By Emma LaSaine, Columnist
Love is in the air, red panties are waiting in the wings, and, as we all count down the hours in restless anticipation of February 15—National Chocolate Sale Day, as it is so fondly known by yours truly—a lot of sweet-talk will no doubt be thrown around. So, when the February chill gets your characters in the mood, pop a bonbon in your mouth, grab your favorite pen, and don’t forget that good grammar makes everything sexy.
Let’s talk about nouns for an oh-so-hot second. All those people, places, and things that make up the stories you create. Sure, nothing would get done without verbs, but there wouldn’t be anyone to do without a noun or two, if you catch my meaning. Like any word you set down on the page, each noun carries its own possibilities and challenges. Consider character names, for example. What you call your character can tell the reader a whole lot—not to mention what other characters call them, or what that character calls themselves.
Imagine I’m standing in the middle of a grocery store aisle, telling a story to my cousin and you walk in mid-plot arc and, eavesdropping while you pick out your favorite brand of frozen pizza, have to figure out who these people are:
“So, then Cheryl grabs the ice cream maker from Leviathan, who starts screaming, ‘Chubby bunny! Chubby bunny!’ at the top of his lungs . . .”
Now Cheryl is a relatively unremarkable name, but unless I’ve missed the latest celebrity baby name trend (god forbid!) Leviathan might raise a few eyebrows. It certainly suggests more of a backstory, and perhaps even physical characteristics. It also hints that I, the narrator character, might have the sort of relationship with Leviathan that warrants a nickname—either loving or mocking—in a way that ‘Cheryl’ just doesn’t imply. That’s not to say any one of these implications is necessarily true, but as a reader, even if you only get the characters’ names devoid of any context, you’re probably more intrigued by Leviathan than Cheryl.
Character names are one of a few key ways to hook your readers—particularly jaded, lovesick editors languishing away in the dark, blustery Chicago winter—and make sure they buy into your story right from the get-go. There’s nothing particularly wrong with naming your protagonist John Smith, but unless you use the name to make a point or give the reader some key insight into how John is shaped as a person by his name, it’s not likely to do you any favors. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating that you name every character Crazy-Pants McGee, or Bernheimer L. Pentecost, or anything else your wild little minds can think up just to fuck with me. Not unless it makes sense for that character, at least. As with all diction, when choosing proper nouns (like character or place names) discretion is everybody’s friend. Yes, that’s right, the proper proper nouns can make your story (How’s that for a bit of English?).
So, how do you know if you’re dealing with a proper noun anyway? Good question, voice in my head. Proper nouns (in contrast to common nouns) are words that name a specific person, place, or thing. For example, Louisiana, Uncle Orville, Twizzlers, or Department of Homeland Security. Even though they may mean the same thing to you as “Louisiana,” the words “his home state” don’t form a proper noun—the same way that “my uncle” can mean anyone’s uncle, but “Uncle Orville” refers by name to a particular person.
Proper nouns are usually capitalized, as depicted above, so “uncle orville” would be incorrect. Carefully ensuring that your proper nouns are capitalized can help clue in readers to the dynamics of character relationships, key plot information, and sense of place. For example, if I tell you that Mary-Jo and Gene “went to a movie at the riverfront theater,” I’m saying that the theater in which they saw the movie was on a riverfront. However, if I write that Mary-Jo and Gene “went to a movie at the Riverfront Theater,” I’ve used a proper noun (capitalized to cue my reader), which explains that the name of the building in which my characters watched a movie was Riverfront Theater. While the first movie theater clearly must be located on a riverfront, the second one could be in any number of places, from the corner of a strip mall in Ohio to the mainstreet of a mountain town in Wyoming. Depending on what I, as the writer, want to convey, selecting a common or proper noun has different effects.
Brand names are another example of proper nouns, be they real or fictional. Just like the aforementioned Uncle Orville, “Twizzlers” refers to one specific kind of red, vine-shaped candy and “Red Vines” to another. By merely describing the candy to you, it is unclear which brand I actually have in mind—and remember, details are what make fiction feel real. If you write that Suzanne loved soda I’ll know a bit about her, but what if I’m imagining Mountain Dew and she’s actually passionate about Fanta because the color reminds her of her long-lost brother’s orangey-gold hair? We all have that one friend who swears up and down that they can taste the difference between Pepsi and Coke, and that one is inherently superior—let’s get real, R.C. was the actual star of pizza-and-movie-night (but I’ll save that discussion for another occasion)—so, why not get specific with your nouns and paint a more vivid picture?
Proper nouns can carry along a whole history, culture, or even cult of worship that common nouns simply don’t. When used wisely and in moderation, proper nouns can be a powerful tool. In turn, the absence of proper nouns can give the reader a lot of information about a particular character’s worldview. Is Kerry the sort of person who always refers to people by her relationship to them (i.e. “my uncle” or “my roommate”) even if the individual she’s talking to knows the person in question? Does LaToya refuse to prostrate herself on the altar of capitalism, only using general terms and thus avoiding accidentally endorsing brands via referring to objects using their proper noun names? What if Daniel only calls his boyfriend Jerold “pookie” or “honeycakes” because he wants the whole world to know about their love? Or, perhaps, our esteemed Uncle Orville is the kind of guy who believes in off-brand loyalty and is careful to point out his Valu-Mart canned chicken noodle soup, Valu-Mart faux-suede slippers, and the catalogue picture of his Valu-Mart pre-ordered urn (on layaway) as soon as you get inside the drafty old bungalow where he lives with his pet ferret Whiskers and the ghosts of twenty-two goldfish (all named Earl)?
The beauty of names (proper nouns) is that a name adds history, cultural context, narrative. Using proper nouns effectively and engagingly will set your stories apart in a stack of barely-fictionalized essays on masturbation, lamentations by protagonist John on the burden of white male privilege, and dead-horse-beating love-gone-wrong stories with gratuitous yet vague sex scenes that just leave the acquisitions editor bone-dry and asking, “Wait? What’s the spacial relationship of her thighs to the dining room table at the bottom of page seventeen?”
Well, maybe proper nouns won’t save your story if it’s drowning in self-indulgence and riddled with grammatical errors, but much like the start of some similarly ill-fated relationships, an interesting name can certainly get your foot in the door.
Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN Magazine, Slacktivist, The Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.