I’m sorry, what was your name again?

September 11, 2015 § 2 Comments

In my ten-something years as an avid reader and token bookworm, I had never had this experience before.

On the first day of class, I came prepared with an annotated copy of “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov and the seemingly impossible goal of not making a fool of myself in front of other College Scholars. Everything seemed to be going suspiciously well when halfway through the animated discussion, the professor asked, “So what are the characters’ names?”

I was completely bewildered. I had spent 2 hours reading through the story and coming up with exciting points to share with the class and I could not even remember a single character’s name? What had happened? I was sure that I had read the story carefully enough. Eventually, I blamed the story for having character names that were too complicated. (I had to look at the story again. Theremon 762? Sheerin 501? Really?)

And yet this phenomenon happened again and again. “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, “By His Bootstraps” by Robert A. Heinlein, “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” by Michael Swanwick. I was sure that this time around, the character names were not difficult to remember and yet, I could not tell you a single character name from any of the stories that I have read so far. (Except for Helen from “Helen O’ Loy,” written by Lester Del Ray, but the name is in the freaking title.)

What was wrong with me? Was I not reading closely enough or carefully enough? Did science fiction just not agree with my brain? I could remember the plots well enough, but why not the characters’ names? (The self deprecating part of my brain whispers “It’s because you’re sttuuuppiiddd.”)

The only thing that gave me a small measure of comfort was the fact that we talked about how Science Fiction, as a genre, relies on stock characters that are flat and archetypal. Often, the focus is on the plot and the ideas, rather than the characters. The way I see it, in most of the stories that we have read so far, the authors have used their characters as hollow vessels, not unlike characters that you would see in video games. The author then uses these vessels to guide us through their meticulously constructed scientific puzzles or tales about time-travel paradoxes. Whether or not the vessel gets filled up with distinguishing personality traits and characteristics is not of utmost importance, which makes it harder to remember and care about the characters. Ultimately, it is the plot that matters.

Of course, not all of Science Fiction is like this. I can still remember the names of the three Wiggin children, Andrew (Ender), Peter, and Valentine, from Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, which I read in middle school. (In fact, my pseudonym, Demosthenes, is a tribute to Valentine’s pseudonym that she used in the novel.) However, I feel that I can remember so many details about these characters because I have grown attached to them. I consider Ender to be a precious baby that needs to be protected. So far, none of the characters in the stories that we have read have been memorable or likable enough for me to remember.

Is this just me? Am I the only one who has trouble remembering character names? (The self deprecating part of my brain whispers again “It’s just you…”)



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§ 2 Responses to I’m sorry, what was your name again?

  • sarahmjamison says:

    What I found striking about your blog entry is that it is completely relatable to the average reader. I too found myself thinking back on different Science Fiction stories trying to remember names. I think one thing to consider is how truly forgettable the name really are. It seems as if, to a degree, the author actually wants the reader to forget the characters’ names to intentionally force the reader’s attention on the plot or themes. One story that comes to mind is Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem. In the story, the characters are given obscure names, such as the protagonist’s name Equality 7-252, and he uses plural pronouns (“we”, “our”, “they”) to refer to himself and others. One of the major themes of the novella is the destruction of the individual in a technological society in the future. Reading Rand’s story the reader is able to disregard the names, to an extent, to truly focus on the plot, themes, and the implications of the plot on the development of society.
    Thus, I agree with your judgement that Science Fiction is largely about the plot and less so about the characters. The characters seem like vehicles to highlight important themes and support the plot.

    S. Jamison


  • ldavia says:

    Well-written with a good tone, this blog entry definitely captured the experience of reading a science fiction piece. I would agree with you, Demosthenes, that keeping track of the character names is indeed difficult, even for the most seasoned bookworm (which of course we could attribute to Science Fiction’s priorities as a genre). I also appreciated the ways in which your blog highlighted the realities of interacting with the discipline as a whole. The fact that we cannot remember characters names makes us wonder what our forgetting is a reflection of. Is it the author? Is it the particular story? Is it our own decision to minimize the particulars of any character when presented with terse description? I don’t think I can provide a cohesive set of answers to that set of questions, but it certainly raises a good line of debate!

    L. Davia


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