Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What's my name?

I've been talking to my daughter about characters' names. She says that one of the reasons it's so hard for her to write a novel is that she can't name her characters. Most of her short stories, she says, are about lost, lonely women who don't really have names, and I think actually that this is one of the strengths of those stories. The characters have a haunting, unsettlingly memorable quality that could be blunted by naming them. But in a novel you pretty much have to name your characters, and what if you choose the wrong name? Will it throw everything off, or get you pointed in a wrong direction.

Poe did very well with unnamed characters. But what about full-length fiction?Are there novels -- other than really experimental ones -- where the character doesn't have a name? There's Proust. We generally call his character "Marcel" because that's Proust's name, and the novels are so clearly autobiographical. But actually, he only refers to himself as "Marcel" once in the seven volumes, and that fairly far along. Mostly, he has no name.

Can you go through a private eye novel without naming the lead character? I bet you could. Spenser only has one name. In the Sergio Leone Westerns, Clint Eastwood is The Man With No Name. In Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe has a name but nothing else -- we never see him except for a couple of shots in mirrors, we just see what he sees. A first person narrator can tell or withhold whatever she likes, and no reason that she can't withhold her name. Instead of saying "My name's Honey West," or whatever, it can just be "I told him my name."

Anything you deny yourself can be made into a strength. Those writers who self-censored, or were censored, away from George Carlin's seven dirty words lost a certain realism, but gained the creativity of circumlocution --"He told me to do the impossible to myself!"

Here's a nice use of that device from Tom T. Hall, in "A Week in a County Jail."

Well, I told him who I was and told him I was working steady
And I really should be gettin' on my way
That part about me bein' who I was did not impress him
He said, "The judge'll be here any day."

Perhaps not naming a private eye cloaks her/him in a layer of invulnerability. Someone who won't even share her name with her readers is a very guarded, close-to-the-vest person. Just as naming a character makes, consciously or unconsciously, certain character choices, so does not naming a character.


Edgy DC said...

Rebecca's lead character had no name, and seemingly for the same reason, largely as an indication of her meek powerlessness. It's easiest to do in the first person, of course.

But there are other ways to make disempowered characters that have names --- give them names that speak of that dispempowerment: small names, hopelessly anachronistic names, names that references weakness, symbolically or otherwise.

Tad Richards said...

The story that came to my mind was "The Tell-Tale Heart" -- and of course a lot of Poe. But there,giving the character a name would have diminished him, taken away from the majesty of his madness.

On private eyes -- what about Hammett's Continental Op? He doesn't have a name, does he?

Edgy DC said...

The Con Op is definitely nameless. He's describe as "a monster" by the woman whose life he keeps saving.

You have powerless characters, give them names like J. Alfred Prufrock and watch the piece write itself. A guy with a name like J. Alfred Prufrock can't even bring himself to eat a damn peach.

Tad Richards said...

Problems with irregularity.