Who’s John Again?

On novels and names

Photo by Flickr user Simply Bike
Photo by Flickr user Simply Bike


My copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude opens with a family tree: José Arcadio Buendía fathers José Arcadio and Colonel Aureliano Buendía—who in turn father, respectively, an Arcadio and 18 Aurelianos. Arcadio, for his part, begets José Arcadio Segundo and Aureliano Segundo, the latter of whom has a José Arcadio, as well as two daughters, each giving birth to an Aureliano. All of these Arcadios and Aurelianos are variations on a theme; their names embody cyclicality, history, and life paralleling life. Or perhaps García Márquez’s contract stipulated that a pound of flesh would be exacted for each new name he introduced.

Most authors of sprawling novels take a different tack using names to distinguish their many characters in readers’ minds. But names are slick, featureless. They lack connections to other words and ideas. Sometimes they are obviously allegorical, but generally they don’t mean anything, which can make them hard to remember, and even harder to bind to things such as character traits or plot points. John, John, John … John who?

Or maybe names like John are the problem. At least one study suggests that our mental foothold on names is firmer when they are unusual or otherwise distinctive. This may not square well with our exasperation with patronymic Russian names so long they fill the better part of the page. But then again a Ukrainian friend complains about the names in American novels: so many monosyllabic Johns and Biffs, each as indistinguishable as a tree stump.

Not all characters have names, of course. Novels are populated with people who live lives left largely to a reader’s imagination: the harried waitress at our protagonist’s favorite diner, a townsperson who exists only to exchange angry words with a cashier in Chapter Seven.

The very act of naming a character signals to readers that he or she matters. Researchers have found that readers expect characters with proper names to reappear. Some of my own past research with Gail McKoon of Ohio State and Richard Gerrig of SUNY at Stony Brook built on this, finding that if a character is introduced only with a proper name—that is, if someone mentions Billy without offering any indication of who he is and how he fits into the story—readers keep him mentally accessible until his “mystery” is resolved.

But names aren’t the only way writers make characters memorable. Some characters are allegorical or distinctively grotesque. Others have signature props or mannerisms. Perhaps they can always be found in the same places, accompanied by the same people. Perhaps they speak with a distinctive draaawwwll. If John is always in a parking lot eating marshmallows and grumbling about the weather, he becomes Marshmallow Grumbly Guy, and we don’t really need to remember that he is called John at all.

And then there are the novel-based television shows like Game of Thrones that get around names altogether, while nonetheless sporting enough regular characters to fill two NFL rosters. Oh sure, all the characters have names, but the names come with faces, and those we remember. At least until the show has to change actors. Game of Thrones is now on its third Sir Gregor Clegane, alias The Mountain, aka The Hound’s evil brother. Writers had to spend much of the last episode reinforcing who he was, what he’d done, and just how good he remains at disemboweling everyone in sight.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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