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.