Thursday, May 13, 2010

Naming Conventions

I remember back in high school, like probably every high school student, we read "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. No need for spoilers, as I'm sure we've all read it.

And I remember that afterward, the teacher foisted all kinds of symbolism on us. I don't remember most of it. Perhaps the lottery itself was symbolic of humankind repeating empty rituals long after their purpose was even remembered, and maybe the end result of the lottery was man at his most primitive, and probably, most real. A bunch of crap like that.

But what I remember most about it was the teacher insisting that the name of the main character, the women who won the lottery, was purposefully selected by Ms. Jackson for its symbolism. Why, it's as plain as the nose on your face! Her name was, after all, De La Croix, which means "of the cross," which of course made her a Christ-like figure.

Again, I thought it was all a bunch of crap. Wasn't it at least possible that she simply sat down to write a cool story, and any symbolism inside was merely a cool coincidence? Who knows, maybe she couldn't come up with a name, grabbed the white pages, and landed on the D's.

The mere thought of someone putting such work into weaving "symbolism" into a short story struck me as a bit much, and maybe a bit pretentious. I guess I'm willing to concede that she might have, but she was so talented about it, and it was so subtle, that it appeared she didn't "work" at it at all.

And I suspect if even a slightly less talented writer tried to do the same thing—purposefully weaving "symbolism" into their work—it would all stand out like a sore thumb, and you wouldn't be reading it in a high school class.

I suppose what got me thinking about this is that I suck at coming up with character names. Oh, I suppose it's not so much I suck, really, as I simply don't give it very much thought or put too much time into it.

Sometimes, I'll pull up a news site and scroll through articles looking for an interesting name, or one I haven't used before. Or, I'll go back in my mind to elementary school classmates and try to remember their names. And yes, I've also used the phone book.

Once or twice, I've used the names of old friends or colleagues I haven't seen in years but think of often. For example, in the sequel to my vampire novel "Applewood," one of the major characters is a longtime vampire who becomes a mentor to my newly minted young vampire.

Not sure quite why I did it, but I remembered back to someone who mentored me early in my career, who became a good friend, but one I haven't seen in years. British guy too, pale and pasty, with slicked back black hair. He fit ALL the requirements. And so, with a smile, I used his name without even thinking about it.

But in the unrealistic expectation that some future high school generation is forced to read that book, I'd like to go on record and say that is the reason the last name of this character is "Mallett" and not because of any "symbolism" that he is named after the thing he most fears!

At any rate, the main character's name in my current pirate wip was easy to come up with. Buddy of my (then) thirteen-year-old nephew thought it would be cool if I used his name in a book. No problem, young Chris Duggan. No problem at all.

Speaking of the current wip, I'm in the middle of Book III and at about 54,000 words. They're coming easier now, which is nice. We've still got the whole summer to go (things will climax on Labor Day) so I suspect we're looking at around 80,000 words. I'm doing 1,500 plus a day, so we're still on target.

Here's another sampling, and as always, thanks for stopping by!

"Captain wishes to pervide evidence, then evidence shall be heard," he said, in a voice that brooked no discontent.

The murmurs settled down some. Chris saw that even Sykes knew he'd missed his moment, at least for now. His leg slowly descended to the floor. He put his head down and skulked off, choosing a seat off to the side.

Chris closed his eyes and let out a long breath. His legs were shaking. He thought for a moment he might faint from the tension. With his eyes still closed, he felt a soft hand on his shoulder. Turning, he opened his eyes and saw Sarah smiling at him. She motioned her head to the right, where Chris saw two empty chairs against the wall. Taking his hand in hers, she walked them over and the two sat down.

The shaking in Chris's legs subsided, but his heart still raced. He refused to believe it had anything to do with the soft hand in his. It seemed too as if they held hands far longer than necessary, but after another moment, Sarah took her hand away.

Chris leaned forward and put his head between his legs to let the nausea pass. While bent over, he felt a gentle tapping on his back, like the wings of an angel beating softly. Feeling better, he sat up slowly and then sat back to await whatever was to come. Moments later, he felt soft breath near his ear. Sarah.

"I've heard of these, but never done one," she whispered.

Chris turned, and when their eyes met, she went on.

"It's community theater, right? Improv of some sort? One of those audience participation murder mystery things."

Chris had no idea what she was talking about, but nodded anyway. Sarah went on.

"These guys are supposed to be pirates, right?" she asked.

Chris smiled, and after a moment, he answered.

"They prefer to be called . . . privateers," he said.


Fox Lee said...

I had never even heard of "The Lottery" until I was grown up. Given how many classics I didn't read, I have to wonder if my public schools were a bit rebellious.

Brendan said...

I posted the quote here long ago, but Shirley Jackson was asked what was the most interesting reaction she'd had to the story.

She answered that it was all those mails she receieved, asking where these lotteries were held, and could people go and watch.

Aaron Polson said...

I must admit I check old death notices online for names. Weird? Maybe. Effective? Yes.

Brendan P. Myers said...

Death notices. Hmm.

Note to self.

Death notices.