Redd’s Writing Kit
Written By: Redd Williams – Originally published JAN• 05•12
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2). If you are stuck on naming a character in your short story, or novel, try this: Don’t Name Them. In fact, throwout all names that are unnecessary. Names tend to clutter up prose sometimes, and omitting them may offer a way to detangle the sentences so that other areas of craft can be focused on; like rhythm, dialogue, and imagery. (There are of course other craft elements you can focus on too). Let’s look at an example. I’m going to talk about A Wild Sheep Chase . None of the characters in the novel, by Haruki Murakami, have proper names.
The characters are nameless. Well, we must assume that they do have proper names, but the narrator chooses to use other identifiers to refer to people, like” my girlfriend”, “ my wife”, “my business partner”… and so on. This lack of identification in the normal sense names, like Sally and Roderick, is a direct representation of the inner identity crises the narrator is dealing with: Who is he now that his wife is no longer his wife?
The Narrator is a thirty-something that co-owns an advertisement business with his friend. His friend is an alcoholic, who had been described once as a ‘regular guy’. “Even so, I knew full well that after sunset he became not quite regular, and he himself knew it too”(54). This is a rather unique identifier for his friend who is not-so-regular, though the friend’s irregularity is not mentioned. The narrator has a girlfriend, simply called “my girlfriend” and all the reader knows about her is that she is an ear model, a call girl and a proofreader. She has different notions of her identity: “Iam my ears, my ears are me” (31). In truth, she had excellent ears and often she would be able to sense things with them. He had a wife, who was referred to as “my wife”… even after the divorce, the narrator still calls this woman his “wife”.
A few characters are called something other than “my girlfriend”, “the boss” and so on. When I say there aren’t any names, I was referring to proper names, as in Sally Hannister or Tony Collins. That sort. There are a few characters in the novel that have nicknames. One of the friends of the narrator goes by the name of The Rat. The reason for this name is unknown and the reader doesn’t actually get to meet this character in a real life. We, the readers, meet The Rat in letters and as a ghost near the end of the book… he never truly exists as a living breathing entity… he’s an idea and a driving force for the novel. The next character with a name is J, short for something unknown, who owns a bar and is a link to the narrator’s adolescence in his home town and also to The Rat. There are two more human—well humanoid, characters with nicknames: There is the Sheep Professor and the Sheep Man.
The Sheep Professor holds some keys to the search for the sheep, as having been a host for the strange phenomena in the past. “‘And what did it feel like to have this sheep in your body?’ ‘Nothing special, really. It just felt like there was this sheep inside me. I felt it in the morning. I woke up and there was this sheep inside me. A perfectly natural feeling’” (221). The sheep left the Sheep Professor with emptiness much like the emptiness the narrator felt when his wife left him. In this case, however, the marriage was of spirits.
The Sheep Man was a character that had escaped the draft by donning a sheep costume and running into the hills. He became a sheep in a sense and has no issues with his identity. He was a man and a sheep.
The only creature in the novel to actually receive a proper name was the narrator’s cat, “Kipper”. The narrator hadn’t given him a name before and allowed the chauffer to name him. “I had no idea whether not having a name reduced or contributed to the cat’s tragedy” (178).
Names Have Power
The absence of names, as a craft aspect, is rather convenient. Now it is easy to keep track of the characters. Murakami makes the reader aware of a character only as they become relevant to the story. There aren’t any cluttered or crowded drawing rooms full of people to keep track of. I rather like the absence of names in that it clears everything up and moves the narration along quite gracefully. I know the chauffeur is the chauffeur, I am not confused on whether his name is Bob or Robert or anything else that can confuse me with another character. He wears a hat, a suit and drives the limo, which is all he needs to do. However, there is a problem with the absence of names. A narrator specifically avoids using them, which can be seen as a sense of dehumanizing his relationships. The fact that the oddest characters are given nicknames is a reflection of their animalistic tendencies. The Rat, the Sheep Professor, the Sheep Man and Kipper all exist with names and their associations to being devoid of human character traits. They are elevated above the humans of the narrator’s world because they are given some sort of name, be that it might not be what they wish to call themselves. Why would Murakami take away the humanity of the narrator and give them to people and things that hardly have any real emotional relationship to him? Perhaps the narrator has an issue with his humanity and his world in general, though the issue of it is never addressed. It is left to speculation.
Humanity: What’s It Worth?
I was clued in to the issue of the narrator’s fight with humanity with the following quote: “One of these days they’ll be making a film where the whole human race gets wiped out in a nuclear war, but everything works out in the end. I switched off the television, climbed into bed and was asleep in ten seconds” (113). This book was published after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is set in the late 1970’s. I think the narrator is commenting on how Japanese society has accepted that the United States disintegrated two cities and their denizens, and in fact, carries on a beautiful relationship with the United States in general. Everything works out in the end, especially for the Americans and the Japanese government. I believe that the narrator is ticked off with everyone, with the world, and hopes that there won’t be any survivors of a nuclear war, which would make the planet a nuclear wasteland that would eradicate the evidence that sentient life had ever existed. Everything works out in the end, for him. He’d be dead. So would everyone else.
Existing is Hard Enough
At the end of the novel, the narrator finds the sheep, finds The Rat, completes his mission, loses his girlfriend and decides to not return home. He instead, reinvents himself as a co-owner of J’s bar and returns to who he was before he became lost in the chaos of adult life and marriage. “I walked along the river to its mouth. I sat down on the last fifty yards of beach, and I cried…. The day had all but ended. I could hear the sound of waves as I started to walk” (353).
I want to conclude this blog with a tool that helps me with developing characters. You, of course, don’t have to go nameless. This article is about one way to go about constructing prose. When I get stuck on a character’s name, or if I want to change a name, I think hard about what letter I want the name to start with, then I checkout baby name websites under that letter I had designated . Some of my favorite websites are: http://www.babynames.com/, http://www.thinkbabynames.com/
and http://www.parents.com/baby-names/. It also helps to have a baby-name book in your library, just in case your internet fails while you are busy writing (this usually happens to me).