Sunday, February 5, 2012

What's In A Name?

I’ve recently become a slush pile reader for Flash Fiction Online ("FFO"). FFO publishes short stories of no more than 1,000 words. I've just finished my first round of "slush" - stories submitted in the hope FFO will publish them. Good Flash is hard to write, and I thought I'd pass on my thoughts on what does and doesn't make good Flash.
One of the "mistakes" I've seen in the submissions is something I doubt the writer would do in a novel-length story - not name his character. I put "mistake" in quotes because not naming a character is a pet peeve of mine, and probably not a technical mistake. In my opinion, it’s the rare occasion when a character should be nameless. Humans name things. If we don’t know what something’s called, we’ll make up a label to identify it. It’s unnatural for us not to. Even when an "evil overlord" is trying to dehumanize someone, he'll refer to that person by some label, Javert refers to Jean Valjean by his prison number in Les Miserables.
So what's in a name?
By giving a character a name, you give me a way to connect with him. The main character's not a generic "he", he's Bob, or Jose, or Raj, or Apollo. Each name puts a different image in my head, and draws me further into the story.
When I've pointed this out to the writer, I always hear the argument that by withholding information, including even the gender of the main character, the writer is creating mystery. Occasionally, I'll hear the "any man" defense, but by far the "mystery" defense is the most recited.
It doesn't work, at least for me. You might gain a bit of mystery by not telling me the character’s name, but you lose one reason for me to care what happens in your story. It doesn't seem like a wise trade off.
There are times when a character might not have a name: she has amnesia, doesn't know it, and doesn't have anyone else to interact with who will give her a name. Another time not naming the character might work is when she's other-than-human and its culture doesn't have "names" as we do. But those times when this device is used should be few and far between.
Before you submit a story with an unnamed character, ask yourself why. If your reason is to "build mystery", you might want to reconsider that decision. If the immortal bard thought names were important, be certain you have a good reason to ignore his teachings.

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