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…”)