Sunday, November 15, 2009

First Names, Surnames/His Names, Her Names

I believe that most writers contemplate character names more than they care to admit. They're the one tag we hang on a character that really sticks. The reader might forget that Dirk's eyes are blue, or that Caroline chews the inside corner of her mouth when she is about to say something important; but if the reader forgets whom you mean when you say "Dirk" or "Caroline", we may as well pack up and go home, because the poor reader won't be able to follow the story.

I don't feel that we really invent our characters. Mine sort of manifest, sometimes whole and finished from the outset, sometimes beginning as ghosts and becoming more material as I watch them. The process is more like God, Adam, and the Naming of the Animals: We don't actually create the characters, but we do get to name them as they are paraded before us. It's our little bit. The rest of the time, all we can do is follow them around, scribbing down what they do.

(Nabokov, of course, violently disagreed, stating that all his characters were entirely invented de novo by him with full conscious forethought, and that they were his "galley slaves" who would do whatever he demanded of them. I find this exceedingly unlikely. But, then, I also don't believe that Nabokov truly composed every sentence on its own index card and only later puzzled out how to order these perfect sentences into a perfect narrative. My take is that Vlad liked to test the credibility of interviewers.)

There are certain unstated rules about how we use character names in narrative. In the mouths of other characters, of course, character Jeremy Brooks may be anything from "Jeremy" to "Brooks" to "Jer" to "Snooky-Ookums," but the narrative voice has to settle on something and stay consistent. (Unless, of course, the narrative voice is deeply in rotating POV, in which case Jeremy's naming will change depending on whose POV is invoked.)

True, when you first introduce the the character, you may call him "Jeremy Brooks" in full. If the narrative voice continues to call him "Jeremy Brooks," though, it will have a strong distancing effect on the narrative, keeping us at armslength. (Even more distancing are pseudo-pronoun constructions, where the narrative voice refers to a major character as "the dapper detective" or "the burly prizefighter." Tossing in titles as part of the name, such as "Mrs. Carruthers" or "Professor Smythe" has the same distancing effect, assigning a role and often pushing the character toward caricature or stereotype )

Jumping back and forth, calling our character "Jeremy" at one moment and "Brooks" at another, serves only to make the reader's work more difficult. Do this with very many of your characters and it will seem to the reader that the number of players is multiplying out of control, and three people in a scene can feel like like a throng.

For some reason, using first names in the narrative increases the degree of intimacy and tends to soften the character. Jeremy leaned forward or Jeremy wondered is automatically closer and more kindly disposed than Brooks leaned forward or Brooks wondered. I'm not sure why this should be the case. To some extent it may come from formal manners, where traditionally we must be at a certain level of intimacy with someone before we call them by their first name. But the use of first names also automatically connotes diminutization in the backs of our minds; anyone is allowed, and even expected, to call a child by their first name, even upon first acquaintance.

And this, alas, leads us into linguistic politics, and, even worse, linguistic sexual politics. With Jeremy Brooks, we can choose from the outset that he will be "Jeremy" in the narrative (and, ceteris paribus, closer and more vulnerable) or be "Brooks" (and therefore slightly more distant and also tougher). This is only a nuance, and a thousand things we do in the writing beyond the choice of narrative naming will affect our closeness to, and perception of, Jeremy Brooks; but it is one of our earliest and most permanent choices (and probably says something about how our subconscious feels about the character at the outset). But if the major character in question is, say, "Elaine Carver"...

Well, sorry. She's going to be "Elaine." Refer to her in the narration as "Carver," and you don't just toughen and distance her, you start changing her gender. Reference by surname connotes maleness in our reading and writing conventions--and, for that matter, in most of our conversational style. Women will sometimes refer to other women by surnames, especially in direct address or when the context is chummy, but it's usually kept with a circle of girl-chums. (I had to ponder this problem in Shock and Awe, where Carla Smukowski is, in fact, pretty tough, and, being surrounded by military folk, is often referred to in dialogue as "Smukowski." But she has to be "Carla" in the narrative. [And "Carla" itself is of course a feminization of a masculine name.])

Is this because the language inherently speaks down to women? Is this a way of ensuring that women remain forever girls? Is it tied up with feudalism, where the master of the estate is referred to by the name of his property (his wife being one of those properties)? (This latter aspect lingers on in the fact that, formally speaking, there is such a person as "Michelle Obama," but no such person as "Mrs. Michelle Obama;" she is, properly, "Mrs. Barack Obama.")

I suppose it's a mix of all the above. But if you expect me to take a stand against this convention of our language, don't look for it to happen in my fiction. It's hard enough to keep the tissue of the dream intact without constantly having the reader struggle to keep in mind that the character I keep calling "Carver" is a woman.

10 comments:

Alis said...

Hi David, you're right when you say that writers spend a lot of time thinking about names - the names I give to my characters are ridiculously important to me and, if I have to change them for some reason (eg they sound too similar to the name I've given another character) it upsets my view of that character.

Thanks for a really interesting post here - you're always very informative on the whole thing of authorial distance and I've recently recommended lots of your previous posts to an unpublished writer.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

A writer and teacher I know always suggests that when a character somehow isn't working that you should change their name. He thinks that the name you've chosen affects you relationship with the character, and that when you get stuck you stand a good chance of breaking free by changing the name.

Too bad other relationships can't be altered so easily, innit?

Jamie Ford said...

Names are important, to me anyway. Every once in a while you'll see a contest where an author will name a character after a reader or a contest winner. That always seems so...strange...to just sort of plug in a name. Dean Koontz did it years ago as well. Not sure if I could give up that tiny bit of control.

My only hang-up with names is that I tend to alliterate them. An old by-product of reading Marvel Comics, I'm sure. J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker, Green Goblin, Reed Richards, Fin Fang Foom...etc.

Alis said...

Hi David - I'll have to try the re-naming thing next time a character won't come off the page for me. I'm guessing Dickens did a lot of that.

David Isaak said...

Heya, Jamie--

Yeah, I have that Marvel alliterative thing going on, too. (Which ought to include Sue Storm, except that she foolishly married Reed Richards. Oh, and Doctor Doom, too.)

Makes me think we ought to change our own first names, but I'm not sure we could make it appealing. I mean, Freddie Ford just doesn't seem to fit you.

And I'm not sure what I could do--Isaac Isaak?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Yeah, Dickens seemed to focus on names, and for secondary characters it almost seems as if the names and the characters are one and the same.

Janet Ursel said...

"I had to ponder this problem in Shock and Awe, where Carla Smukowski is, in fact, pretty tough, and, being surrounded by military folk, is often referred to in dialogue as "Smukowski." But she has to be "Carla" in the narrative. [And "Carla" itself is of course a feminization of a masculine name.]"

Not only that, a name that means "manly" in the first place...

Jake Jesson said...

This is a convention I'd want to challenge, because I'm ornery about sexual politics in storytelling. Perhaps playing up a character's femininity in contrast to the surname? Imagine a outwardly typical "leggy blonde" who dresses sexy and insists on being called "Carver". I'm interested.

Also, I am plagued by alliterativeness. I just discovered that I'd named a character "Samantha Sato" without even thinking about it. But then, I have an excuse - MY name is alliterative. (And because my dad was strange, so are the names of all my eight brothers and sisters.)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

'Not only that, a name that means "manly" in the first place...'

Who knew? (Well, you did, obviously.) Perhaps my subconscious knew.

But I'm guessing it was just dumb luck.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jake--

Well, having a female character insist on being called by her surname is an interesting character trait.

But I'm talking about what the author calls the character in privileged communication with the reader. And I'd be disinclined to mess with that particular convention. Even if one wants to grind an axe in one's fiction, I think it's more effective to tell stories that challenge the reader's expectations and conventions than to challenge one's own ability to get the story across.