After last week’s post about some of the characters in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House,” I received suggestions for a few others of note.
My friend Kim Stebbins mentioned Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the main antagonist in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel and portrayed by Louise Fletcher in the 1975 movie version. Did we ever know Nurse Ratched’s first name? Did it matter?
How about Major Major, from Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22?” In the novel, we learn that he was named “Major Major Major” by his father, as a joke. According to Professor of Literature at Rensselaer Alan Nadel, everything about the character signifies nothing: The character’s name is an empty repetition of “the name of authority.” The character’s promotion to squadron commander is meaningless. Even the character’s physical identity is not his own, but rather that of Henry Fonda.
And my friend Lottie Nevin added Miss Havisham, of Dickens’s “Great Expectations.” She (Miss Havisham, not Mrs. Nevin) is a spinster who lives with her adopted daughter, Estella. Dickens describes her as looking like “the witch of the place,” “a cross between a waxwork and a skeleton.”
More recently, I was struck by Suzanne Collins’s memorable character Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist and heroine of “The Hunger Games” trilogy. Katniss’s first name comes from a plant that is more commonly known as arrowhead, which is usually found in water. The root of the plant can be eaten, as Katniss remembers from her father’s teachings. Her last name comes from Bathsheba Everdene, the central character in “Far From the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy. According to Collins, “The two are very different, but both struggle with knowing their hearts.”
I’d love to hear from you! What character names have you encountered recently that resonate?
This may become a series, since there are way too many great character names to post all at once. And feel free to add yours!
I recently watched the series “Bleak House” on Netflix. Do try to watch it if you can – a fantastic series based on the Dickens masterpiece. It centers around Victorian London’s society and legal system, and features some marvelous characters:
Guppy, a lawyer’s clerk, prone to social awkwardness
Miss Flite, an eccentric who keeps birds – lots of birds
Smallweed, a greedy, disabled moneylender
Mr. Turveydrop – foppish owner of a dance academy
Now, here are photos of the characters in the series. See how perfectly they fit!
What are some of your favorite literary characters?
For over twenty years, I worked as a regulator and an investigator before deciding to write full-time. Exposure to white-collar criminals certainly changed my naïve attitude that all charitable organizations are good, all investment advisors are thinking only what’s in their client’s best interest, and no one would think to steal from society’s most vulnerable citizens. But that’s not true. Fraud happens, a lot.
Dear friends recently were victimized by their tax preparer, a man they knew from church, well-respected in the community, who steered them into a Ponzi scheme he’d created. This week, that person was arrested on a 35-count indictment charging securities fraud, grand larceny, and money laundering. He’d gained my friends’ trust, as he had countless other victims. By preparing their tax returns, he knew his clients, and he knew what kind of money they had. In his press release announcing the arrest, the New York Attorney General said, “It’s unconscionable that many hard-working people put their futures in the hands of this defendant only to see their financial security destroyed by greed. (He) stole his victims’ life savings, and forced some of them to re-enter the workplace or rely on government assistance to survive, while others face foreclosure on their homes or bankruptcy.”
If you’re looking to bring a despicable character such as this into your writing, remember the three elements of fraud: (1) the fraudster has an “unsharable financial need,” meaning he or she is under pressure to come up with money. Gambling debts, drug addiction, credit card debt – any of these could contribute to that financial need. (2) “Rationalization,” meaning that, in the fraudster’s mind, the perceived benefit of committing the fraud outweighs the perceived punishment if caught. And finally (3) “opportunity,” a situation enabling the fraudster to commit fraud (lack of oversight, etc.).
White-collar criminals are big in books these days, thanks in part to Bernie Madoff. And we can read about fraud and corruption every day. The three elements described above will help you to create a believable character. If only they were relegated to fiction.