Wednesday, September 26, 2007


In the past few years I’ve seen books published featuring Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, and H. P. Lovecraft as characters. Laura Joh Rowland, from my writing group, will soon have a novel published with Charlotte Bronte as a character. Why have some authors chosen to use historical individuals as characters in their stories. I think the answer, in part, is “resonance.”

To me, resonance represents the degree to which a name or a term evokes already existing associations in a person’s mind. You may not know many details about Freud, but you recognize the name. It vibrates your consciousness; it carries weight. Consider, you pick up a detective novel by an unknown writer. His detective is named Jonathan Carmichael. Right next to it is another unknown writer’s book, but his detective is Edgar Allen Poe. Knowing nothing else about the writers or books, I suspect you are more likely to plunk down your money for the Poe book than the Carmichael one. Resonance is the reason. You are predisposed to select the Poe book because you already know something about the real Poe and, quite likely, you find him at least mildly interesting. Carmichael, on the other hand, is a void.

Some names have resonance even when used separately from the historical figures who carried them. Consider “Abraham,” or “Jesus.” Or consider the negative resonance of “Adolph.” I don’t think you want to give your hero that name. Whether they want to or not, most readers will be uncomfortable with a hero who carries the first name of Hitler.

Completely fictional names can develop resonance, however. “Conan” has it. Hannibal” has it. The movie Van Helsing tried to capitalize on the resonance that developed for that character after years of books and movies about Dracula and his nemesis.

Resonance occurs for terms as well as names, of course. “Steel” and “bone” have far more resonance than words like “indecisive” or “misguided.” Having a detective named Mike Hammer is more potent than one named Mike Corbin, although this can be overused and often has been in men’s adventure fiction.

Resonance is a writer’s tool just as much as grammar and punctuation. It can be misused, but sometimes it’s the perfect tool for the job.


Erik Donald France said...

Exactly. Resonance was the only reason the idiot Napoleon III was elected to run France (into the ground) -- because of the family name.

Bush and Clinton carry resonance, too ;)

On a related note -- do you like "cute" character names, with puns? I
tend to hate them. It kind of ruins the magic for me, usually. Though I
can put up with them if the story's otherwise entertaining.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to hate them because they keep reminding me that I'm reading a fiction.

Bernita said...

Oh, yes.
Resonance is a valuable device.
Some words vibrate like hidden harps in a dark and enchanted wood.

AvDB said...

Resonance. I love that word.

Steve Malley said...

One reason, I suppose that Archibald Leach was better known as Cary Grant.

Or, for that matter, the Kiwi is so much more popular thatn the Chinese Gooseberry!

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

There are definitely certain names that lend themselves to resonance. But it is as much the portrayal of the character that carries weight for me. Like Atticus Finch. That name carries alot of respect and weight for me simply because of Harper Lee's portrayal.

And Laura Joh Rowland is in your writer's group? Wow - I read The Samurai's Wife and loved it some time ago. I got so caught up in writing that I haven't read more of her and I know she is prolific. I need to go back and read more of her work!

Sidney said...

A thousand years ago we drove down from Alexandria to interview Laura Joh Rowland around the time of her first novel. I have a galley of it tucked away.

I think having real people passing through historical works is always interesting. I interviewed another author once who wrote alternate history Civil War stories and he peopled them not only with real figures but crafted scenes based on notes and tidbits he picked up reading their diaries.

steve on the slow train said...

It never made a lot of sense that in 1848, while many other European countries were having liberal revolutions (which failed), the French dumped their good Citizen-King and put in Louis Napoleon. Resonance makes as much sense as anything.

A rose, by any other name, might not smell as sweet. I doubt whether canola oil would sell as well, under its generic name, rapeseed.

The protagonist in the mystery story I'm just now finishing up, calls himself Gershom Davies, though it's not his real name. The reference is to Exodus 2:22:

"And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land."

Given the fact that few readers would catch the allusion, it comes out in dialogue. I hope it dosn't come off as cute.

P.S. I haven't read Laura Joh Rowland, but my wife just got through a marathon reading of her Japanese detective books.

Angie said...

This is one of the reasons fan fiction is so popular -- even in an alternate universe story, where the character is lifted out of his or her familiar environment, job or whatever, there's still that recognition among the readers and it's a powerful attractive force. Fictional stories about historical figures, especially something like casting Poe as a detective solving mysteries, is exactly like fanfic only respectable. [wry smile] The same attraction is there, though.

The romance genre does the resonance thing with names too, and is just as likely to overdo it as men's adventure fiction. You could fill a Regency London club to the bursting if you could assemble all the Regency romantic heroes who were nicknamed either "Hawk" or "Falcon" into a single universe. :P It's one of those things that's cool once, but after you've seen a dozen or twenty of them, the only response left is an eyeroll.

Erik -- I hate cutesy names, pun or not, unless the story is clearly trying for comedy. Terry Pratchett gives some of his characters the weirdest darned names, but within the Discworld context, they work. Too often, though, they come across as just silly or dumb; they pull me out of the story and make me very aware of the writer behind the scenes.


the walking man said...

In one of my novels, I gave a very small role to a character named Tom Waites. I am thinking maybe I should give him a larger part.



cs harris said...

I always simply thought of it as a marketing tool, capitalizing on the familiar. An interesting take on it, seeing it as resonance. I personally avoid books that fictionalize historical people in anything but a minor role, but I know that in that I am unusual.

Drizel said...

ghee never even thought about that, but it makes perfect brand loyalty is products, characters that are recognised trigger the same spark in the mind.....:)

Lisa said...

And Chilean Seabass sounds a lot better than Patagonian Toothfish :) I think this is one of those risky moves that works well when it works. I think I feel the way Candy does -- I'm ok with historical figures being fictionalized if they play a minor or peripheral role. That's kind of cool then.

Steve Malley said...

Hi Charles,

The game: Desk Tag

It: You.

Travis Erwin said...

Great points. I always ask a fe people what kind of image they get wiht my characters names. I do that before they've ever read a word. And I've had to change a few.

Travis Cody said...

I like the concept of historical figures or "real" people in military or spy fiction in particular.

I enjoy reading Tom Clancy because it's fun to read how a cool character like Jack Ryan makes his way through levels of government until he becomes the most unlikely President of the United States.

But I prefer reading W.E.B. Griffin as he takes his fictional characters to the real White House and has them interact with FDR and Secretary Frank Knox. Or when he puts a fictional navy captain in a room with Douglas MacArthur. Or when he follows fictional Marines into the jungles of Guadalcanal, led by one of my personal heroes, General A.A. Vandegrift.

As you say, the one reminds me I'm reading a fiction. But the other resonates as if it was a personal history of a real character.

Randy Johnson said...

And I guess Adolph Mussolini would be completely out of the question.