Tuesday, January 24, 2006

On names - a difficult question

Caution: I laughed a lot at this post. It contains some very funny Chesterton writing. Put the drink down now! You have been warned.

As I have hinted several times, I am busy with lots of work (thank God!)

I have work which I do for employment. I am done for today; I wrote a very nice little addition to a program which should make my users happy.

I have work for my friends - I am not allowed to say who they are, and while at least one is a world-famous author, some others have never been heard of across town. (That's the nice thing about friends!)

I have work for - well, let's call them chores - I get to do the dishes later.

And I have my own writing. The really hard writing I am doing at present is a book on Subsidiarity, and I will keep blaring it here so that I will force myself to get further ahead on it!

But I also have some other writing, which is fiction. I have at least three or maybe seven different story-lines running at present. And, as you will know if you have ever tried to write stories, one of the hard parts is coming up with plots. That is, "what happens" in the story. Sometimes this is hard, sometimes it is easy - because I am a computer programmer/scientist, I can use some of the tricks of my own discipline to help me. But to explain that would take another book which I do not have time to write. So I will just say sometimes it is easy, and sometimes hard. (In computing we call this kind of thing "complexity" and we use a very funny thing called "Big O" to measure it... someday I will tell you more.)

But the thing I would like to talk about, before I have to go wash the dishes, is a somewhat different hard part of story writing. And that is picking names for your characters.

One of the very interesting things that our Uncle Gilbert Chesterton told me about was how someone got into trouble with the Law when she wrote a story, and picked a nice made-up kind of name - except that the person in the story was bad - and the REAL PERSON with that name thought the author was talking about him!

So picking names is hard. Now I gave you a warning at the beginning that this would be funny, and here comes the funny. You see, Chesterton wrote a whole essay about this event - it was in his ILN essay for February 11, 1911. As you know, GKC wrote stories too, so it was something he had to be concerned with - so he thought about the problem, and here is what he said...

what is a novelist supposed to do? Is he to leave blanks for the names, or number them? Should he advertise first for all the claimants to a title and square them moderately beforehand? The only other way I can think of would be to give the characters names that no one of ordinary strength could possess, pronounce, or endure - say, "Quinchbootlepump" or "Pottlehartipips." One might cherish a hope that few prosecutors could establish a claim to these. How far they
would enrich or weaken the style of the author it would, of course, be more difficult to say. One must think mainly of the average romantic novel; one must imagine some paragraph like this: "As Bunchoosa Blutterspangle lingered in the lovely garden a voice said 'Bunchi' behind her, in tones that recalled the old glad days at the Quoodlesnakes'. It was, it was indeed the deep, melodious voice of Splitcat Chintzibobs." It seems to me that this method would ruffle, as it were, the smooth surface of the softer and more simply pathetic passages.

(Hee hee hee cough, gag! laugh, hee hee, laugh! gag!) Sorry, that is some of the funniest Chesterton I know of. What a great name: "Splitcat Chintzibobs" - whew! (hee hee hee)

Another trick is to do what computers do - and use numbers. All those file names, and web addresses, and those kinds of things are just tricks the computer uses so us poor humans can understand the silly old numbers it uses. Strange to say, Chesterton thought that might work in a story: "I remember, in the course of the controversy, that I suggested that we should have to fall back on some alternative to names, such as numbers, in describing the ringing repartees leading up to the duel in which the subtle and crafty 7991 died upon the sword of the too-impetuous 3893; or the vows breathed by the passionate lips of 771 in the ear of 707." [GKC Autobiography CW16:183]

but that would be jsut as bad a programming in object code (that's the REAL language of computers, and just about nobody ever uses it any more; I did for a little, and can still read some of the older kinds... yuck.)

Now you may wonder why I said that the author was a "she" when I told you about the court case. You see there was a follow-up essay which did not come out until December 9, 1911. And in that essay, GKC told the name of the author - except that the author used a pen name! (Like I do on this blogg.) The author was "J. K. Prothero" but I happen to know who that really was. I will tell you in another posting. (If you DO know, you are not allowed to post the answer in the comments unless you are presently being home-schooled in a grade lower than 13.) But there is more to tell than just blabbing the answer, so you will have to watch for my posting to explain it...)

The follow-up essay showed one of the very interesting ways around the problem of names. Our heroine, "J. K. Prothero", rewrote the story in question, but then went around to all her friends and asked them to sign an official document authorizing her to use their names in her book!!! What a great idea. And she had a lot of friends. And so, as GKC reported, "the author has republished the offending romance, called "Motley and Tinsel" with all the names altered to those of quite celebrated people, who gave their permission as a protest against the judgment. It says something for the swing and spirit of the story considered as a good melodrama that one can still read it as a story, original and romantic, although the aged box-office man is called Bernard Shaw, the second stage-manager Hilaire Belloc, and an entertaining cabman George R. Sims."

I might try that sometime, but meanwhile I use other tricks for my stories. Sometimes I just use "Smith" or some other nice name like that.

But even that can be misleading: to conclude this little story about names, let us just see why Smith is not a common name at all:

I remember a long time ago a sensible sub-editor coming up to me with a book in his hand, called "Mr. Smith," or "The Smith Family," or some such thing. He said, "Well, you won't get any of your damned mysticism out of this," or words to that effect. I am happy to say that I undeceived him; but the victory was too obvious and easy. In most cases the name is unpoetical, although the fact is poetical. In the case of Smith, the name is so poetical that it must be an arduous and heroic matter for the man to live up to it. The name of Smith is the name of the one trade that even kings respected, it could claim half the glory of that arma virumque which all epics acclaimed. The spirit of the smithy is so close to the spirit of song that it has mixed in a million poems, and every blacksmith is a harmonious blacksmith.
Even the village children feel that in some dim way the smith is poetic, as the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic, when they feast on the dancing sparks and deafening blows in the cavern of that creative violence. The brute repose of Nature, the passionate cunning of man, the strongest of earthly metals, the wierdest of earthly elements, the unconquerable iron subdued by its only conqueror, the wheel and the ploughshare, the sword and the steam-hammer, the arraying of armies and the whole legend of arms, all these things are written, briefly indeed, but quite legibly, on the visiting-card of Mr. Smith. Yet our novelists call their hero "Aylmer Valence," which means nothing, or "Vernon Raymond," which means nothing, when it is in their power to give him this sacred name of Smith - this name made of iron and flame. It would be very natural if a certain hauteur, a certain carriage of the head, a certain curl of the lip, distinguished every one whose name is Smith. Perhaps it does; I trust so. Whoever else are parvenus, the Smiths are not parvenus. From the darkest dawn of history this clan has gone forth to battle; its trophies are on every hand; its name is everywhere; it is older than the nations, and its sign is the Hammer of Thor.
[GKC, Heretics CW1:54-55]

(Ooo, Latin. Any of our homeschoolers know what arma virumque means? And where it is from?)

So if you want to write a very unusual story, just use names like Smith, Ferrer, Herrera, Kovach, Schmidt, Ferrier, Ferraro, Kovacs, Kusnetzov, Kowal...

Or else make them up yourself, my dear Bunchusa!

Hee hee.


At 25 January, 2006 12:12, Blogger Ria said...

Arma virumque means arms and a man doesn't it? Arma virumque canto (or something like that) is i sing of arms and a man which is from Virgil. Is that right?

At 26 January, 2006 17:31, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Yes, these are the opening words of his great Aeneid.

Very good - five points!

Oh yes - my edition of the Latin uses "cano" but I checked my 501 Latin Verbs and found that canto is also used for "I sing".

Also I have gone ahead and posted about "J. K. Prothero" since I thought that was rather a trick question - but you can still go ahead and try to find the answer - then read my posting find out even more about her.


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