Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Naming of Cats--No, Characters!

The Naming Of Cats by T. S. Eliot
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey--
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter--
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover--
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Randy gave/loaned me a book of writing exercises called What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.  I read a bunch of them, but one stood out and seems particularly appropriate in my current diatribe about phonetics and sounds.  Page 42 is an exercise about "Naming Your Characters."
This also seems ironic because Mike and I used to ponder the names of characters and places.  A good character--with excellent sounds and evocative words--can go down in history.  In this chapter, Humbert Humbert and Ebenezer Scrooge are two excellent examples.
The exercise from What If? asks to name characters for the following:
  • A petty, white-collar thief who robs his boss over several years
  • An envious, bitter woman who makes her sister miserable by systematically trying to undercut her pleasure and self-confidence
  • A sweet young man too shy to speak to an attractive woman he sees every day at work
  • The owner of a fast-food restaurant who comes on to his young female employees
  • A grandmother who has just won the lottery
In using some of the tools from phonetics, you can use plosives and nasals to evoke certain feelings.  I like to hyper-pronounce a name or word to see how my face reacts, and if my face makes an appropriate emotive response, then I work with it.  For example, the name "Norman"--like most names with nasals--makes me wrinkle my nose as if in disgust.  Names with two or more nasals generally work well for characters or places that you want to feel repulsive or icky.

Take the third exercise: the sweet, shy man.  I like the idea of using a fricative like an "f" sound.  The "f" forces your face to smile but also makes your teeth push out--a little awkwardly.  "F"s are awkward, wonderful letters, happy but goofy in a way.  Pair an "f" sound with a dental or a plosive, and this can give the name more power, more "plosive" potential.  Take a name like "Phillip" or "Clifford" and this could name an awkwardly shy, sweet office-worker, with just enough edge to make a character potentially "plosive".  Pair this with a last name like "Shurgood" or "Wildwood" and this name may have powerful, latent implications.

The naming of characters, or cats, is a difficult matter.  It is not a game.  But given some patience and some tools, playing with names can be powerful and, perhaps even, efanineffable.  I love that word.

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