Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Call me Ishmael

You lose credibility when explaining the plot of this great book you’re reading but you fail to remember the name of the main character. Was it Amanda? Ashley? Alison? And what was the last name? Williams? Walker? You must not be paying attention. Or maybe the hero has a forgettable name.

I understand authors writing about contemporary America feel the need to give their characters reasonable names. The name needs to make sense. Mike, John, Chris, Matt—all perfectly reasonable first names for twenty-something American male characters. But oh, so boring. I remember reading Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle in college and feeling let down by the title characters’ names. Both beautiful names but something about them felt a little stale.

Call me old fashioned but I wish all characters could be crowned with names like, Ebenezer Scrooge, Huckleberry Finn, Miss Havisham or ‘Boo’ Radley. I never forgot those names. Or maybe I’m just nostalgic for children’s books. Isn’t Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh perfectly suited?

I’m not suggesting well chosen names have to be quirky. Charlie or Brown isn’t strange, but put them together and it clicks. Great names evoke the character without needing a description. Harry Potter: The name calls to mind a British bespectacled boy. Sometimes it seems the choice of great names must have been divine intervention. Edgar Rice Burroughs was going to name his most famous branch swinging character Zantar or Tublat-Zan until he stumbled upon the name Tarzan. Truman Capote was going to name his beloved character Connie Gustafson but then decided on Holly Golightly. Good thing.

You could argue that at the heart of a good character name is just a good character. True. But it makes me wonder, what if Moby Dick had just been called whale.

1 comment:

  1. Well, the title is "Moby-Dick, or the Whale." Also, Moby's at least partially based on a real whale named Mocha Dick, I think.

    What about the wonderful old Protestant names? I miss their presence not just in books but in American life-- we need more Constances, more Prudences, more Trulys.