Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published December 11, 2010. Enjoy!
By Charles Gramlich
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.