Name Dropping

Hamlet is often portrayed as a man dressed in medieval finery with a skull cradled in his hand. Many people assume that Hamlet recited his fateful soliloquy “To be or not to be…” as he stared at the skull. That’s not true. He said “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.” Yorick had been the king’s jester, and a bit of comic relief. He served the same purpose as the protocol droid, C-3PO, in George Lucas’ film The Empire Strikes Back. During that film Chewbacca holds the head of the dismembered C-3PO in the same manner that Hamlet is often shown holding Yorick’s skull. If the audience does not catch this visual allusion, they can still understand the gist of The Empire Strikes Back. However, Chewbacca’s struggle with the nature of life and death does make the Wookie seem more human.

If you find yourself dangling too close to the edge of sanity trying to come up with the perfect words to describe your character, you can lean on what past writers have done. Allusions are the literary equivalent of name-dropping. Once, I heard an acquaintance refer to another person as an “Adonis.” Despite knowing over fifty people in common, I immediately knew who she was discussing. There was only one man in our circle handsome and charming enough to fit that comparison, and he just happened to be Greek. Alluding to a well-known character, fictional or real, is a shortcut that hands an already developed concept to the readers.

How do you determine which characters or which works should be the basis of an allusion? Use your friendly internet to supply lists of the most famous people, both real and fictional that share the same problem as your character. Then, cross out anyone who wasn’t walking the earth or in through a fictional book more than one hundred years ago. (If that’s too hard, delete any real or fictional person that did not exist before your birth.) Not only have you shortened your list dramatically, you have selected people to use for allusions with staying power.

Is it necessary for readers to read the same books as you have for this kind of name dropping to work? Not always. Any list of the classics used for allusions include the Bible and Shakespeare’s tragedies. People who have never read either one still know that “Judas” is an epithet for a traitor, and “Romeo” describes a male with romantic intentions.

“Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.” William Shakespeare

When you allude to a character from Shakespeare’s works, you aren’t claiming personal friendship with the playwright. But, people may assume that you know his works well. Yet, you may not have read any of them (just like most of your readers). That is where the difficulty lies. Comparing a character to Romeo because he is old and lecherous is not the kind of romantic male that Shakespeare had in mind. Unless you call him “Romeo” in a sarcastic manner, readers who have actually read the play may start making fun of your work.

It helps to be well-read if you like using allusions. Romeo in the play is not the same person as the brooding Leo de Caprio is in the movie. So, beware of drawing allusions from movies that pale in comparison to the work that inspired them. The criteria that the character has been well-known for more than your lifetime means reading something other than modern works. Drawing on already developed descriptions of classic characters will add depth to your writing. However, if allusions are used incorrectly, you simply sound pretentious.

This entry was posted in allusions, Characters, Drama and movies, Ideas for writing, Literary devices, Nonfiction, Novels, Trends in books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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