Saturday, December 11, 2010

Resonance

I did a post quite a while ago on my own blog about "resonance” in writing. It’s been one of the more popular posts I’ve made so I thought I’d revisit the concept for Novel Spaces.

Resonance represents the degree to which a name, term, or subject evokes already existing associations in someone’s mind. Consider this, you hear about two good mystery novels by writers unknown to you. The first features Linda Harmon as the private eye. The second features Sherrill Holmes, a descendant of the great Sherlock. Which book captures your attention first? Which immediately brings thoughts to your mind?

I’m betting it will be the “Holmes.” Resonance is the reason. Whether you liked the Holmes stories or not, you recognize the name. It carries weight. It already evokes thoughts of detectives where “Harmon” is a cipher. “Holmes” impacts like Harmon cannot, at least for most people.

Some names carry powerful resonance even when separated from the historical figures who wore them. Consider “Moses,” or “Jesus.” What personal and physical traits do you automatically assign to a character named Moses? Does “Moses” suggest someone who is strong willed? What about “Morris?” Resonance gives your character “Moses” power the moment his name is put on the page. Not so much for “Morris.”

Resonance can be negative, as well, though. Take “Adolph.” Think very carefully if you decide to give your character that name. Most people will automatically associate “Adolph” with mass murder, concentration camps, and war.

Even fictional names can develop resonance. “Sherlock” has it. “Conan” has it. What do you think of when you hear the name “Homer?” Homer of the Odyssey or Homer Simpson? I bet you thought of one of them. For The Simpson’s fan, the name Homer is going to evoke a certain level of dumbness.

How many thrillers have you seen with Nazis in them? Nazis have resonance. And I wonder how much resonance had to do with the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code? Leonardo Da Vinci himself. Jesus. Mary Magdalene. The Catholic Church. The Vatican. Opus Dei. “The Last Supper.” All of these have resonance.

For adults, everyday words already come with varying degrees of resonance. What images come to mind when you hear concrete nouns like “blood,” “snow,” “death,” “lover,” or “child?” When I hear the word “blood,” I don’t just think of the liquid; I think of life itself, and of a color, and of violence. For me, “child” brings thoughts of my son, Joshua, pitching baseball, riding his bike, laughing and playing. Resonate nouns make more powerful engines for your prose.

Some abstract nouns, like “freedom,” or “violence,” can develop powerful resonance, but they are still different from concrete nouns in the specificity of images they evoke. Other abstract words evoke little: “humanist” or “theorist.”

Consciously or unconsciously, many writers in the past have used resonance in naming their characters. Mike Hammer. Sam Spade. Or consider the wealth of fictional characters named some variation of “Cain.” Unfortunately, this has been overused and I’m not sure you want to name your characters “Stone,” or “Steele,” or “Wolfe,” or “Hawke” anymore. Here, resonance has been lost because of overuse, or has been transferred from positive to negative.

Resonance is a writer’s tool just as much as punctuation and grammar. You just need to consider what resonances you’re evoking as you write. Should your character fly the “Stars and Stripes?” Should they be from “New York?” Should they be described with terms that evoke the “tiger,” or those that evoke the “snake?” There’s no real right or wrong answer. There are only resonances: positive and negative, and sometimes both.

29 comments:

Ocean Girl said...

So true. I'll remember to think of words I use base on what I hope to resonate in my posts.

Angie said...

Unfortunately, this has been overused and I’m not sure you want to name your characters “Stone,” or “Steele,” or “Wolfe,” or “Hawke” anymore.

This goes double in mainstream romance. [nod/sigh] I've been saying for twenty-plus years that someone in Regency England should start a club just for men who are nicknamed "Hawk." Another one for "Falcon" guys next door, with the "Demon" club across the street. These names had resonance once, but now they just get eyerolls.

I used to work for a company that develops and runs multi-player online roleplaying games. Fantasy games are the most popular, and when they developed a new one (i.e., wrote a new engine and came up with a fresh set of rules, then built a world to use the new tech) they surveyed fantasy -- games, books, movies, etc. -- and found that the word "Dragon" in the title corresponded more strongly to popularity than any other word in the genre. So they named their new game Dragonrealms even though it had no dragons in it. I worked in that game for a number of years and it never did have any dragons, but the name made it sound like fun. :)

Angie, outlining a fantasy book to be titled Legend of the Dragonhawk ;D

the walking man said...

Thanks Charles. At what point though are there too many rules or keys? Though this is useful, very much so, eventually some will just give up because of every key or idea they try to incorporate into their great novel instead of sitting writing and editing fifty times.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Linda Harmon as the private eye? Or Sherrill Holmes?

Honestly? I think Sherrill Holmes reeks; it's too contrived. I like Linda Harmon; it's subtle and I get this feeling of calmness, as if she's got it together.

I'm not sure I'd use resonance as a factor in name a character, but I'd sure use it to unname a character.

BernardL said...

Some words defy overuse. I would have thought 'vampire' by now might induce a gag reflex but it still has an eerie chilling effect.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice post. I am not as mindful of this as I should be. However, I would avoid the one using the name Holmes. Either a pastiche or a grab for attention.

sage said...

When I see "Charles", I immediately think of a headless king... Just kidding, good post.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ocean Girl, I thought about this quite a lot in the piece I wrote for you on reflections.

Angie, Legend of the dragonhawk! I like it. I’ll buy it. How about Legend of the Steel Dragonhawk?”

Mark, Hopefully this stuff kind of becomes second nature and is no longer thought of consciously. Too many rules definitely cause issues if the person spends time paying attention just to the rules and not to the writing. But most of these things do eventually become almost automatic.

JR, it was just a toss off the top of my head. I bet most mystery readers would probably pick up the Holmes book without even consciously thinking of it.

BernardL, that’s true. And I’m not sure why that is. Worth giving it some thought.

pattinase, hum, I hadn’t really thought of that about the name “Holmes.” It would at least get you to have a thought about it. You’d process it, though maybe it would backfire.

sage, That’s a pleasant thought. :)

jodi said...

Charles, You sure can make me think. Or maybe consider would be a better word. There is so very much I do not know about the intracasis (sp) of writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, thanks. glad to do it.

AvDB said...

Bah! I'd never use resonance when naming a character.

Resonance in writing is why we're seeing so many classics combined with supernatural beings at the moment. It's a double-whammy of instant, visceral recognition that pulls in hordes of readers.

David J. West said...

Absolutely Charles, understanding resonance can increase and/or target our audience.
I'm about halfway through BITTER STEEL and greatly enjoy the resonance therein.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'll try to remember resonance for my next book. Never really thought about it before.

Charles Gramlich said...

AvDB, lol. I didn't even think of that. Cool.

David, I'm glad you are enjoying, man.

Alex, most of the time writers use it unconsciously, I think. But sometimes it helps to think about it.

The Golden Eagle said...

Interesting post--I hadn't really thought of things resonating, but they do.

Steve Malley said...

Avery and Angie made me laugh!! I like it when I laugh.

And yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm just one 'box of chocolates' reference away from being made to wear a helmet... ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

Golden Eagle, it definitely seems so. Thanks for dropping by for a visit.

Steve Malley, I've been learning since Lana how good laughter can be. Never thought much about it before.

Leigh Russell said...

Oh dear. If I'd known that my story would be picked up by a publisher, and that it would mushroom so quickly into a series, and that the series would sell so well, I might have thought more carefully about my protagonist's name! But words and names have different resonances for different people, as the comments here demonstrate, so maybe these things can be overanalysed. Anyway, once a book is published, the name is set in stone, so my detective is called Geraldine Steel and I can't change it now!
As for Sherrill Holmes - I think the similarity with SH is too blatant to be considered a 'resonance'. It suggests a pastiche of the original. But I do agree with your premise about resonance and not all communication is conducted on a consciouos level.

Leigh Russell said...

or even a conscious level... (so glad my books are proof read!)

Ron Scheer said...

Worked once in a firm that came up with names for products and services. I remember when a competitor came up with "Lexus" for Toyota's new luxury line, because Toyota had too much of the wrong "resonance." I thought Lexus sounded stupid; now, of course, it makes all the sense in the world. Lexus. Luxury.

Charles Gramlich said...

Leigh Russell, there's also a different history in England for the use of such names, and it's different across different genres. My conception of Sherrill Holmes would have been having a woman who was Holmes' descendent rather than a pastiche but a couple of people seem to feel that way. Not sure why but it's not really a critical issue.

Ron, that's kind of cool. I didn't know that. I knew Toyota apparently came up with Camry and Corollo after studies were done on the kind of sounds Americans liked. Lexus has a nice ring to me.

cs harris said...

Thought provoking, Charles.

I just finished reading a 400 page (hardcover) literary mystery and could not tell you the last name of the detective. Serious lack of resonance!

Charles Gramlich said...

Candy, I try to come up with names for fantasy characters that are spelled differently but sound rather like real words. I think this gives a bit of resonance. Like Ruenn (Ruin), Jaal (Jail), or use names that incorporate real names, like Martel or Ahncrist.

laughingwolf said...

i dunno, charles... morris, the finicky cat, has a lotta resonance... with cat lovers! ;) lol

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, yes you're right. How could I completely forget Morris? I'm ashamed. :)

laughingwolf said...

i'm sure you are ;) lol

Shauna Roberts said...

As always, a useful post. Thanks, Charles. One more thing for me to consider when starting a book or story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, :)

Shauna, most of the time I think it becomes unconscious but it may be useful to consider consciously as your planning something out.

jennifer said...

Points well taken!