On Constructing the Short Story: Fiction (part five)
Let’s talk about your characters’ names. This is often a subject about which writers will not speak because it is a somewhat mysterious event which even experienced writers do not fully understand.
First, a question. Were you shaped by your name in any way when you were young? Many of us felt uncomfortable with our given names at an early age, and have only grown comfortable with them (if at all) as we mature. We are aware, as children, of how names shape us. In fact, I assign my students an exercise.
I write the names "Darrell, “Tanya,” “George,” “Helen,” “Alex,” “Jennifer,” “Dwayne,” “Tony,” “Amanda,” ”Ralph,” “Rita,” “Shawn,” “Leanne,” and “Tricia” on the blackboard. I ask the students to pick four names, two male and two female (note that some of these names are gender-neutral) and describe the person whom they immediately envision the person so named.
Invariably, where there is a name common to three or more students’ descriptions, (in a class of twenty this is rather likely), there will be obvious similarities in their characterizations. Not that their descriptions are identical, but that a general sense of an individual with that name emerges as the common perception.
Because we are shaped in subtle, psychological ways by how we perceive ourselves to be seen as a person with a name which either fits us, or, as in many cases, doesn’t fit us. Penelope may be a name a girl in grade school might well hate, preferring to go by “Penny,” but the experiences she has in childhood, (“Pene-lope, cantaloupe!” she might have been teased, for instance) makes it likely that her given name will harden part of her psyche, so that a woman named “Penelope” is likely to hold herself apart, and remain slightly aloof. At least, that’s what a character with that name might be like in a story I may someday write.
Someone named “George” might well be a stolid, feet firmly-planted-on-the-ground type of individual. Something about the name suggests this. Allow yourself time to think about these considerations, and understand that, as you progress, your characters’ names will not necessarily have to be chosen by you consciously. Because this psychological underpinning, our presuppositions about peoples’ names and their characters, is so much a part of our subconscious, learn to accept that by naming your characters before you have begun your story, you may be limiting how you think of them as the story unfolds.
There is nothing inherently wrong in this, and it may work quite successfully for you, but you are just as likely to find that the character you are writing about doesn’t need to be named, first, but can be named once the story is well underway. I find it helpful to continue writing a story until the moment another character, named or unnamed, calls out to the protagonist by name.
If you do this, understand that your first reaction is likely to be, “That can’t be my character’s name! He/She doesn’t seem like that to me at all!”
Once again, as I’ve said in earlier columns, you have to learn to shut up and stay out of the way. If the person so named could not be named that, remember, it was YOUR subconscious that heard the other character call out to your protagonist, and therefore there must, in fact, be a reason for it which your conscious mind just hasn’t yet gotten a chance to wrap itself around.
Your job is to delve deeper into the character’s make-up and find out why, indeed, that is the most appropriate name for your character. This fleshing out at that point in your own narrative (you need not put this material into the story; bear in mind Hemingway’s dictum about keeping 80% of the iceberg underwater) will enrich your story with a depth which it is unlikely to have had prior to this moment of discovery.
If what you’re writing isn’t important to you, you can’t expect it to be important to others. The “Moderns” were said to be writing in a new way and raising questions in their work that were important. But after a while, readers should, I think, begin to ask themselves whether or not someone’s mere verbal cleverness, their ability to be provocative by asking questions the answers to which were either self-evident or unknowable, is of much value.
I had a professor say to me once, when I complained that all the writer in whose work we were reading was doing was asking clever questions, “Yes, but what wonderful questions they are!”
Now don’t get me wrong. I was an existentialist at the age of five. A dysfunctional household makes children ask impossible questions fairly early in their lives; what I would far rather have is a writer who makes an attempt to actually answer some of those eternal questions. That way, at least, I’ve something with which to interact, with which to joust intellectually. You shouldn’t get strokes in public office for complaining that things aren’t better; you should be looking for ways to make things better! That’s your job.
Your job, as a writer, is to provide another avenue for seeing, clearing away the bramble and undergrowth and cultural and emotional detritus. This doesn’t mean that people should be expected to agree with you, but that what you have to say is said in such a way that what you mean can be seen clearly. By the same token, show, don’t tell; speak in parables, don’t preach.
I recently had an emerging writer ask me why I preferred one of their stories to another. “Because in the one case,” I said, “Your character, though reminiscing, is letting us see the world through the character’s eyes as the character remembered seeing things as a child. In the other, we were being told why the events were important to the character, so that there was a filter, a screed between the reader and the experience.
Yes, yes, I can hear you protest that “of course, everything the writer writes is filtered though the writer,” but the reality is something different indeed. For when one has the vicarious sense that they have actually experienced what the writer is writing about, it is as though it actually happened to them. The other is just a travelogue of a story, one in which the writer keeps saying, “Oh, you should have been there. It was so great!” but with none of the sense that the reader has of its really having happened. Sort of like being forced to sit through your neighbor’s interminable slide-shows of their trip to Disney World.
(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 1, No. 5 September 2007)