Don’t Call Him Fred

by syaffolee

A Twitter conversation I had yesterday was initially sparked by this tweet by @mharvey816: “Seriously, writers: DO NOT put your name in your own book. It’s not cute. It’s not clever. It is the exact opposite of those things. #FAIL”

I completely agree with the sentiment.

Even if you argue that you are trying to do something clever and arty to make some kind of statement, people going in cold aren’t going to immediately realize this. A name is an identity. When an author puts her name into the book, it is putting herself into the book. It’s a big neon sign saying “Look at me, I’m breaking the fourth wall and telling you all my fantasies!” or more succinctly put in fanfic terms, “Mary Sue. RIGHT HERE.” While it is human nature to be nosy about other people, there is a point where it becomes too much. And if you do want to break the fourth wall and tell all your fantasies, there are better ways of doing it without alienating your readers. For starters, Find and Replace would be handy.

I also want to make it clear that this is not about memoirs, autobiographies, or other types of non-fiction. In those types of works, the author is upfront about who the story is about. The reader goes into the work expecting the author to feature prominently in the narrative. The expectations of fiction, on the other hand, are different. The reader is expecting storytelling, to be swept up into an imaginary reality illustrating adventures and/or thought-provoking philosophy about the human condition (depending on the genre). Readers of fiction want a narrative that entertains or makes them think. They don’t want self indulgent prose that screams ME ME ME. And putting your own name into the book? That has ME ME ME all over it.

One could argue that not putting your name into the story is a constructed convention, a tradition that hinders certain forms of storytelling. However no one’s really stopping anyone from bestowing their own names to a character. The self-proclaimed writing etiquette brigade might be blowhards, but they can’t physically stem your hand. But if an author does want to do such a thing and they want readers rather than leaving the manuscript in a drawer, the author must consider the readers’ expectations about fiction. And if those expectations are broken, the execution of how they’re broken will determine whether or not the audience will still find it worth the time they spent reading it.

I’m not saying that this can’t be done–just that it can rarely be done well. The only example I have off the top of my head is Lemony Snicket, the author, narrator and fictional character of A Series of Unfortunate Events. But one of the reasons why this works is because “Lemony Snicket” is so obviously a pen name. (Just as, say, S. Y. Affolee is so obviously my internet handle and not my real name. It has the structure of a real name, but the combination of letters is too rare. The style of the name is not what people have used in today’s society.) Stephen King might be able to pull this off if he used “Richard Bachman” as a character because it’s pretty well known that “Richard Bachman” is a pseudonym. But a new author who starts with a pen name that isn’t advertised as such so that everyone assumes off the bat it’s the author’s real name? No, the suspension of disbelief wouldn’t work at all unless the author pulls off some kind of amazing literary trick.

On a related note, as a writer, I wouldn’t use the names of people I personally know, either. Other people get around this by asking people their permission to use their name, with the understanding that the fictional character has nothing to do with the real person. And as for common names like “John” or “Mary,” well, there’s always that fiction disclaimer at the beginning of every novel. For me, names–like every other word in the language–have certain connotations. Perhaps this is just my own quirks in developing a story, but I never assign names to character simply because it sounds nice or because it’s my favorite. It has to suit the era and the culture where the character lives. Besides, there are a million names out there. You can even make them up depending on your genre. Why must one use a relative, friend, or co-worker’s name if you don’t have a reason outside of aesthetics to do so?

From the reader’s side (if the reader has no personal connection to the author and the author is not a Famous Person like the president or an A-list actor), the fact that the character is named after the author’s best friend or that the villain has the same name as the author’s mother-in-law is unknown. Again, the reader is going into this cold. The book is the finished product and not a treatise about the inspiration for the story. The reader will only take its surface meaning because he or she is ignorant of the background. So in this case, using the names of people you know is not the same as using your own because the reader is only aware of the latter.

Although there will always be readers looking to see what resemblance to real life the fictional works have no matter what the author names the characters, there is the implicit understanding that fiction isn’t supposed to be Real. Fiction is a melange of all that the writer has experienced, learned, imagined, and dreamed. The Real is merely one facet of fiction, an inspiration not an imposition. In contrast, non-fiction is by definition imposed with the Real. If there’s no longer anything Real in non-fiction, it is no longer non-fiction. The author’s name is a piece of the Real. And thus, by putting one’s own name into the story, the Real becomes imposed upon it. So not only is the narcissistic ME alienating readers, but it also breaks the suspension of belief which depends as much on the unrealistic as the realistic.