surly” or “Miss Catty,” and replace the descriptive names with conventional ones in the final draft.
One can never be too careful in choosing names. For example, anyone named “Adolf” or “Lee Harvey” in this day and age has parents whose judgment is open to interrogation, let alone question. The same goes for characters and authors.
A writer must be aware of cultural references; and among them, gender, need it be said, is all-important. In a recent submission, a character was named “Justine.” I was halfway through the story before I realized that the character was male. “Justine” is the feminine form of the name; the masculine is “Justin.” But the character’s ethnicity was emphasized for some reason, and it did not fit “Justin” either; while the name is not uncommon in English it is common in French. The author proposed alternatives, but I preferred “Albert.” I could have chosen “Claude,” which is gender-neutral in French. But no, that would not have been culturally appropriate either.
Pronunciation is also an important consideration. If readers can’t pronounce a character’s name, they’ll ignore it or assign it a mnemonic. Russian readers expect freight-train names like “Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky,” who was made famous, after a fashion, by Tom Lehrer. English-speaking readers prefer short names; they would see “Nikolai” and skip the rest.
A recent story has a character named Amethyst — also called “Amy” — Dyier. “Amy” and even “Amethyst” I can handle, but I have no idea how “Dyier” is pronounced. What to do?
When in doubt, pronounce the name as though it were French; you’d be amazed how often the pronunciation is close to that of the original language. I reanalyzed “Amy Dyier” as “Yesterday’s Friend” (Amie d’hier). Strange spellings can have curious and even comical consequences.
As you say, Cheryl, even “I” needs a name, otherwise the work may read like “dear diary” literature, and that sort of thing almost invariably bores readers to tears. A notable exception: Marcel Proust’s million-word masterpiece is narrated by someone named only je until, at one point, Proust paints himself into a corner and is forced to give the narrator a name. No surprise: it’s “Marcel.”
A case of inspired naming occurs in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1975. As a Vietnam veteran, Haldeman had every right and motivation to take a first-person point of view in the novel. But he was careful to give his point of view character a name: William Mandella. And he has Mandella tell a short, funny story about the origin of his name. Readers will remember William Mandella and Joe Haldeman’s novel.
We rest our case!
Copyright © 2011 by Bewildering Stories