What’s in a name?

By Janice McCaffrey

According to Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint (2010) characters’ names have “many associations” for readers. Surnames signify ethnicity and family connections. Given names can identify where and when a character was born. A name can help with the character’s physical description or hint at their personality. (pgs. 54-55)

So how do authors choose names for their characters?

Dickens is probably the most famous for creating names that convey a character’s looks, personality, or place in society. In Bleak House Mr. Nemo is an unkempt looking man who owes six-weeks rent, has no friends and is found dead from an opium overdose. Accident or suicide? No one knows for sure. When readers are told that nemo is Latin for ‘no one’ they understand that people did not acknowledge him. And learning it was not his legal name tells them how he felt about himself.

Icelandic storytellers refer to historical figures that same way. A prime example is a woman in one of the sagas whose name is Aud the Deep Minded. Then from other sagas there’s men known as Helgi the Lean and Bork the Stout.

Card advises that authors vary the first letter, number of syllables and sounds of characters’ names in a manuscript. The example he gives is how “monosyllables like Bill, Bob, Tom, Jeff, Pete lead to boredom and confusions.” But he also cautions against using “a lot of flamboyant, bizarre names unless that’s an important part of the story.” (pg. 56) Of course, when writing historical novels authors can and should use full names of real people. However, that does get confusing when families have used the same given name for two or more generations.

Anyone who has read a Russian novel will understand another of Card’s points. Simplify characters’ names and use only one name per character. I find stories easier to read and identify with their characters when I can pronounce their names. Easily knowing and remembering who’s who also helps. Not like Anna Karenina where her husband is Alexei Alexandrovitch Karenina and her lover is Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. I’ve wondered why Tolstoy used the same given name.

Then I read the Introduction in a Barnes & Noble edition (2013) written by Amy Mandelker. She says that one of the themes throughout the novel is mirror images. Besides Anna’s two men having the same names Anna itself is a mirror since it is spelled the same frontwards and backwards. Her maid is Annushka which is a nickname for Anna. The daughter’s name is Annie and Anna adopts a protégée by the name of Hannah which is the Hebrew form of Anna. Tolstoy knew how to get the most out of a name!

Another suggestion from Card is not to have all the characters in a story have names that “mean something” . . . unless it’s an “allegory and [you, the author] deliberately want them tagged with symbolic names.” (pg. 56) My comment to that is if the meaning  of the name is important to the characters’ back story or description be sure to include the meaning some way or other to inform your reader.

As we search for creative names for our characters we should remember that over the years, for better or worse, characters’ names have become part of our cultures’ mindset. Thanks to Dickens we know that a person who is selfish and/or doesn’t like the Christmas Spirit is a Scrooge. Hearing the phrase “Double Oh Seven” conjures up a picture perfect version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. (For me that will always be Sean Connery). How about Norman Bates, Jo March, Darth Vader, Lolita or Mr. Darcy? Novelists have given us characters whose personalities and deeds will never be forgotten. A challenge to every fiction writer.

What’s in a name? Evidently a lot!!

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The Courage for Memoirs

By Karen Wills

In her novel, Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell has her somewhat fictionalized version of T.E. Lawrence a/k/a Lawrence of Arabia Lawrence of arabia announce his intent to write a memoir. Then he asks, “Have you heard the old joke about Job sitting on his dunghill?” Lawrence goes on, “He tells his friends all his troubles and at the end one of them says, ‘Yes, but you know…there could be a book in it!’”

The book referred to would be a memoir. But what does that mean? According to my Random House Dictionary, it’s “records of facts or events in connection with a particular subject, historical period, etc. as known to the writer or gathered from special sources.”

People send their memoirs out into the world for varied reasons. Montana’s Laura Munson wrote, This is Not the Story You Think It Is, about her decision to refuse to see herself as the victim in the breakup of her marriage.

A friend of mine who worked both as a teacher and school psychologist gained wisdom about American public education both in the South during the Civil Rights Era and on through the days of No Child Left Behind. She is writing a memoir using her varied experiences to explain her philosophy of education. The stories that shaped her views are gripping and credible.

I had a teaching experience of my own that showed me clearly the power of a well-written memoir. A student of mine was flirting with the idea of admiring Hitler.  I assigned him Elie Wiesel’s wrenching Night followed by the same author’s Dawnelie wiesel 2These depict the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath.  I followed that with parts of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. By semester’s end, my student had moved 180 degrees from his first leanings. That’s the power of a courageous memoirist.

My son has suggested that I write a memoir as my life has always fit into the forefront of the social movements and trends of my lifetime. Honestly, I don’t have the nerve. My adventures feel private and my wisdom too often the hard-won result of foolishness I’d rather keep to myself.

But here’s to the brave, vulnerable, generous people who share their stories and views in memoirs. Humanity needs them.

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Confessions of a Historical Fiction Fanatic

By Janice McCaffrey

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ramifications of reading historical fiction. Does it smother history under make believe? Or does it inspire readers to reach outside of their comfort zones.

For me historical fiction often whet’s my appetite for facts. That curiosity leads me to research and of course to Google. Over the years I’ve collected eclectic facts from around the world.

But last year a seemingly innocent choice took over my life.

I watched an international historical fiction TV series, Magnificent Century(Netflix.com). And now my family and friends roll their eyes if I so much as mention the word “Turkey.” Even during this holiday season.

I can’t help it!

I fell in love with Sultan Süleyman I   suleyman

. . . of course the actor who portrayed him, Halit Ergenç didn’t hurt.

Süleyman was the Ottoman Empire’s longest reigning Sultan (1520-1566). He set fair taxes and protected ethnic and religious minorities. He updated the Empire’s code of law and instituted free education for boys. He’s responsible for the Empire’s unique artistic legacy. He wrote poetry, was an accomplished goldsmith, and led the world in architecture building mosques and public buildings. In Jerusalem he restored the Dome of the Rock and the city walls (still the Old City of Jerusalem’s walls) and renovated the Kaaba in Mecca.

And what a romantic! During the same era Henry VIII was arguing with the Pope about a divorce, Süleyman changed the law so he could not only marry his favorite concubine, Hurrem, but also live with her. He even bent the mores of the day inviting her to council meetings and taking her advice on matters of state. She was an important diplomat especially between the Ottoman Empire and her native Poland.

Fascinated with the Ottoman Empire and Halit I’ve gone on to an array of historical and contemporary movies, TV shows and books, both fiction and non-fiction. I highly recommend The Butterfly’s Dream (Netflix) a touching story based on two lesser-known Turkish poets, Rüştü Onur and Muzaffer Tayyip Uslu.

Over the past several months I’ve experimented with traditional Turkish recipes and learned lyrics to a few of their popular songs. And, yes, I’m working on the language (thanks Free Turkish Lessons Online or I should say soğul (pronounced sowl).

I guess the answers to my original questions can be both yes and no. It depends on the person doing the reading.

This personal admission of my fanaticism is just one example of historical fiction’s ability to promote a readers’ expansion of knowledge. I’m thankful for authors who give us the facts blended with imagination.

And I wish all of you a very Şükran Günü kutlu olsun (Happy Thanksgiving)

 

Collateral Damage in Fiction

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By Karen Wills

We’ve all seen feature photos that show victims of war—collateral damage is the modern term for them—the nonmilitary who suffer. Think of the crying infant by the railroad tracks of post-bombed Hiroshima; the agony of the naked Vietnamese girl’s face as she runs toward us, the beautiful shocked eyes of the Afghan girl.

By chance, I’ve lately come across characters, literary inventions, which are collateral damage in two big novels. I marvel at how the authors made them into what author David Long calls “bright human images.”

doctorow

One of the novels is E.L. Doctorow’s, The March. It’s a broad epic depiction of Sherman’s March to the Sea. I hadn’t realized what a cross section of humanity, not just military, joined in the March. They included freed former slaves, nurses, refugees traveling with the very army responsible for their displacement, Southern deserters, and opportunists.

One memorable character is Emily Thomas, genteel daughter of a distinguished Southern judge. When her father dies just as Union Soldiers take over his house, Emily throws her lot in with the Union surgeon who helps her see to his burial. She becomes a nurse, like the doctor blind to blue or grey. She becomes stronger than she could have thought possible.

Pearl is an adolescent “white Negro” who carries a letter she intends to deliver written by  the Union officer who protected Pearl on much of the March. It’s written to his wife in Washington, D.C.

Each homeless person in the book finds a rough shelter and some measure of companionship on the journey. We see them as resilient, desperate, but purposeful, individual survivors.

roy

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundahti Roy has a more modern and terrible take on what countries warring over religion, power, and land can do to their own inhabitants. Written to show historic upheavals between India and Pakistan, and especially the battles over Kashmir, Roy gives us memorable characters of collateral damage. These include transgender people who become more and more marginalized, and those who lose loved ones to torture and murder on the part of police and military, and those who love well, but not wisely ( feminist Tilo and Kashmiri freedom fighter Musa) in dangerous times.

We care about these people and we think about what war has done to them. They become symbols of collateral damage of war. These books, and our own country’s present and historical involvement in war, make me think of the importance of creating characters who remind us of the importance of humanity, even in extreme times. 

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