On Writing, Outside Thoughts

Story Turn-offs: Obvious Meaningful Names

In my teenage years, when I first started taking writing at least semi-seriously, but still thought I could somehow be a successful screenwriter while still living in San Antonio, I wrote a very, very, very bad script called Reaper. This was in the post-Scream slasher renaissance, so naturally I’d written a whodunit slasher story, and just as naturally I tried to get way too “cute” and “clever” with it. Probably the worst of many bad things featured in that script was the last name of the man who’d eventually be revealed as the killer: Ankou.

Fucking Ankou. I’m so ashamed.

Okay, for any who may not know, the Ankou is a Grim Reaper-esque figure, one of many personifications of death littered throughout folklore, this one in particular belonging to Breton mythology. I forget which book I must have read about the Ankou in; probably the Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were. The only reason why I bring up having read it in a book, as opposed to having read about it online, was because this was the late 90’s and the internet had not yet become a ubiquitous, nigh-essential part of our everyday lives. So it was somewhat reasonable, at least, for me to believe I could get away with using such a ridiculously on-the-nose clue as a character’s name, since the expectation wasn’t that people would just look this up and figure the mystery out within 3 seconds.

The thing is, it’s still an unusual word that makes for a bizarre name. It’s not like I didn’t name every other character Smith, or Johnson, or Harrison or some such. So when I ran the story by my friend, who read and reviewed all of my screenplays for me back then, he immediately figured out that Joseph Ankou was the killer, and that Ankou was some kind of clue, even though he didn’t know the mythology. He didn’t need to. The name was just that ridiculously blatant.

I bring all of this up because it perhaps is the source of my bias against character names that are too overtly “symbolic” or “metaphorical.”

One of the things that eventually made me a better writer–one actually capable of selling a short story every once in a long while–was that I stopped writing as though I thought readers weren’t smart. I think that’s what gets to me most when a “meaningful” name in some mystery, thriller or horror story is too obvious; intentional or not, it feels like a sign of a “smart” writing that’s only trying to be smarter than the “dumbest” members of the audience, who may not even be dumb at all, just unfamiliar with this particular thing you’re referencing.