Monday, May 24, 2010

Philip Space, Kelly Day, Ben Dover, et al.

I've just been musing on character names. I put a good deal of time into selecting names for my characters--perhaps more than I ought--and I'm not sure sometimes where to draw the line.

It's clear to me that, as in everything else, we have less latitude in fiction than the degrees of freedom granted to reality. I don't know that there is a Philip Space or a Ben Dover out there in the real world, but there are certainly Kelly Days (most of them probably unaware they are bearing a punning name). Joke names in a novel strike me as a little too sophomoric, but it's amazing how far some writers have pushed that envelope in comic novels. Although the characters Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil in Pynchon's V. aren't exactly punning constructions, they go far beyond the limits of credulity; but, then, Pynchon clearly didn't want us to be involved in his story in any traditional sense.

Here again, reality has us at a disadvantage. If I had an actor as a character in a novel, even a comic novel, I wouldn't name him something like "Rip Torn." But Mr. Torn (whom I admire) is only the latest in a family of Torns where the older males were nicknamed "Rip." In life, it's a conversation starter. In a book, it would be a bit silly and distracting (cf. Benny Profane).

To take another example, until recently the CEO of the Boeing Company was a man named* "Harry Stonecipher." Could we get away with that? No way--not unless we were writing a sequel to V..

But there are milder forms. I have a good friend named "Steve Steele." That's a fine name, but iffy in a novel (and, in my opinion, only serviceable if the character is not any kind of action hero). "Steele" in its possible spellings is a common surname (although famous Hollywood producer Dawn Steel inherited the surname from a father who changed it from Spielberg). But use it in a book and it seems as if the writer is trying to make some not-too-subtle point.

I used to know a fellow named "Bob Dollar." That's a fine, solid surname deriving from the Celtic. (It means, roughly, "from the dales," and has no connection with currency.) Nothing wrong with "Dollar" in real life. But it would be poison in anything but a comic novel, and maybe a little sketchy even there.

There are some names that, for me, land right on the line. "Billy Pilgrim," for example, in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, is a feasible and undistracting name for a protagonist--except that it is a little too, as they say in screenwriting, "on the nose." (It also seems to be begging the critics and scholars to dissect it.)

I would never intentionally give a character the initials "J.C.", though writers from William Faulkner to Stephen King have done exactly this, quite purposefully and thematically.

Even though readers will suspend disbelief, at some level they remember the writer is up above the stage, pulling the strings. Names carrying too much obvious baggage or portent seem to aim the spotlight away from the stage and up at the writer. (Which a writer like Pynchon probably desires.)

I can enjoy preposterous and unlikely names as long as they aren't overly burdened with meaning. To take one of Vonnegut's recurring characters, how can one not like "Kilgore Trout"? Dickens was especially delightful and prolific in this regard, although some of his wonderful surnames are so marvelous as to be distracting. (Honeythunder? Pumblechook?)

Many writers can't resist saddling minor characters with real but unusual surnames. I've encountered the English surname "Gotobed" at least a hundred times in novels without ever bumping up against it in the real world. This is never laden with meaning; the writers have simply been amused by the name, and decided they needed to use it someday, somehow, for something. (It always knocks me out of the story by making me think of the Monty Python skit featuring a fellow named Smoketoomuch.)

Of course, what is unremarkable for one reader may be startling for another. An Iranian friend of mine told me that when he first moved to England for college he cold hardly resist laughing every time he met someone who was named for a color: Mr. Green, Mrs. Black, Mr. Brown, Miss Grey...

I'm rambling, here (and, yes, I'm stuck for a surname in my novel at the moment).

I prefer names to be somewhat evocative, but more enigmatic than emblematic. One of my favorites is Orwell's "Winston Smith," a pedestrian surname preceded by a Christian name with aspirations. It's a name you can spend some time considering, but also a name you can skate right across without a second glance. If you want to read something into it, you can, but it doesn't demand anything from the reader.

Ultimately, though, I pick names because I like the way they sound--and because, in my mind, they fit the character. By that I don't mean that they fit the character profile, or the character's thematic role. I mean that in in my mind's eye, if I call the character by that name, they answer.

* n.b. English versus Americanlish:

An interesting divergence of usage has emerge in how our two countries use the word "called" with respect names. In the UK, "named" and "called" are apparently used interchangeably. In the UK, it seems that "In the village lived a man called Smith..." means nothing more than that there was a fellow whose name was Smith.

In Americanlish, "called" is generally used to identify a label for a person which is not the person's given name--that is, the person is named one thing, but called another: "The man named Smith was called Little Smith to distinguish him from the three other Smith families in town in the town..."

BRIT: "In the village lived a man called Smith..."

YANK: "Why did they call him that?"

BRIT: "Well, because it was his name, I suppose."

And a unassailably good reason for calling him that, too. But to the American ear, it seems as if an element of the story is being left out...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Babies and Stories: The Dirty Harry Effect

A rather long article in the New York Times Magazine discusses recent research on the moral sense, if you can call it that, of infants. The psychology of babies is a fascinating but relatively new field. (Q: Do I get points for not calling it an "infant" field? A: No, not if I go ahead and say it anyway in this parenthetical.)

I don't plan to summarize the whole of the article. Instead, I want to concentrate on how babies' innate moral senses affect our sense of satisfaction with stories. (As to how babies preferences are determined in this research, you'll have to follow the link and read it there.)

The basic setup is this: Babies are shown a character attempting to do something. Two additional characters are then introduced: one who assists the character ("the helper"), and one who does things that frustrate the character in achieving its goal ("the hinderer").

First result: Babies tend to like the The Helper and to be repelled by The Hinderer. Simple enough. Surprising to those who think babies have no real consciousness, perhaps, but not to the rest of us.

To complicate matters, now introduce two other characters: The Rewarder and The Punisher. (These two characters either provide or take away treats from other characters).

Second results: Babies prefer The Rewarder to the Punisher. Again, not surprising. The Rewarder is being nice. The Punisher is being a bit unpleasant. The Rewarder is like The Helper, and the The Punisher is like the Hinderer.

But now it gets more subtle. First, let The Rewarder and The Punisher interact with The Helper. One might easily predict the outcome. The baby likes The Helper, and is also biased to like The Rewarder and dislike The Punisher, so naturally the baby approves of The Rewarder's actions, and is repelled by the unfair Punisher. Stands to reason: who's gonna like somebody who is mean to the nice one?

But the results are much more interesting when The Rewarder and The Punisher interact with The Hinderer. In this case, babies prefer The Punisher to The Rewarder. Even though they don't like The Punisher much as a character, they want to see The Hinderer punished (and, presumably, are driven a bit daffy if they see The Hinderer being rewarded).

I think of this as "The Dirty Harry Effect," from the iconic Clint Eastwood movies. Harry Callahan isn't anybody you might like, much less anybody a baby might like. He's brutal, breaks the law whenever his sense of justice demands it, and is about as far from being The Rewarder as one might imagine.

When the movie Dirty Harry first hit movie screens in the US, pundits attributed its popularity to many factors: The growing insecurity of white males, the sense of chaos in our urban centers, the frustration with the ineffective and uneven adminstration of criminal justice. Some even warned that the movie would spawn a wave of vigilantism in the country. (I think it had much the opposite effect; as with pornographic movies of the day, I suspect the viewers, erm, got it out of their systems in the theater.)

This new research shows that the appeal of the Dirty Harry setup runs deep. Even babies want to see the bad ones being punished--even though they are instinctively repelled by The Punisher. This appears to be innate in the human personality rather than something that is taught.

In some ways, this research is inspiring, suggesting a deep sense of justice and fairness in human nature. Before we break out the champagne and start toasting ourselves, however, other baby research reveals some rather disturbing further information. All things held equal, babies prefer others who are similar to themselves. As the article reports:

There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

At an abstract level, we like justice; at a more concrete level, our reaction is to side with our tribe in the most simplistic ways, and justice be damned. Hello, Lord of the Flies.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Is Obama Moby Dick?

First of all, let me say that I would have been happy to vote for Obama regardless of his race. And I suspect that there are many out there who would have been happy to vote against Obama regardless of his race. Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous to pretend that his race isn't a factor in how he is perceived.

It's weird to me that Obama, who is half Caucasian, is always referred to as "black;" but, then, Tiger Woods is always referred to as "black" rather than "Cambodian," so I guess any percentage black still trumps all in the eyes of both blacks and whites. But what is odder yet is that the world's most famous black man seems to be turning into the world's most famous White Whale.

Now, by the nature of the job, the President of the United States can't help but be something of a symbol. But in Obama's case his symbolic capacity seems limitless; people project a bewildering array of attributes and motives on to him. At first this seemed simple enough: the liberals saw him as a symbol of hope and progress, and the far right saw him as a symbol of creeping socialism and of the first days of The Last Days.

I find it exceedingly peculiar that Obama is perceived by the right as being either anti-Christian or even Muslim, while the left seems to overlook his deeply Christian religious history. Obama has far more Christian credentials--and fundamentalist Christian credentials at that--than a poseur like George W. Bush. But I guess it isn't really that odd in America: people with no combat experience or real military service, like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, are seen as "tough guys," while real combat heroes, like John Kerry or George Bush, Sr., are seen as "wimps." In light of all that, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised by Obama's White Whale status.

But the projections onto Obama seem to be at a whole new level of weirdness. I'll give just three examples.

1) Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, speaking to a crowd in Manhattan, described the Obama administration's push for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem as an effort to "undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel," and on Fox News (where else?) said, "I believe the Obama administration is willing to throw Israel under the bus in order to please the Muslim nations." Since every US adminstration I can recall has pressured Israel on the settlements issue, it's hard for me to understand this level of hysteria over something that is merely business as usual...except in the context of Obama as Symbol. Of something.

2) Listening to the radio yesterday, in the aftermath of the riots in Greece, a reporter was interviewing a young, angry business student who was criticizing the IMF's bailout terms. In broken English, which I won't attempt to render here, he said, "It's all because Obama wants to destroy the Euro so he can have a stronger dollar!"

Ill ignore the raw stupidity of the conjecture that the US is pushing for a stronger dollar at the time that we're trying to increase exports and cut imports. What's striking about this idea is that it's conceived of as Obama's doing. I've heard all manner of world-domination-via-the-IMF accusations hurled at the IMF and at perfidious American plutocrats or the shady New World Order, but I can't recall hearing anyone attribute US strategies vis-a-vis exchange-rate policy to the President personally. (I suppose this is something of a backhanded tribute to Obama. No one would ever have accused his predecessor of formulating international economic policy.)

3) Last week I was walking in downtown San Francisco and a young man with a clipboard accosted me on the sidewalk. At first glance he looked like a Greenpeace fundraiser, but he opened by saying, "Do you want to help save the US Space Program?"

Still walking, I offered that I had nothing against the US Space Program, but that I was on my way to an appointment.

He responded by shouting, "If you want to save the US Space Program, the first question we need to answer is: Where was Barack Obama really born?"

That makes my Top Ten Non Sequitur List--unless the young man was about to argue that Obama was in fact born on another planet and wanted to discourage space exploration for fear it might reveal his extraterrestrial origins. (That wouldn't be a non sequitur. Insane, maybe, but a logical train of deranged thought.) I almost regret not stopping to hear out his crackpot reasoning, but that would have violated one of the key commandments of living in California (#7: Never stop to talk to someone on the street in the Bay Area, even if you have to walk out into traffic to avoid them).

Critics have argued for decades now about the meaning of the White Whale, but, like any good symbol, Moby-Dick remains always present yet elusive. As for myself, I hope that I can some day introduce into one of my stories a symbol as powerful and yet open to interpretation as our first Black President.