Thursday, May 27, 2010

Name That Loon

Names in fiction have a curious power, a meaning that stretches far beyond what they literally denote. The names of characters often supply basic expository information about gender, ethnicity, social class, and age, and they may smuggle in allusions or thematic hints as well. But in a more intuitive sense, characters' names stand in for those characters' physiognomies on the page: the stems, extenders, cross-strokes, and tails express, almost subliminally, qualities of the individuals' interior lives and the nature of their relationship to the world.

Names are ripples rising to the surface of language that mark a stirring in its murky, inexpressible depths. Even the most vivid physical descriptions -- occurring as they do just once each -- do not stick if they are at odds with a character's name, which is repeated dozens of times in a story and hundreds (or more) in a novel, linked inextricably with her every appearance in the text. More than once in writing workshops, I've observed widespread confusion about the identity of a character who was randomly or carelessly named, both on the part of readers ("Wait -- so Julie is the endocrinologist? I thought that was Patty.") but more importantly on the part of the author ("Oh, shit -- it's supposed to say 'Patty' there."). In my own writing life, I've certainly noticed that I can't connect fully with a character until I've found the perfect name for her, a condition that's led to sleepless nights and lots of obsessive overthinking. Plus, you'd be surprised at the looks you get in Rite Aid buying a baby name book along with condoms and beer.

Little Ender will have a wonderful childhood.

As I've suggested in the past, I am a big believer that, all arguments to the contrary, creative writing can be taught, and that most writers benefit from studying it rigorously: it's a craft, and like any craft it requires discipline and the mastery, or at least understanding, of certain fundamental techniques. Yet in a way, naming represents all the things about writing that I don't think can be taught. It's something that arises out of a personal, nearly tactile relationship with language; like the made-up words Quentin Coldwater utters during his entrance exam at the magic academy in The Magicians, it's a private, idiosyncratic means of expression erupting into something that everyone can see. There are no guidelines for it, no rules. (OK, maybe one: don't name a superintendent "Mr. Duper," unless you're Thomas Pynchon.) But you know before anyone else does when you're doing it wrong.


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