Rationalizing after the fact

By admin | Uncategorized

Jun 16

It has been pointed out to me that, in general, the characters in my stories have no names. I always figured that this was because I’m lousy at finding good names for my characters, and since they’re mostly archetypes anyway, they don’t need names.

Then I picked up a copy of Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment, which analyzes fairy tales, and their roles in children’s lives.

He says (on page 40 in the 1976 hardback copy by Knopf)


The fairy tale, by contrast (with myths), makes clear that it tells about everyman, people very much like us… If names appear, it is quite clear that these are not proper names but general or descriptive ones….Even when the hero is given a name, as in the Jack stories, or in “Hansel and Gretel,” the use of very common names makes them generic terms, standing for any boy or girl.

This is further stressed by the fact that in fairy tales nobody else has a name; the parents of the main figures in fairy tales remain nameless…. Fairies and witches, giants and godmothers remain equally unnamed, thus facilitating projections and identifications.

Projection in fairy tales is important, so that the child can see themself as the Jack who cleverly outwits the giant, or as the brave princess facing down a dangerous dragon, or as any other role in the fairy tale. Fairy tales teach us that dragons can be overcome (or taught lessons themselves, as in The Grumpy Dragon), that the weak and seemingly powerless (the child) can overcome obstacles or the powerful or those in authority over them.

There are other genres, such as religious morality plays like Pilgrim’s Progress, where characters have descriptive names, such as Piliable, Faithful, Mr. Legality & Mr. Worldly Wiseman. In these cases, the reader is required to identify with specific virtuous characters. In fairy tales, the names tend to be neutral, or at most descriptive, like Beauty and the Beast, or Prince Charming. Fairy tales may teach a lesson, but it’s much more discrete than Pilgrim’s Progress is (which in my opinion hits you over the head, and points to the moral written in 108 pt type with flashing lights around it), and the moral may be ambiguous. The characters in fairy tales invite you to identify with them (and this identification may be gender-neutral, as in the youngest son who identifies with Cinderella, in a “you may be mean to me now, but you’ll get yours someday” kind of thing.)

So having unnamed characters are not only a standard fairy tale trope, but it has valuable psychological effects.

Or at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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