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.”
It occurred to me just how much of a turnoff this is for me when I read the second sentence of a review for the film Await Further Instructions.
The premise of this little film intrigued me: a family gets mysteriously sealed inside their house and their only communication with the outside world comes from their television, which initially tells them to “AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.” Of course, when those further instructions do come, they’re decidedly unpleasant. Not a bad little concept for a low-budget horror flick. The low IMDb score did not dissuade my interest, especially in the face of a strong critical consensus. Then I started to skim one review and saw that the protagonist family was named Milgram.
For those that don’t know the Milgram experiment was a “series of social psychology experiments” that, in short, tested the willingness of ordinary people to follow instructions of someone they believe to be an authority figure, even if they know those instructions are harmful to others.
When you’re talking about a movie where “blind obedience to instructions that could hurt or kill others” appears to be central to the plot, giving your protagonists the surname Milgram is as blatant as you can get. Mind you, I’m a guy who believes that subtlety is overrated, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place, or that I believe a lack of subtlety is always preferable. In this case we’re talking about a reference so obtrusive it made me mentally check out of on Await Further Instructions. I still “finished it,” but it did not have my full attention.
In fairness, just how “obvious” such a reference is can vary from person to person. Many people are unfamiliar with the Milgram experiment, I’m sure. The review I read for the movie, which skewed negative (because of the film’s third act), seemed oblivious to the meaning of the name (or the fact that the family lives on Stanford street, in reference to a different, semi-similar experiment). And, of course, there are probably more “exceptions” to my disdain for this tactic than I can begin to count: instances where an obvious name reference didn’t bother me in the least. Or at least didn’t keep me from finishing a book or movie. I didn’t shut off Hell House LLC just because it took place in a town absurdly named Abaddon, after all, and that movie turned out pretty enjoyable.
Either way, I’d argue that the potential variance in familiarity with the subject from one viewer to the next doesn’t much matter. It’s still obvious to the creator. I knew that Ankou was a blatant allusion and I went with it anyway, in part, I think, because in my fantasy scenario where a hit movie was made from my script, it would be the sort of hiding-in-plain-sight clue that I could point at to show I clever I was, but really pointing at how “dumb” I thought the audience was.
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.