Unnamed Characters in Stories

Rumpelstiltskin illustrated by Edward Gorey

When telling a story, why might a writer choose not to name a character? If you’ve ever written an essay about a fictional work with an unnamed character you’ll realise it’s more hassle not to name a significant character than to just go ahead and call them something. Indeed there are reasons not to.

To Deliberately Keep A Character Generic

There is a place in storytelling for archetypes and flat characters. As soon as we name a character we give them individuality. So if we want the audience to think in terms of archetype, it pays not to give them a name.

On the other hand, some names function entirely generically. Across English fairy tales the name Jack meant ‘archetypal, unmarked boy’. See Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance. (The female equivalent is Jill, but girl characters can never be truly ‘unmarked’ owing to them being marked with female-ness.) John is equally generic, but less working class. The female equivalents are Jill and Jane. The German boys of fairytale were generically called Hans.

Cicely Mary Barker (1895 - 1973) The Fairies of The Wayside ~ The Jack-Go-To-Bed-At-Noon Fairy
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 – 1973) The Fairies of The Wayside ~ The Jack-Go-To-Bed-At-Noon Fairy

Paul Jennings made use of generic Australian 1980s names in his short children’s fiction. These names may seem generic, but are clearly white.

Katherine Mansfield does not name the main character in her short story “The Little Governess“. This turns the story of a young woman alone into a more universal female experience.

Another example is Closet Land from 1991, in which the abuser male and abused female remain unnamed. This is an attempt to universalise the dynamic, though it ultimately subverts nothing.

To Keep Them From Seeming Important

Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Writers choose details for different reasons, and one detail might be offering up character names. Sometimes writers want to make a setting seem real, and will give details for that reason alone. Recently I wrote a story which mentioned two children by name — characters who I’d individualised slightly hoping to show the smallness of the community, but who were not going to appear again later on.

A critique partner questioned my decision to name these characters. Especially because I happened to name them early in the story, the reader was primed to try and remember them, expecting them to pop up later. I removed the characters altogether rather than face the dilemma of how to introduce community characters without also accidentally giving the impression the reader is meant to remember who they are.

In short, readers intuit they won’t have to remember the kettle is ‘blue’, and will happily accept that kind of detail as background. A blue kettle may be symbolically significant but nothing more. It is more problematic to name background characters hoping a reader to do the same. We are naturally sentiocentric.

In “The Little Governess” Mansfield doesn’t name the porter, the waiter, either. This is more expected. They’re minor characters, and she interacts with these men as their work roles.

When re-visioning old tales, writers often give names to previously unnamed characters.

Accidental Symbolic Annihilation

Some years ago I wrote a story in which I named the main male character but didn’t name his wife. The storytelling reason for this: I wanted to keep the wife from seeming important to the plot. To give her name would be asking the reader to remember yet another name. But when I put it through critique, a (fellow) feminist critique partner was insulted that I had not named the wife and refused to read further. She had grown sick and tired of reading stories about men. An unnamed wife was a bridge too far.

This brings up an interesting point. Throughout history, certain demographics have been left out of stories, and not just fictional ones. This is part of a (mostly) subconscious ploy to uphold white patriarchy. Women’s scientific breakthroughs have often been attributed to adjacent men, oftentimes in a variation on the Pygmalion story, in which a successful woman must be the product of a man.

In short, you will come under increased scrutiny if you avoid naming an historically marginalised character than to avoid naming a white male character. This holds true even if you can justify why you did what you did in storytelling terms.

To Highlight Problematic Invisibility

One good political reason not to name a character: To highlight to the reader that this character is ignored, downtrodden and marginalised in society.

An example of this can be seen in “The Home Girls“, a short story by Australian writer Olga Masters about two young girls who are shunted from foster home to foster home. Jarringly, Masters refers to the sisters as ‘the fat one’ and ‘the thin one’. An ungenerous reader might think the author’s fatphobia is revealed in this description.

My take: Masters is highlighting the tendency for people to regard these unknown girls only after the briefest, impressionistic glance: BMI is a shallow and offensive way to describe a girl, and Master’s narrative voice is The Village Voice.

We are now living in an era where commentary on other people’s weight is taboo. Masters published her short stories in the 1980s, and I wonder how many writers would be brave enough today to trust readers’ ability to separate narrative choice from author’s voice.

No Name, Incomplete

In antiquity, to know someone’s name was to have some kind of power over them. This is seen very clearly in “Rumpelstiltskin“.

Toni Morrison utilised this universal mythology in her novel Beloved, drawing on ancient African and Indian mythologies about child-demons. In Beloved, Sethe murders her baby to prevent her from being taken by slave drivers. The ghost of this baby never goes away, interfering in every aspect of Sethe’s life. Significantly, the baby is never given her own name, known only as “Beloved”.

That’s because, in mythic stories, a character never named remains incomplete. Superstitiously, to be incomplete is terrible. And pretty much the worst thing you can be is an incomplete woman. Across mythology, an ‘incomplete’ woman includes a woman who hasn’t given birth. Maybe this is because she died a virgin without having babies of her own (e.g. the Greek ogre of Lesbos, Gello). In that case, she’ll come back to wreak havoc upon corporeal beings, killing other people’s babies, eating them up.

Honestly, what else is she meant to do? The incomplete woman doesn’t belong here, but nor does she belong in the world of the dead. According to The Odyssey, she’ll wander forever between both worlds. 

This category of dead people was known as the aoroi.

Oh, the aoroi did have one use — for us, at least. Earthlings could summon these incomplete beings during rituals. The aoroi were useful as go-between messengers. In ancient Greece and Egypt it was thought that the underworld surrounded its inhabitants by walls, but these aoroi had no walls around them. Any decent magician could summon them back to Earth for a bit.

In Christianity it is also terrible to be incomplete (unbaptised). This will leave you vulnerable to evil. So it’s no accident that the baptism ceremony is also a kind of naming ceremony. There is generally a public naming of the child and a sprinkling of water over the babies forehead.

To be baptised is to be named; to be named is to be complete. As a general principle, naming equals completion.

Header: Rumpelstiltskin illustrated by Edward Gorey

Clowns in Storytelling

'Hippodrome' (4 Clowns) - Poster by Jules Chèret, 1882

Once upon a time clowns were an un-ironic take on the jester archetype. Storytellers could make use of clowns to lighten a mood. Shakespeare did it.

1922 Vintage Ad Cover- Jester with Pumpkin. E.M. Jackson, illustrator
1922 Vintage Ad Cover- Jester with Pumpkin. E.M. Jackson, illustrator. Jesters are associated with tricks and tricks are associated with Halloween.

BRINGING IN THE CLOWNS

When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring in a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing in the clowns every so often to lighten things up.

Kurt Vonnegut

THE TRICKSTER CLOWN

The clown in a story is often a trickster. The lucky thing about villain tricksters: they can be outwitted. They are frequently single-mindedly focused on wreaking havoc and can be therefore be taken by surprise.

THE SCARY CLOWN

Parody children's book cover, blending IT by Stephen King with the style of Dr Seuss. The commentary here is obvious: clowns are inherently scary, even when we design them for children. (Artist unknown.)
Parody children’s book cover, blending IT by Stephen King with the style of Dr Seuss. The commentary here is obvious: clowns are inherently scary, even when we design them for children. (Artist unknown.)

Take a look at children’s stories, toys and merchandise from the 20th century and clown archetypes are everywhere. The Jack-in-the-box below wears a jester’s hat, but also wears the red nose of a clown.

Perhaps children of the first and second Golden Ages didn’t find clowns so scary. Would this chalk packaging fly today? The concept is funny, end result terrifying.

Clown chalk packaging copyright notice reads 1938
Clown chalk packaging copyright notice reads 1938

Were clowns always a bit terrifying, though? I don’t think we can blame Stephen King for ruining clowns. An alternative theory: Early children’s stories expected to both scare AND entertain (as well as teach). There was perhaps less expectation that books would be soothing.

Part of their scariness, I believe, comes from their maquillage — make up so thick and exaggerated that it functions as a mask. The smile only makes it worse. Why? Why is the smile worse?

When describing the ogre from Greek myth, Baubo, Diane Purkiss has this to say about the associations between terror and smiling:

Fear provokes laughter as easily as screams. Children often laugh when they are frightened. Both fear and laughter depend on surprise, the rupture of expectations. Many demons found their way into the repertoire of comic masks. Aristophanes uses the word for hobgoblin to mean both demon and a comic mask. In an exactly similar way, the Romans hung masks called oscilla (literally, ‘little faces’) in trees to frighten away ghosts, yet the masks could be called by the same naes as the demons they were supposed to frighten. … Play (meaning both theatre and games) is central to demons. Terror, when acted out, is displaced, managed, controlled.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

Comedians are supposed to have sad lives, though this isn’t a cliche I entirely endorse, the sad clown not a type I’ve ever come across whereas the mean clown, the selfish clown and the downright unpleasant clown are commonplace.

Alan Bennett, Radio and TV, Untold Stories

When illustrating a smile, it’s easy to depict a scary grimace. The line is pretty fine. I can’t say what the artist was going for in the dog illustration below, but if they were going for scary, they managed it. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s I.T.

"Tige" His Story 1905 Richard Felton Outcault clown face
“Tige” His Story 1905 Richard Felton Outcault clown face

Why can an illustrated smile so easily turn evil? It’s probably an evolutionary thing. When apes and monkeys ‘grin’ at each other they are showing their teeth to convey how they could rip you to pieces if they sunk their incisors into you. Our pet dogs still use their teeth in that way despite thousands of years of domestication. So do people. We are highly attuned to the fake smile. There’s nothing more fake than a painted on smile. This fakeness explains the scariness of the clown’s smile.

J. Kuzich Del Monte Foods 1971
Fortunately someone had the foresight to not give this clown a knife. J. Kuzich Del Monte Foods, 1971.

Many children’s book villains have clownish features without conforming fully to the clown archetype. Mean Old Mister Minky of the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories shares in common with clowns those big, wide eyes and the face in rictus, rendered only slightly comical by the concentrating tongue. Mister Minky is a clown-goblin-jester mixture of dastardness.

Mister Minky catches Raggedy Ann and Andy
Mister Minky catches Raggedy Ann and Andy.

Gargamel of the Smurfs came later but is a similar archetype to Mister Minky, with his big wide eyes and long nose. The long nose denotes old age but the tufts of hair around the ears with nothing on top now look clownish… We might expect this hair to denote unmarked old age. The receding hairline presents in many men, but this hairstyle (non style?) has been used so frequently in recent clown archetypes one simply cannot get away with it in real life.

Pennywise the Clown from 1990 with his receding hairline and long back and sides.
Pennywise the Clown from 1990 with his receding hairline and long back and sides.

Noteworthy is what the Japanese call ‘wakahage‘ (youth balding), which is a less judgemental word than ‘premature balding’ (who’s to say what’s ‘premature’?). All actors who play both Pennywise and Gargamel in the ‘live action’ film adaptations are young men with full heads of hair who need to have their pate covered. The red hair of Pennywise suggests youth, though the balding does not. Again, the juxtaposition is important when it comes to clowns. Juxtaposition creates unease.

THE LONELY CLOWN

Loneliness takes many forms. If clowns are surrounded by people and they take it upon themselves to cheer everybody else up, they fall into the category of the Appreciated Outsider. The lonely person who does not appear to be lonely is wearing a metaphorical mask, which turns into a literal mask in the case of a clown, whose face is so altered by make-up that the real person is no longer visible underneath. There’s nothing more lonely than being ignored when surrounded by people. A rule of the narrative mask: The character who wears a mask will never find happiness until the mask comes off. Clowns must become known before they find friends.

The Lonely Clown archetype doesn’t always look like a clown, and the clownishness of a character doesn’t always endure throughout a story. An example of a temporary Lonely Clown can be seen in American Beauty (1999), in which Lester’s wife Carolyn sings “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in the car. The story is not about Carolyn, and she is not a sympathetic character, but we can deduce that if Lester is isolated within their marriage then Carolyn is suffering equally. We get a few brief glimpses.

In the scene below, the juxtaposition between Carolyn’s inner loneliness contrasts with the upbeat, carnivalesque nature of the song and her rendition of it, which together evoke the classic Lonely Clown idea. Carolyn’s loneliness is only magnified by the happy song, because the audience can see she is wearing a mask.

(Also relevant, we associated clowns with parades.)

An outstanding picture book example of a lonely clown is The Farmer And The Clown by Marla Frazee. In line with picture book ‘rules’, the story ends with a clown character who is no longer lonely, reunited with family in this case. But the Lonely Clown archetype is at play. For a depiction of a lonely landscape conveyed entirely via art work, check out this book as a mentor text.

CLOWN AS LIMINAL CREATURE

Robert Ingpen, Australian, 1936 From the book Halloween Circus, written by Charise Neugebauer
Robert Ingpen, Australian, 1936 From the book Halloween Circus, written by Charise Neugebauer

The clown is an outsider, lonely because he is alone on his stage, never truly known. He exists on the fringe of our culture, and therefore makes the perfect liminal creature. In Ingpen’s illustration above the clown exists in a graveyard, another liminal space, where the living go to greet the dead, forced to contemplate their own mortality.

Header illustration: ‘Hippodrome’ (4 Clowns) – Poster by Jules Chèret, 1882

The US Office Character Studies

The Office poster

The Office started out in 2001 as a UK mockumentary devised by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I can’t enjoy the level of cringe executed by the UK cast, especially the Ricky Gervais boss, who make me want to curl into a ball due to transferred humiliation. But like many, many other viewers I love the concept. I soon turned to the American spin-off starring Steve Carell as boss Michael Scott. The American Office ran for nine seasons (2005-2013), which makes it one of the most successful comedy series in history. Mockumentaries enjoyed a new lease of life, leading to another favourite of mine, This Country.

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The Likeable Superpower of Perspicacity

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a Victorian fairy poem and, coincidentally, O.G. To T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In this context, ‘childe’ refers to a young man who has not been knighted. He is a modern young adult.

In this poem, Roland is having a pretty crappy time. But he perseveres on a hopeless journey because, like many a modern young adult character, “naught else remained to do”.

What else does this old poem by Robert Browning have to do with modern young adult characters?

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