in which i don't name names

on names in fiction

Hello friends--

A bit of housekeeping and business before we’re on to this week’s Thursday Letter.

As I mentioned in my introductory post, Sweater Weather is divided into two kinds of posts: free posts similar to Tuesday’s letter (short, personal pieces, reflections and the like), and paid content like today’s letter, more akin to cultural criticism. I’ll give you advance notice before I implement paid subscriptions. I’m thinking September. I’ll let you know.

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In the second year of my MFA program, I decided that I would give all of my black characters these incredibly ethnic European names. I wanted to create turbulence at the level of the name, to invite the reader to ask themselves if they felt any tension at a black character being named Hartjes, Fyodor, Anke, Goran, or Timo. I wanted to shift the axis of othering, to invert expectations about names and acceptability. Were the names too loud? Did it make people wonder who are these people to be named this? I also just had a lot of fun coming up with absurd names for characters. But it also challenged me as a writer to consider the power of names. It made me consider the political dimension of every name I gave my characters because I would be wrapping them up in a name and sending them out into the world as themselves. How does it change or alter the texture of their relationships, that sort of thing.

But then I realized that white people don’t think about this as much. Which is why their stories are filled with horrible names like Ryan and Sarah. 

A few years back, I was reading a not very good serialized gay romance novel from a series of such romance novels that I had also read. The novel followed this character named Justin who, after several books that detailed his abuse and difficulty growing up, starts college and finds himself living with this very large and handsome guy named Bailey Stone. The novel was called, I kid you not, Justin’s Rock. Anyway, after much hijinks, these two unfortunately named characters come to discover that they are in love and consummate that love after a series of further contrived obstacles. I bring this up because it contains one of the worst instances of character nicknaming that I have ever had the misfortune of reading. 

As if it weren’t bad enough that someone sat down to write a novel about a character named Justin, the author goes a step further and has all of the characters refer to him as Jus. That’s right friends. They call him Jus, including at a very important moment when Bailey and Justin are first confessing their confused attraction to one another. Bailey looks at him and is like, “That’s the thing, Jus--” which is at once so twee and so forced and so absolutely ridiculous that it’s enough to make one expire of cringe. 

There’s nothing quite so awful as a foreshortened name stepping in for a nickname of an already totally unliterary name. It’s the equivalent of transcribing burps in fiction as burrrrp or saying that a character fished something out of their bag or released a breath after a long moment or put something on a low table. I think in fact I hate shortened names more than I hate onomatopoeia which always feels indulgent and precious and unnecessary. But the issue of my gripe about names is different. I have an actual aesthetic complaint, rooted in my own sense of what names in fiction are about and can do.

My inflammatory opinion is that names are like dialogue. In realist fiction, dialogue summons a sense of reality without having to engage in one-to-one verisimilitude. It’s a conjuration of a mood, a simulation, a kind of lyric reality. In realistic fiction, dialogue sounds like the way people talk but it isn’t actually the way people talk. There’s a tiny channel between reality and the representation of reality and that channel must be able to carry the reader between those two spaces. No one remembers a character named Ryan. No one remembers a character named Tyler. These are non-names. They are too rooted in reality as we know it. There is no remove. There is no representative reality.

I think Toni Morrison might be the greatest namer of characters in all of American Literature. Her names fall right out of the worlds of her novels. They come right out of the language itself. Consider John Updike and Saul Bellow, their lyric fantasias. Or Cheever’s tight-mouthed WASPs with their terse names but vibrating inner lives. Consider Lauren Groff’s leaping neo-Gothics. I think that names operate like any unit of meaning in fiction and must reflect the story’s relationship to its antecedent, that collection of objects it is hoping to represent, but always removing it to some place that allows it to vibrate with meaning. 

Not all names must be baroque or strange to be memorable. Tayari Jones gets as much out of Roy as she does out of Celestial in her great novel An American Marriage. There’s Elio and Oliver, of course, the lovers from André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. There’s also the scroll of names in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, all of the Jan’s and Karl’s. There’s also the dueling names of Lenu and Lila in the Ferrante novels. Or the total erasure of a narrator’s name as is often the case in first person fiction (like in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time!)

People spend a great deal of time choosing their character’s words with care and precision. Writers stress out over metaphors and adjectives and modes of narration. But then they go and name their characters Brian or Dave. And I know why they do it. They do it because nicknames tell a story of intimacy or previous association. When one character waves and calls her friend Beccs instead of Rebecca or Liz instead of Elizabeth, the author is mashing these two characters together with hungry, desperate intensity, saying Please accept this in lieu of characterization because I used all of my space on backstory and I have no other way of showing they are familiar, here let me add a cheek kiss. It’s a shorthand. It’s a shortcut. I get it. We all have our tricks and maneuvers. 

I guess the nature of my gripe is mostly that naming a character Ryan (why am I so angry about Ryan! I also feel this way about most names one encounters on a daily basis, see: Rebecca, Hannah, Anna, Megan, Chris, Dave, Tyler, Phil, Justin, Liam, Omar, Noah, Mason, Alex, Darius) is an abdication of one’s responsibility to the language of the story. You’re just throwing in the towel. 

I think that we should be talking about names a lot more than we do. I think that we should reevaluate the shortcuts we take in trying to build a sense of rapport and intimacy between our characters. Names have so much influence on how a reader interacts with not only the character but the story in totality. It’s not that I hate plain names in stories. It’s that naming a character something with no taste to it communicates to the reader, or at least to this reader, that the writer has built a shaky and faulty channel between the world I inhabit and the world into which they would like me to travel.

There’s a lot to a name. It has power. Name responsibly! 

b