All posts by Lane

Adventures in Odyssey Update: Reboot!

So, it’s been a while since I posted an AIO review. I needed a break to rethink how I was doing these. I kept feeling like the roughly-chronological approach wasn’t communicating the real impact this show had on my life. As a kid, I didn’t listen through once or twice. I was steeped in it. I sampled random episodes while I was doing chores, or crafts, or on a road trip. It’s collective approach to various issues shaped my early understanding of almost any moral question you can think of.

With such a long running show, it was inevitable that they would return to the same themes quite frequently. Every topic they covered had good and bad episodes, naturally, but in retrospect not only were there more bad than good, but the bad ones were awful while the good ones were fairly bland and obvious. That, upon reviewing this series, is my biggest problem; it’s not that they can’t churn out a good message every now and then, but it’s that the morals they emphasize tend to be extremely problematic. Furthermore, I think that sometimes what most impacted my life wasn’t what messages were included, but which ones were excluded. To be clear, I don’t think any show should be responsible for teaching all of the things. That’s an unrealistic expectation. But unfortunately, it’s an unrealistic expectation that Focus on the Family actively encouraged parents to have. So I do think it’s fair to point out that, given how many episodes talk about relationships, none of them even mention the existence of emotional manipulation or abuse. (And don’t tell me it’s just a kids show. They do go to some dark, scary places when it suits their agenda, and plenty of kids shows do find ways to at least introduce difficult topics.) If you’re going to market yourself as a comprehensive moral guidebook for kids, and parents actually take that seriously, like mine certainly did, you get criticized for the important things you fail to mention.

So, during that four month break, I listened to every episode I have. I took notes and grouped them by topic, and cut out some episodes that were repetitive. For the most part, I’ll now be reviewing them by themes, with two exceptions. First, as I listened to all these episodes back to back, I noticed some interesting patterns in how AIO constructs a theme. I picked out some episodes that either didn’t fit neatly into a category (or retread old ground), but were good for showcasing how AIO tries to teach their lessons, for better or worse. I’ll be using these as spacers between the big thematic groups. Second, there are a couple arcs that hang together so much that it’s difficult to tell any part separately. I’ll be using a couple of these to show you how AIO sounds to a regularly listening audience. The last one section I do will be one of these, and it will cover their longest arc; the Novacom saga.

Good lord, I cannot wait to tell you all about the Novacom saga. It’s such a greatest hits of everything the show has ever done wrong.

I’m sorry the delay was so long, but there was a lot to cover. I’m going to be reviewing a grand total of 95 episodes, and as I said, there’s quite a few that I had but opted to skip. Now that I’ve got it all mapped out, I’m really excited to get back into it. I’m also going to start posting them on a regular schedule; every other Wednesday, starting next week.

Thanks for your patience, and look for the next review around noon next week!

Black Victorians, Black Victoriana, Edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

Black Victorians Black Victoriana

  • Genre
    • History, Black History, European History, Essays
  • Summary
    • Black history, as it’s taught in America, consists of a brief overview of slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and the life of George Washington Carver. In other Western countries, the situation is apparently not much better; historians have been trained to think of white history as history and anything else as an obscure specialization. There are, thankfully, efforts to change that, and this book focuses on a particularly neglected period; the lives and rights of Black people living in England during the Victorian era. 
  • Information
    • I got this book a few years ago because I wanted to know how to write non-white people in a Victorian inspired setting. And by Victorian inspired setting I mean steampunk. I was expecting a comprehensive picture, but instead it’s a collection of academic essays on different aspects of Black Victoriana. It was less of a picture, more of a collection of puzzle pieces, which in a way was more interesting. It’s intent was to open a conversation, by pointing out interesting and neglected facets, and leaving the reader still curious to learn more. 
    • These articles touch on genealogy, famous individuals, immigrants, families, portrayal of Africans in Victorian culture and the efforts Black Victorians took to reclaim their image. Every one of these articles taught me something fascinating and new, and several gave me character ideas. I’d definitely recommend this both to writers and history nerds.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Obviously it varies by author, and it should be noted these people are mostly academics first and writers second. While some of them were stiff, they were straightforward and relatively easy to get through; nothing painfully bogged down in jargon or made artificially complicated. The prose is plain, but the content more than makes up on it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • An entire essay on the fabulously fascinating life of Pablo Fanque, who owned one of the most successful and famous circuses of his era. Yes, that’s one of the ones that gave me a story idea. 
    • The story of Ida B. Wells’ trip to Britain and how she continued her fight for racial justice there. 
    • Absolutely beautiful photos and illustrations of Black people in Victorian garb.
    • The article on the Pan-African Conference of 1900 is required reading if you are into anti-imperialist and decolonizing movements.
    • This is a fabulous starting point, not only because of the subject matter within, but because it draws from so many authors and references so many other books. It’s an introduction with a built-in reading list for your continued research.
  • Content Warnings
    • You’re good.
  • Quotes
    • From the editor’s intro; “For more than thirty years a gap has existed in the scholarship of black Britain, one that leaped from the thousands of black inhabitants of eighteenth century Britain to the two migrations of black people into Britain during World War I and directly following World War II… One of the purposes of this book is to dispel that silence by carefully combing the records to locate black Victorians and to put them back into the national picture, both in the ways they were represented in popular culture and as actual people who lived, worked, traveled, lectured, performed, and struggled in Victorian England.”

Activism, Self-Care and the March for Science

A confession; although I’ve been looking forward to this for months, I nearly did not go. Lately I’ve been low on spoons, and I kept asking myself what I could really contribute. One more body? If I showed up and there was a massive turnout, I would not be necessary. If I showed up and there wasn’t, I would not be enough to fix it. On the other hand, I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I showed up. History is always happening, but these days it is happening at a rather more grueling pace.

Still, couldn’t I make up my absence with more concrete action, some other day?

In the end, what convinced me to get out and brave the rain wasn’t thoughts of what I could do. It was the realization that I needed the march more than the march needed me. In the first hundred days, the liberals have won more battles than they’ve lost. But they have had to fight hard, there have been losses, and there’s still plenty of time for the tide to turn. I want to take a break. I’m scared that if I do, that means everyone else will be too, and we will all be blindsided by the next move. I needed to get out there and see clear evidence that my people are still out there.

So I showed up, meandered, listened to speeches and read people’s signs. I’m an introvert with an anxiety disorder; I don’t much like having to interact with people. But I do like being around them. I’m a passionate crowd watcher. At the march, I was surrounded by xkcd shirts, brain hats, Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes, Lorax references and political math puns (apparently if you’re pro-choice, you vote Banach-Tarski in 2020… I was barely geeky enough to get that). There were buttons proclaiming that trans is beautiful and black lives matter. Some people blew bubbles in the rain, and watching them shimmer against the grey sky was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever seen.

And so many beautiful, dorky, incredible signs. I jotted down a few of my favorites;

  • “I only seem liberal because I think hurricanes are caused by barometric pressure, not gay marriage.”
  • A wordless portrait of Rosalind Franklin framed with plastic tube double helixes
  • (under a dead on Oregon Trail pixel drawing) “You have not died of dysentery. Thank science.”
  • “Donald, you’ll learn soon that Mar-a-lago is only 10 feet above sea level.”
  • “The earth is enormous and fragile, just like your ego. The difference is we can live without your ego.”

And my personal favorite…

  • “Science matters. Unless it’s energy. Then it equals matter times the speed of light squared.”

When I came home, I felt lighter. I also felt empowered, not least because I signed up for email lists to get more ideas for anti-fascist, pro-science and environmentalist activism. I got a reminder of just how many awesome weirdos are out there to fight ignorance and bigotry with me.

Take care of yourselves guys. Pace yourselves, join a team, sign up for a mailing list, and don’t be afraid to show up without knowing what exactly you’ll do for the cause, or how long you’ll even be able to stay. It’s okay. Just be there, to remind yourself that we aren’t doing this alone.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

  • Genre
    • Young Adult, Semi-Autobiographical
  • Plot Summary
    • Arnold Spirit Jr, the mildly disabled, perpetually bullied egghead of the Spokane Indian Reservation, gets fed up with the hopelessly outdated schools and transfers outside the Rez. He becomes an outsider both at his new school, where he’s the only Native American, and at home, where he’s seen as a traitor for leaving. The entire world seems out to get him, but it has made one serious miscalculation; he’s got a twisted sense of humor and absolutely nothing left to lose. 
  • Character Empathy
    • In some ways, this book is deeply empathetic. The first person narration immerses you deep within Jr’s point of view, and also invests time in unveiling the hidden reasons why those around him do what they do. In other ways, it’s faithful to the periodic other-person-blindness that infects all teenagers. Jr has enough to deal with; he doesn’t need to deeply empathize with every jerk who picks on him.
    • What makes this mixture work, though, is that the it’s not as simple as Jr empathizing with everyone who is nice to him and hating everyone who is mean to him. Sometimes that’s the case, but other times he understands why somebody is being mean to him. Sometimes he takes for granted somebody who is kind to him. As his relationships evolve, so does his level of empathy with the people around him. 
    • Nobody is simple. Even as cultural differences between reservation Native Americans and small town white people are discussed, no individual’s actions can be boiled down to “they’re an X so they do Y.” Some characters start out enemies and become friends, or start out friends and become enemies, and sometimes they go back again. Everybody is made of conflicting pieces. Everyone is a human being.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Jr. isn’t depressed so much as he has rocketed straight past depressed into “all out of fucks, bring this shit on.” That gives this book a tone not quite like anything else I’ve read. It’s raw and real, but at the same time, it constantly laughs at itself, and from that laughter comes strength, and from that strength comes Jr’s ability to take on the next challenge. He never really expects to win, and most of the time he’s right, but he is never willing to back down. It starts as cringe comedy but eventually becomes genuinely impressive. 
    • Also, there’s this recurring theme of deep profound thoughts interrupted by bad, bad teenage boy jokes, and I am a hundred percent there for it.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • There’s a scene with a white schoolteacher on the Rez that, in so many other books, would turn out white saviory. But this book was written by an actual Native American, that wasn’t going to happen. The teacher has to earn his right to give good advice by first confessing all the racist shit he’s seen and been complicit in. In addition to being a truthful window into oppression and cultural genocide, it makes for a more compelling character in the teacher and a far more powerful scene overall. 
    • All the main characters are great, but I’ve got to mention this coach who I thought was going to be a macho asshole but instead he’s really empowering and sweet. He gives a speech about how crying just proves you care and caring gives you strength, so if you feel like crying, do it and don’t be ashamed. He says the same thing later about being nervous. I loved him so much.
    • There’s another scene where Jr and his friend talk about books and reading and the inspiring awesomeness of learning, but it also has boner jokes, which in my opinion elevates the scene from good to fucking required reading. If you think boner jokes are funny. 
    • The message here is real as shit. It’s not about working hard until your chance comes and then seizing that chance and then suddenly fame and fortune and the American Dream! Jr. doesn’t have a shot at an amazing prep school that will guarantee his admission to Harvard. He has a shot at a dinky rural high school where the books were printed sometime this decade. The point of this book is that, when you’ve got nothing left to lose, do something stupid and reckless and risky that makes you feel like you’ve got hope again. Doesn’t matter if it pays off or not. You die without hope, and it’s the shittiest kind of death; the kind where you go on living like a zombie for ages before you actually die. So hope, even if it might not work out. At least you’ll stay alive until you die for real.
    • The paper form comes with pictures of Jr’s cartoons and they’re hilarious. The audiobook is read by Sherman Alexie, who has a slightly nasal, awkward voice that works for Jr so well, I kept forgetting Jr wasn’t a real person. Both are perfect.
  • Content Warnings
    • Tons of bullying, alcoholism and a few deaths. 
    • Racist and ableist language, including some that is internalized by Jr. It’s an accurate look at how toxic attitudes around can seep into a person’s head, even if they know rationally that they are wrong. The book finds ways to show you Jr is an awesome kid, even when he’s calling himself names.
  • Quotes
    • “I grabbed my book and opened it up. I wanted to smell it. Heck, I wanted to kiss it. Yes, kiss it. That’s right, I am a book kisser. Maybe that’s kind of perverted or maybe it’s just romantic and highly intelligent.”
    • “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
    • “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.”

The Best Reason to Remake Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

I finally got to see the live action remake last week, and on the whole I really enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I did leave the theater wanting to see it again.

It got me thinking about my old posts on Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome.  Beauty and the Beast does have, at it’s core, a story about a woman being captured and falling in love with her captor. Now, that isn’t actually Stockholm Syndrome; it’s one of the many cases where popular culture gets abuse and mental health seriously wrong. But it is still awful, and we have to face that. Our society grows from roots that are deeply oppressive to many people, and that oppression is often embedded in our favorite stories. This creates a tension between the desire to hold onto what is familiar and nostalgic, and the desire to destroy what is broken in order to make room for something better. A compromise is often to reimagine; to reshape a story in order to get rid of the worst parts while keeping whatever is left. The original Disney film did this brilliantly.

Stockholm Syndrome isn’t merely falling in love with a captor. It happens when a victim feels they cannot escape an abusive situation (whether they are literally captured or compelled to stay for any other reason) and then learns to adjust their behavior to protect themselves. Because they can produce a conditional kindness, they come to believe their abuser is a good person deep down, and that any abuse they do experience is their own fault. Falling in love doesn’t even necessarily enter into it.

The original fairy tale does leave room for this interpretation. Beauty is trapped, the Beast has compelled her to come by threatening her father and he is a perfect gentlemen once she begins to cooperate. But the first Disney film makes some important changes. The biggest ones are that 1. Belle is only restrained by her promise, and early on she attempts to leave, returning only when the Beast has earned a second chance by saving her life. This proves that she doesn’t actually feel trapped. She knows her safety is more important than keeping her word. 2. Belle stands up to him, and it’s he who has to change his behavior in order to have a relationship with her. 3. Belle does not actually fall in love until after he has explicitly set her free (the original fairy tale has him granting her a temporary vacation, after which she never gets to leave again).

In the remake, I did initially get worried about the second point. The animated film at least indicates early on that the Beast feels guilt and self-loathing. The desire to change is already there. The remake has him much darker, to start out, and even pulls out the old “daddy was mean to me” excuse. But then something happened that I loved. The servants made a conscious, collective decision NOT to tell Belle that her love would lift the curse. They instead said that what happened was their own fault, not her responsibility. The Beast was cruel and none of them stopped the events that made him that way. Nobody challenged him to become something better. Privately, they hope Belle will lift the curse. They are prepared for the possibility that this is just their fate.

After I made my first Beauty and the Beast posts, I talked with someone who has was abused by someone who expected her to change him. She talked about how the real underlying message of Beauty and the Beast isn’t “Stockholm Syndrome” but the idea that it’s the victim’s job to change the oppressor. That was a really good point that I’m a bit ashamed to have missed the first time around. This is a massive myth in our culture, and it’s incredibly damaging. It brings me back to the question; is it better to abandon a story with toxic roots, or reimagine it?

I think that when a myth is pervasive, it’s often because there is an element of truth. For example, I think there are times when love can change the behaviors of someone oppressive. Look at this story about how tthe son of David Duke abandoned white supremacy, or this TED talk by a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. I myself used to have deeply oppressive beliefs, and my friends from outside the religious right changed me. But fairy tales and romances carelessly pass around the maxim that love can redeem, and we ignore basic limitations of that principle.

  • It doesn’t work when we pretend love means never challenging or offending or calling someone out
  • It doesn’t work when the oppressor has no desire to change
  • Even if there is a desire to change, some oppressors want something else even more; power, status, the ease of a life where everyone works to accommodate their bad behavior. I know plenty of people who never changed
  • The potential redemption of an oppressor is not more important than protecting their victims

I think that a complex truth can never be told by cutting stories out of our culture. Instead, we need a variety of stories. When it comes to oppression and redemption, we don’t have much by way of stories that teach us how to recognize oppressors who aren’t willing to change, or that affirm the importance of a victim’s safety. This is one reason I loved The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren, just like Vader, has someone who loves him asking him to choose goodness. He makes the wrong choice. We almost never see that. We need to see more stories that show that, and that remind us that this whole “love redeems” thing is a gamble.

But in addition to telling more stories that show the other side, I do think we need to be more conscientious about how we tell the “love redeems” story. I think that of all the changes the original film made to the fairy tale, the addition of Gaston was one of the best. The difference between Gaston and the Beast is that, when Belle asserts herself, the Beast responds by fighting his inner darkness, and Gaston responds by escalating his misogyny. He goes from street harassment to manipulative proposals to locking her father up in order to blackmail her to, finally, attempting to kill his romantic rival. At no point does he learn that Belle’s “no” is sufficient reason to leave her alone. His entire rationale is “she’s the most beautiful, and that makes her the best, and don’t I deserve the best?”

The new film takes this contrast even further. It becomes even more explicit that the Beast has realized that, whatever the cost, nothing can justify keeping Belle against her will. As much as he wants Belle’s love to save him, he has no right to demand it. His darker behavior in the beginning even works to support this. He never really seems to expect that Belle will love him. LeFou, meanwhile, becomes explicitly attracted to Gaston. He becomes an example of love leading a person to enable oppressive behavior, rather than challenge it. In the end, he is betrayed, and learns to look for happiness elsewhere. His arc embeds into this “love redeems” story an example of how, sometimes, it doesn’t.

This is why I was glad to see Hollywood take on the old classic again. This is why I think it’s worthwhile to retell old, problematic stories. Stories are a product of their past. So are all of us. We do ourselves no favors by failing to acknowledge that. But when we revise our stories, we also re-examine ourselves; our old beliefs, our assumptions, and the oppressions we have been complicit in. Like the Beast, that examination can lead us to better ourselves.

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Planetfall

  • Genre
    • Science Fiction, Suspense, Space Colonization
  • Plot Summary
    • I don’t know how to describe this without spoiling anything. When this book was recommended to me, it was recommended that I read it without any knowledge of what was to come, and I’m so glad I did. So I’ll give you details about some of the fun things to come in the sections below, but for plot I’ll just say, strap in and enjoy the ride.
  • Character Empathy
    • The protagonist is richly developed, to the point that even when you think she’s doing something completely wrong and foolish you still want it to work out for her somehow. Her secrets make her somewhat isolated from the others, so you can’t get to know them as well, but they are still interesting, multifaceted and likable.
    • This story does not give you a straightforward villain. Antagonists, yes, as well as people who make decisions that are hard to condone. But the reasons they have make it difficult to judge them. I love books that can truly pull that off, and this one does.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s like a Hitchcock movie; sheer, agonizing suspense that never sacrifices character for plot or resorts to cheap tricks to make you jump.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • A bio-engineered extraterrestrial colony that was well thought out and like nothing I’ve ever read before.
    • Brilliantly paced exposition. I was always curious but never frustrated or confused. So few writers can pull that off, and I’ve gotten used to forgiving some missteps, but Emma Newman did not have a single moment to apologize for.
    • Most of the main characters are POC. The protagonist is Black and a lesbian. Nobody in the colony thinks this is a big deal.
    • One of the most relatable descriptions of an anxiety disorder that I’ve ever read.
    • Questions about the intersections of religion and science that were organic to the plot, dodged every cliche and managed hit that sweet spot between frustratingly vague and boringly preachy.
  • Content Warnings
    • There is no shortage of anxiety involved when reading this, but I can’t think of anything specifically graphic or commonly triggering.
  • Quotes
    • “I think “majority” is one of my least favorite words. It’s so often used to justify bad decisions.”
    • “That scared me more than anything, sometimes; the noise of my thoughts, the sense that even the space inside myself wasn’t safe.”
    • “That was the second major lie I told that week. It gets easier, in some ways; now I lie without expending any effort. But I think each one has its own weight. One alone may barely register, like a grain of sand in the palm of one’s hand. But soon enough there’s more than can be held and they start to slip through our grasp if we are not careful.”

The Surrender Tree, by Margarita Engle

The Surrender Tree

  • Genre
    • Poetry, Historical Fiction, Free Verse
  • Plot summary
    • The story of Cuba’s various wars for independence, told primarily through the eyes of Rosa, a former slave who becomes a gifted herbalist, dedicated to healing the wounds of enemy and friend alike.
  • Character empathy rating
    • I’d answer this question, but just thinking about it makes me reach for tissues, so I’ll just move on to the next one while I can still see straight. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • When you read other people’s reviews, the words that come up most often are “haunting” and “powerful.” And yeah, that sums it up pretty perfectly
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Most of the characters are taken from historical figures, including Rosa the healer. 
    • Lieutenant Death’s switch from being a sympathetic child to a dedicated Javert type figure is jarring and tragic, in the best way.
    • I swear I learned more about the Spanish-American war from these poems than any teacher ever taught me. 
  • Content Warnings
    • You get to learn about the world’s first concentration camps. So yeah, there’s violence here. 
  • Quotes
    • “The child tells me her grandmother
      showed her how to cure sadness
      by sucking the juice of an orange,
      while standing on a beach.

      Toss the peels onto a wave.
      Watch the sadness float away.”

    • “Hatred must be a hard thing to learn.”
    • I can’t understand
      why dark northern soldiers
      and light ones
      are seperated into different brigades.
      The dead are all buried together
      in hasty mass graves,
      bones touching.”
    • “Can it be true that freedom only exists when it is a treasure, shared by all?”

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

persepolis

  • Genre
    • Non-fiction, Memoir, Autobiography, Graphic Novel
  • Plot summary
    • The life of a young punk growing up in Tehran, Iran, during an unending series of revolutions. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Autobiographies have an advantage when it comes to reader empathy, because the author already empathizes with themself. The real test is whether someone writing their memoirs can make you empathize with the people who surrounded them, even those who played the role of antagonist in their life. Marjane Satrapi passes this test perfectly. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It reminded me of another non-fiction graphic novel; Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which recounts his father’s stories surviving the Holocaust. Comics are an interesting medium for describing atrocities, because they simultaneously create distance and intimacy. Distance, because comics are allowed to sketch and suggest, without getting too graphic. Intimate, because that slight veil gives the author the safety to be brutally honest, and because the seamless mixture of written, realistic depictions and symbolic imagery feels very much like the way our brains naturally process and remember events. I think it’s a medium that more authors should use for serious stories, especially ones like these.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • It’s one thing to know about the political factions and conflicts in the Middle East. It’s another thing to live them. Stories are human’s ways of inviting each other into our heads. They are the best way we have to make each other not just know about each other, but understand. If you care about the global politics, refugees or immigration, this is required reading.
  • Content Warnings
    • Violence, including references to people she knew who were tortured
  • Quotes

It only seems right to post a full panel, as the art is every bit as important to the story as the writing.  Description below for those who have trouble reading the text in the bubbles.

persepolis-quote-two

First Panel: Marjane and her parents walking. Caption reads “nonetheless, my parents were puzzled.” Father says, “So tell me, my child, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Marjane thinks, “a prophet.”

Second Panel: Marjane says out loud, “a doctor.”

Third Panel: Marjane’s mother pats her shoulder and says, “That’s fine, my love, that’s fine.”

Fourth Panel: Marjane lies in bed talking to God, who says, “you want to be a doctor? I thought that…” Caption reads “I felt guilty towards God.”

Fifth Panel: Marjane stands up and says, “No no, I will be a prophet, but they mustn’t know.”

Sixth Panel: Caption reads “I wanted to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.” Three images of Marjane in her nightgown. One holds scales, one raises her hand in a peace sign, and one brandishes a sword and shield.

How I Name My Characters, Part Three: Using Names to Serve the Story

So, if names that fit too well distract readers, why even try to match names to characters? One reason is that a good name can enhance a story beautifully. Making good art isn’t about avoiding risks. It’s about taking risks, and learning which ones pay off. While a bad name can be ungainly, and weigh a story down, a good name can accentuate a story’s strongest aspects. And that doesn’t just apply to characterization, though that’s certainly a good place to start.

Character

The first impulse, when naming a character, is to find something that goes with their personalities. That’s not a bad impulse. Some of the most memorable characters have names that neatly match their most noteworthy traits. Scarlett O’Hara, for example. The color red in nature either signals something highly alluring, or extremely dangerous. The shade we call scarlet is especially intense, yet sophisticated, all of which sum up the power of Scarlett’s character.

What some writers don’t realize, however, is that a name that contrasts with a character can be just as effective. Consider John le Carre’s most famous protagonist, George Smiley. He’s not smiley. He’s not even slightly happy. In fact, he’s fairly morose. But the the interesting thing about him is how well he keeps it under the surface. He has no shortage of reasons to be actively, dramatically depressed, but he isn’t. He minds his own business, does his duty, ignores the various jabs people send his way, and, when life gets the better of him, lets it out with quintessentially British subtlety. The name Smiley draws attention to the depths below his facade. The problem with subtle, even keeled characters is that they can feel like an uninspired author’s default, rather than a character’s honest choice. Smiley’s name helps him avoid this fate, by drawing attention to what he is not.

Contrasting names are different from arbitrary names. Near and far are opposites, because they both exist on a spectrum of distance. Neither is the opposite of green or apple. In the last post, I talked about How I Met Your Mother has Lily, a feisty mother bear whose namesake flower normally symbolizes gentleness and purity, and, Barney, a suave player with the least suave name imaginable. It wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable to name them Jill and Aaron.

I think it’s also worth noting that a fitting name can feel generic when it corresponds to a trait the character shares with nearly everyone. One character on 30 Rock is named Frank. Frank arguably fits his name; he always speaks his mind. But so does everybody else. The cast has a nice pile of entertaining quirks and flaws between them. Bashfulness isn’t one of them.

Setting

I’ve already mentioned in both previous posts that you should choose a name that fits the setting. Every society has naming conventions. When you’re writing in a real world setting, a little research into these adds authenticity, especially if you’re willing to use names that are decidedly unfashionable nowadays, as they do on Downton Abbey. When your setting is invented, it’s a good idea to come up with a few rules for names, as well as guidelines for how class, gender, occupation or ethnicity tends to affect people’s choices. It enlivens your worldbuilding and can also communicate the values of your culture. The Hunger Games, Battlestar Galactica and Lord of the Rings all do this very well.

Because who we are is often shaped by our environment, this is a great place to go for names, in order to avoid excess of names that sound too much like the namesake. It can also be a quick way to communicate conflicts between cultures, or between an individual and their culture.

  • The scene where Finn is named in The Force Awakens, establishes the difference between the First Order, which sees people as tools, and Poe Dameron, who refuses to dehumanize Finn with a serial code.
  • The book Good Omens (which everyone should read) has, among other things, a Satanic nun mistaking an ordinary Englishman for an ambassador, and giving him the Antichrist to raise. She attempts to convince him to give the baby a traditional name, like Damien or Wormwood. He goes with Adam.
  • Even a subtle change can speak volumes about a character, as in Anne of Green Gables, where she insists that if she must have a name as plain as Anne, it absolutely must be spelled with an e.

But when a name completely breaks from established rules, it can be jarring. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup explains that it’s tradition on their village to give babies undesirable names (this is based on a real tradition in many cultures; exact explanations vary, but it’s sort of like telling actors to break a leg). If a character isn’t named for some bodily function or piece of refuse, it’s something that sounds just as bad, like Stoick, Hoark or Phlegma. Then, there’s Astrid. It’s not a word, it doesn’t sound gross, and it literally means “beautiful goddess.” Every time someone said her name, it reminded me that this isn’t a real place, but a human invention whose creators can ignore the rules at their convenience. Either that, or her parents hated her.

It also weakened the character. Astrid is great, and I loved her, but there is an obvious reason why they didn’t follow the rules. She’s the love interest, and they didn’t want to disrupt her beautiful image with an ugly name. Her name is a signal that, because she’s the pretty girl, she could be badass, but they weren’t going to let her be injured or dirty her up. It was more important to preserve her desirable image than make her someone who organically fit the world. I think they should have gotten over that. They could have come up with something that sounds beautiful, but fits the established rules of the setting, like Bramblethorn or Stormcloud. Or they could have just embraced the comedy gold of having Hiccup breathlessly talk about the most beautiful girl in the village; Crabgrass.

Plot

Here we get into tricky territory. As I explained in the last post, naming characters for which tropes they fit in the narrative just draws the audience’s attention to cliches, not originality. Foreshadowing in names can also be hard to do with real subtlety. Nobody was surprised that Remus Lupin was a werewolf. But, as I said, writing is sometimes about taking risks.

I just finished reading Warm Bodies, and I loved it. If you look closely, several characters have names that reference Romeo and Juliet; not just R for Romeo and Julie for Juliet, but also M for Mercutio and Perry for Paris. These names work because they are buried. They make sense in-story, they are surrounded by names that don’t reference Shakespeare, and the plot is willing to break the formula just often enough that the parallels aren’t dead giveaways. I knew the hints were there, but I was so swept up in the story I forgot about them until I closed the book. It was perfect.

Misleading audiences is also perfectly good use of a name. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho relies on twists, and those twists are still emotionally effective when you know what’s coming, because of how much he commits, on every level, to luring you into a false sense of security. This goes all the way down to Norman Bates. Look at that. He is practically named “normal man.” Bastard.

 

These two techniques can also be used to play off of each other. In the original Star Wars series, we first meet Han Solo… who always travels with a partner, and comes back to help the rebels in the end. Solo is the image he tries to project, but the man inside is more complicated than that. This red herring created a smokescreen over other hints; the alliteration of Luke and Leia, or the fact that Vader is Dutch for father.

Theme

This is a the hardest one to use well. Most of the time the only authors who even try are attempting to make a painfully obvious allegory, as in Pilgrim’s Progress. And hey, if allegory is your dream, there’s a market for that. You do you, more power to you, etc etc.

That said, I can think of two cases where a writer pulled thematic names off. First is Hope, from the series Jessica Jones. I don’t even know how to explain this one without spoiling the entire show. All I can say is that she absolutely symbolizes Hope, but the writers were willing to do things with the idea of hope that I’ve never seen before. Second is Calvin and Hobbes. Yes, the comic strip. Both protagonists were named for philosophers who had a cynical view of human nature. John Calvin came at it from a religious perspective, and Thomas Hobbes from a political one. In between skipping school and making killer mutant snow goons, Calvin and Hobbes spend a lot of time walking through the woods, talking about human nature and everything we as a species just can’t get right. Two things make the references work. First, it’s not like the strip is named Plato and Nietszche. The references are a bit obscure and the names sound like real names. Second, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t parroting their namesakes. At most, they are interested in similar questions. They are their own people, having their own conversations, and instead of lecturing us they are being bewildered along with us.

The worst thematic name I could think of was Veil from The Outcast of Redwall. Redwall is a series of animal novels that I loved as a kid, but their biggest weakness, in my recollection, was the simplistic species based morality. Mice, moles, otters, badgers and hares were always good. Rats, stoats, ferrets and foxes were always bad. In The Outcast of Redwall, a ferret, is raised by the good creatures of Redwall. The book keeps acting as if it’s about to discuss nature vs. nurture, but then slams the door on the question with some pointless act of cruelty. His name is an early example of this simplistic approach. Supposedly, his name is Veil because there’s a veil over his past and his future, but early on somebody points out that veil is an anagram of both evil and vile. Oh dear, what an omen! The author never really wanted to examine the question of morality and upbringing, and the name just draws attention to that.

You can think of words in a story existing on a spectrum, from the little words that usher the readers along without calling attention to themselves (the, said, it, come, was) to the ones that pop out and define the story. On this spectrum, the words that call the most attention to themselves will be the names. Audiences will actually put in work to remember your character’s names, so they can keep track of the people driving the narrative. It’s worthwhile to put some thought into them.

How I Name My Characters, Part Two: Character Names That Don’t Sound Like Character Names

In the first part, I talked about where names get their associations. Next time I’m going to talk about various ways to use those associations to enhance a story. But first, I wanted to share advice on making sure those names don’t sound so literary that they distract readers from the story. An arbitrary name isn’t nearly as fun or evocative as one that really suits a character, but one that fits too well draws attention to the fact that a writer constructed this world.

Beware of Tropes

As I mentioned in the last post, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted. It often works very well to give your characters a name that matches up with some, but not all, of who they are. There are many directions you can take this, but the absolute worst is to name a character for the trope they best fulfill. Nothing screams “this is a story” like naming everyone for where they fit into the narrative.

There are three exceptions to the avoiding tropes rule; one-scene characters who will exist just long enough to need a name but then disappear from the story, stories with a comic, self-aware tone, and characters who initially fit a trope but then subvert those expectations. Jane the Virgin uses both of the last two criteria. Her love triangle is between Michael, the stable boyfriend of two years, and Rafael, the rich playboy who broke her heart. Except, as the series goes on, Michael gets increasingly hard to trust, and Rafael seems more genuine and pure in his intentions. This role reversal combined with the loving-parody-of-a-telenovela vibe makes the names perfect.

And if I’m totally off base, I’m only halfway through season one, so don’t tell me, okay?

Don’t. Tell. Me.

But that said, there’s a difference between an homage and a replay. Several years ago the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got my hopes up. It promised to be tribute to classic 1940s adventure stories, and it was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really anything else. It was a restitched series of familiar tropes and twists; it had no heart of it’s own. The names they chose had the same problem. Joe Sullivan, Polly Perkins, Dex, Totenkopf. Which of those is  the reporter girlfriend, the heroic pilot, the villain, the sidekick?

Yup. You got it.

Don’t do that. Write characters, and name them for who they are as people, not who they are as pieces on the chess board.

Be Aware of the In-Story Reason

I loved Juno, both the film and the character. But I must admit, it always irked me that she had such a conveniently quirky name, to go with her character. We didn’t get to know her parents very well, but they didn’t seem like the type of people to pick a name like Juno. They seemed like the sorts to name their girl Hailey or Kimberly. The quirky name for a quirky protagonist thing worked a lot better in Easy A, where Olive’s parents are named Rosemary and Dill, and it’s quickly established that the only thing they like more than a joke is a running joke (her little brother’s name is Chip).

Names say things about the person who picked them. They reflect hopes, expectations, values and personal tastes. When a character’s name doesn’t sound like the kind of thing their parent (or other namer) would have chosen, it points back to the author.

If your heart is set on a type of name that your character’s in-story namer would not have chosen, there are no shortages of ways out. In both fiction and real life, people change or adjust their names all the times. Whether they choose an appropriate nickname, like Jo from Little Women, or they are given a name that reflects how others see them, like Fat Charlie in Anansi Boys, or whether there’s a subtle consensus to reshape the name into something more appropriate, like Pepper from Good Omens, it’s a perfect way to make an on the nose name sound natural. It feels right because it happens fairly often in real life, as well. Names shape people’s expectations, and when those expectations don’t fit, their bearers often seek something more appropriate.

Vary Why They Fit

As I mentioned last time, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted, and names can fit in ways that are unexpected. A perfect way to make names feel appropriate without being contrived is to have them fit different characters for different reasons.

One of my all-time favorite shows didn’t do well with this; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, Cordelia, Willow, Xander… each name fits perfectly, on an individual level. But they all line up with their namesake’s personalities so well that, collectively, it’s clear they have been named by some omniscient author. Especially when the British librarian introduces himself as Giles. Later on, as characters evolved and others were introduced, this problem gradually went away.

On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother got this right from the start. First, three characters have names that fit, both on the level of sound and meaning.

  • Ted, the old fashioned romantic nerd. It conjures up images of your old, safe stuffed bear, and that’s the kind of lover he tries to be; the kind who makes you dinner and always returns your calls right away. As a diminutive, it also indicates that he has some growing up to do before he’s ready for The One.
  • Marshall, the gentle giant. Its soft sounds give Ted a serious challenge for most huggable name contest. At the same time, the law enforcement gives it a little backbone, and he does have a surprisingly tough and mature side, when needed.
  • Robin, the mercurial beauty. She is feminine, but with an androgynous streak, and like her namesake bird she sometimes needs to fly away.

But then you have Barney and Lily. A lily is a delicate flower, commonly used as a symbol of purity. Barney conjures up either a hay chewing hick or a purple dinosaur. Lily’s personality is half den mother, half scrappy hellion. Barney is a smooth city player.

These two names that break the pattern have an effect of naturalizing the entire cast. What coincidental appropriateness? Clearly we are just five people, named by five sets of people who had no idea how we would turn out. And sure, some of us did end up like our names, and that happens. Nature and nurture and all that. But sometimes you get a wild card, and look at us. Wild cards. Totally didn’t end up anything like our parents thought. Nope, our names and our personalities have as little to do with each other as you can imagine.

It’s a big lie, by the way. Barney and Lily’s names still signal something; they signal it by contrast, rather than emphasis. But I’ll get into that in the next installment.