Tag Archives: writing

The Power of Names

Shakespeare invited us to consider, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  The Bard’s musings on the subject notwithstanding, the truth is that names do hold a fair bit of power in forging our perception of other people, as well as ourselves.

If you are a foreign-born individual who goes about in your adopted land of residence with a first name that points clearly to your nation of origin, you immediately know how vital a role a name can play when trying to integrate yourself with the local population (so much so that many foreigners will give in, and change their foreign-sounding names to something more palatable to the culture they aim to assimilate in).  Although few of us will readily admit to it, we are all susceptible to making generalizations about people we come across in our daily life based on superficial features.  Names are definitely one such feature.  That is not to say that every assumption made about someone based on such features is either wrong, or malicious.  It’s not wrong (factually or morally) to deduce that a person with an obviously Asian sounding name is in some way culturally connected to Asia.  Same with a man named Hans Gunterkind most likely being of some kind of Germanic heritage,  Jean-Pierre Neauvoix being French.  So on and so forth.

(It goes without saying that the contemptible part in forging a preconception about someone isn’t the initial preconception itself, it’s what you do with it from there on forward.  If on recognizing you’re about to speak with Chen Huiyin leads you to assume she is probably Asian before seeing her, no sensible person will raise an eyebrow for that assumption.  If, however, you further take your preconception to assume she is in some way personally inferior to someone who isn’t Asian, that’s where we run into issues of bigotry that will rightly be condemned by much of the public at large.)

Issues of what might be called ethnic names aside (are not all names relatively ethnic to different cultures, one might be inclined to ask here?), there are naming norms within American culture that occasionally shape our interactions with each other.  When you’re in the middle of everyday America and come across the name Kevin, it is unavoidable that you will imagine a man.  Unless you just happen to know a woman named Kevin, but even then you are likely to ascribe it to a rare anomaly.  What if over the course of the next three decades a swarm of new parents decide that Kevin makes for a great name for their baby girls, and the social paradigm shifts so that suddenly you run into more female Kevins than male ones?  Would you easily adjust to the new cultural trend, or still stick to the norm you had been accustomed to of Kevin being a predominantly male name?  If this sounds like an unlikely scenario to happen, think about how the name Ashley in America at the start of the 20th Century changed from mostly male to predominantly female by the start of the 21st Century.

Not to belabor a point past my humble reader’s generous patience, but it would feel disingenuous not to touch on my personal experience here.  Growing up in continental Europe as a boy named Sascha/Sasha the social assumption about it was that my parents must be bland, unimaginative, and possibly even a tad bit conservative in their leanings, precisely because boys named Sascha/Sasha are so common to come across there.  At the time, it formed a personal impression of myself being just another average lad going about my business, similarly to how I imagine an American youth named Michael or David would feel on the matter in contemporary American culture.  When I moved to the U.S. in my early teens I came to find out that my name was somewhat of a peculiarity to my peers; one that definitely demanded further explanation on my part.  Suddenly, I was no longer merely a random guy with an average-to-boring name, I was a random guy whose androgynous-to-feminine name invited further conversation (occasionally schoolyard taunts, too, but I’m pretty good at deflecting unkind commentary and rolling with the punches, so I bear no negative grudges from it).

I would argue that your name is the most basic qualifier of your identity, and people’s reactions to it forms a great deal of your learned behavior when interacting with others.  I can honestly say that the change in perception in how people reacted to my name on moving to the U.S.–as opposed to the reaction I received for it back in Europe–did affect how I carry myself and interact with others to some non-trivial extent.  At least in that I know when I introduce myself to others, I can be sure of two things:  1. I will be pegged as foreign regardless of my citizenship status, 2. I may be asked an awkward follow-up question regarding my name (to which, when I’m feeling lazy, my typical response will be either “My parents were really hoping for a girl, and were surprised when I popped out, dick-swinging and all,” or “I wanted to be able to better relate to women, but Nancy Sunflowerseed sounded too butch, so Sascha had to do”).

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post was not to regale anyone with anecdotes about naming cultures, as a clever ruse to sneak in a dick-swinging joke.  It’s to touch on a greater point about forging better writing habits and being mindful of one’s intended audience’s social palate.  Sooner or later, just about all writers find themselves fretting over picking out the perfect name to convey their characters’ personalities and backgrounds effortlessly to the reader.  And there are definitely right and wrong names one can decide on, for the roundabout reasons stated above.

If you’re writing a story about a street-wise, inner-city black kid, born and bred in the Bronx, but is named Hans Jorgenson Gunterkind, well you better be ready to explain how the hell that came to be.  Same if you’re writing a story about a 15th Century Samurai named Steven.  While clever names can add exotic intrigue to characters, and piece together unspoken–unwritten?–context about their personal interactions with their environments, it can also needlessly distract the reader if it’s not really meant to be a focal point of the narrative.

It’s perfectly fine to be bold and go for something unconventional when you’re crafting your written world, but don’t bend over backwards to convey uniqueness unnecessarily, to the point that it hinders the readers ability to become immersed within the narrative.  A story that has five characters named Mike to show the absurd commonality of the name can be witty and fun, or it can end up confusing and frustrating to the reader.  Take a moment to consider how the greater world you have created interacts with this dynamic, and whether it helps or hurts the story you’re setting out to tell.  Reading practicality should not be dispensed for the sake of creativity; they should operate together to form a coherent story that can be enjoyably read.

You can’t please everyone, and someone will hate your work no matter what or how you write.  Which is why the starting point for all my writing advice is to always start with being honest with every story’s first reader: its author.  And if, as you put pen to paper (or, more realistically, fingers to keyboard), what seemed like a great name in the first outline is becoming harder to work with as the story progresses, rather than forcing the narrative to conform, there is no shame in revising the basics–character names included.

Suck on that, Shakespeare, is what I’m really trying to say here.

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In Defense of Mary Sue

There are two distinct ways in which the term Mary Sue gets used in literary works (as well as any other fictional medium, really).  The most common usage today is in the context of the perfect protagonist.  This could mean a character that has a seemingly limitless aptitude for displaying/learning skills that go well beyond the realm of reason even within the reality of the fanciful narrative in which s/he exists.

Think of characters that are described as flawless physically, and around whom all the other characters gravitate towards, whether the plot necessitates it or not.  Obvious examples are characters brought to life within the pages of fan-fiction, but I would say that such writings are somewhat of a given on account that they are meant to be tributes to existing characters, thus overemphasizing said characters attributes might be unavoidable in this genre.  More worthwhile examples of Mary Sues are characters that are actually successful, and one could say well-respected, within literature.

Characters like James Bond and Nancy Drew in their original literary inceptions could very easily be argued to fit this description.  James Bond speaks every language of every country he steps foot in, can fight (and always win) in every fighting style confronted with, and can (and will) seduce any woman he desires because every woman he meets just naturally lusts after him without hesitation.  Likewise, Nancy Drew effortlessly picks up any activity she tries, is seemingly liked by everyone and often complimented on just how great she is by the other characters, and of course understands investigative deduction and forensic science well beyond what ought to be plausible for a person her age.

A word needs to be said about not going overboard and pinning the Mary Sue label on any character that just happens to be either capable, or powerful.  For example, although Superman is essentially a god-like character in many regards, he’s not really a Mary Sue as the term is commonly used.  Notwithstanding the fact that he has a fatal weakness in kryptonite, a lot of the narrative around Superman centers on the way his immense power keeps him on some scale separate–even isolated–from the very people he is dedicated to protect.  No matter how humane he is, he is never going to be human, and will always be an outsider in that regard in the only world he knows as home (especially since his birth planet no longer exists).  In this sense, there is a genuinely ongoing tragedy underlying the Superman saga, whether it is explicitly stated or not, in a way Mary Sues don’t really have to deal with.

There is a secondary definition to a Mary Sue, and it involves authors who essentially write themselves into the plot of their stories as a means of wish-fulfillment.  To put it simply, when the main character in a story is written as a idealized version of the author her/himself, and is written in a way to fulfill the perfect protagonist archetypes described above, then we have a Mary Sue on our hands.

I can see why people dislike either incarnation of the Mary Sue trope sneaking into the pages of a story.  Perfect character can get stale very quickly, because they are largely unrelatable to the vast majority of readers.  Moreover, the overreaching plot of a story will become very boring if we can tell from the start that the main character will always save the day, get the love, or that every obstacle encountered is just a superficial plot piece that offers no real danger in the long run.  However, despite all this reasonable criticism on why not to write characters in this way, the fact is that Mary Sues can actually resonate with readers if they find the story engaging enough–compelling writing just have a way of trumping all tropes.  The two examples of James Bond and Nancy Drew can attest to this just by how prolific both characters have been through the decades.  (It should be noted that I am aware how Bond has been greatly “de-Sued” in his cinematic portrayal over the years, in particular in the most recent Daniel Craig films, which show him as a far more vulnerable and broken person than he ever was in print.)

What this tells me is that people don’t mind Mary Sues so much as they like to use Mary Sues as a convenient way to write off a work of fiction they probably disliked to begin with.  And I get that, too.  Sometimes, characters in a book can just rub you the wrong way.  I for one absolutely loathed Holden Caulfield when I first read The Catcher in the Rye, and am still not too found of the little shit to this day.  (I’ve mellowed out about him because I’ve come to terms with the possibility that he’s a character I’m not meant to like.)  If I discovered that Holden was written to serve as an idealized stand-in for J.D. Salinger my opinion would not be swayed one way or the other.  This brings me to the final point I want to make on this topic, and it deals with the issue people have of authors writing themselves into the characters.  As anyone who has ever written fiction can confirm, it is unavoidable that some part of you will come through, in some way, in every character you will ever create.  I’ll even go as far as to say that I have never written a character that didn’t reflect some aspect of my personality, morbid curiosities, lived experiences, faced dilemmas, overcome setbacks, learned failures, and hard fought successes.  And I know that people will object that I’m shamefully stirring away from the genuine opposition leveled against Mary Sues (i.e. an author’s perfect protagonist wish-fulfillment), but I would argue that the fear of not wanting to create a Mary Sue-type character may be holding some writers back from exploring the full depth they can push themselves to because they are too paranoid about falling into this trope.  What I would urge instead is for a different approach.

You shouldn’t just see yourself as the author of the story, but remember that you are also its first reader.  You are the first one who will look through the characters’ eyes and see the world as it is written for them to see.  Regardless of whether you are a novice or been doing this for years, it is no easy feat to create an entire world from whole cloth, and then give to it a pair of eyes (several pairs, if we are being honest) for others to share in the experience.  It can be a rather frustrating task to even know where to start.  My take on the matter is simply to realize that, as you’re struggling to give sight to your story’s narrators, it is perfectly fine to first start with the pair of eyes ready made in your head, and expand from there without fear of breaking some unwritten rules of storytelling.

The Importance of Consistency in Fiction

The appealing thing about writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction is having the ability to create one’s own reality in the prose.  Be it gravity, atmosphere, characters’ sensory perception, human anatomy and mortality, none of these things need to be bound to the limitations we ourselves feel in our daily lives.  This is a powerful tool that allows authors to explore and describe the worlds they create with interesting insights without having to worry about being in line with the minutiae details of modern physics, and let’s them appeal to the reader’s wonder about the infinite realm of possibilities concerning reality as it can be challenged by her/his imagination.

Science fiction is an excellent example of this, both in book and movie form, where entire alternate universes can be conjured up with their own set of logical rules and physical laws that characters have to abide by.  There is a pitfall in this whole formula, however, that’s easy to fall into if an author is not careful.  While it is true that the sole limitation to the worlds you create is the depth of your own imagination, it needs to be remembered that what makes even a fantasy world realistic and believable to the audience is that–once its rules and laws are laid out–it remains consistent to its own reality.

If characters in a story generally cannot fly, having a character suddenly appear in chapter ten who inexplicable flies is an example of inconsistency.  If the monsters of the story are initially described as slow moving and clumsy, having them give chase in the middle of the story to create suspense is an example of inconsistency.  Speech patterns are a similar issue, where if a character’s accent quirks are sometimes emphasized in text and other times they are not, this is an example of inconsistency.

Generally, in epic sagas like Lord of the Rings it is understood that occasional logical flaws will occur for the sake of keeping the plot going (i.e. why didn’t the Eagles just take Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom at the start of the books, because then the story would be resolved in one book, rather than a trilogy).  Small-scale errors most readers can forgive for the sake of the narrative.  It’s when bigger, more obvious gaps in logic occur that many start to raise their eyebrows suspiciously.  For example, why do the vampires in Twilight go to school?  They’re over a hundred years old in the story, what reason do they have to keep attending high school?  And since they don’t age, do they have to keep changing schools so as not to have to explain why they spent the last ten decades in the same exact grade?  Since they do have regular contact with humans via having to go to school, why aren’t more people suspicious about the fact that none of them have aged, ever?

Science fiction films tend to be even worse offenders to this rule of consistency.  The now forgotten 1994 time traveling movie Timecop, sets up a reality in which time travel exists.  Within this reality they make the explicit mention that you can only travel to the past, never to the future; essentially making this the one and only “time travel rule” the characters need to follow.  Yet, the plot goes on to break this rule almost immediately by having characters who have traveled back to the past return back to their former present; even though, technically, when they travel to the past that past becomes their present, so returning to their original timeline means they are traveling to the future, which is they one thing the plot explicitly states you cannot do in this time traveling reality.  And it’s never explained how this is possible, even in a halfhearted way.  The viewer is simply expected not to notice.  But we do, and we are naturally put off by it, even if we can’t fully articulate why at first viewing.

If you are setting out to write fiction, and epic fantasy fiction at that, by all means let your only limits be the depth of your own creativity.  But please, for the sake of all our collective rational senses (as well as the senses of the characters you have so painstakingly born onto the page), don’t cheapen the experience by failing to have your worlds adhere to the rules and laws of the realities you yourself saw fit to give life to on the page.  Your future legion of devoted readers and admirers will thank you for it.

Why We Write

I’ve heard it said on several occasion that a writer’s best ally is maintaining a high degree of modesty in her/his work.  The reasoning behind this is obvious to most people in that no self-respecting reader wants to support the scribbles of a smug narcissist, convinced that her/his words are the world’s gift to human expression.  However, despite its practical value, the adage does ignore an important attribute all writer’s share to some degree:  namely, writers are narcissists.

Whether we’re aiming to share our words by traditional print media, or blogging free of charge in our spare time, there is something undeniably self-indulgent in our conviction that we not only have something of importance to add to a topic of discussion, but that the greater public might benefit in hearing our take on a subject matter, too.  And if you really don’t feel that you have anything worthwhile to say on a topic, why are you typing so many grueling posts testifying to the contrary?

Let it be clear, this is not a social criticism on my part.  Rather, it is a personal affirmation.  I write this blog precisely because I feel it is worth the time and effort, and–in a broader sense–hope that it offers some benefit to somebody, somewhere (even if just to avoid having to read for that book report you failed to research on your own).  Moreover, I have no shame in recognizing the benign egotism of the act.  I find humility, of course, in knowing that my opinions on the topics I discuss hold no more inherent value than anybody else’s.  Likewise, I find aggrandizement in the conviction that my opinions have as much of a right to be heard and shared as anybody else’s (whether anyone else agrees, I’ll readily leave to the free marketplace of ideas to decide).

Modesty, by virtue of consistent self-scrutiny, is definitely a valued tone writers and commentators should strive to maintain in the work they share with the world.  Yet, I feel it is also important to acknowledge how those of us who take the step of actually putting our thoughts and musings into a public forum, are also just a little bit full of ourselves.  Which, although always capable to evolving into a boorish vice, can also serve as an indispensable catalyst for creativity.  Ovid probably captured this sentiment best in the epilogue to his Metamorphosis:

Now I have done my work.  It will endure,

I trust, beyond Jove’s anger, fire and sword,

Beyond Time’s hunger.  The day will come, I know,

So let it come, that day which has no power

Save over my body, to end my span of life

Whatever it may be.  Still, part of me,

The better part, immortal, will be borne

Above the start; my name will be remembered

Wherever Roman power rules conquered lands,

I shall be read, and through all centuries,

If prophecies of bards are ever truthful,

I shall be living, always.

Our words, too, are immortalized, in the far reaches of cyberspace; leaving a piece of ourselves to forever be either derided or appreciated long after we have lost the ability to partake in the conversation.  Possibly a very humbling thought, but not really all that modest.

Consider this my welcoming post to the coming summer days, and the approaching half-year mark.  In case anyone can’t tell, my new year’s resolution was to strive to be more honest with myself (also to start spending more time outdoors, but I’ve been making that one 10 years in a row, and quit every time I notice just how uncomfortably bright the sun is).  So a jovial greeting to whoever happens to be reading.  Stay safe, positive, and slightly eccentric, wherever you are.