Today I’ll be highlighting Truman Capote and how he used naming to enhance both setting and characterization. In particular I will be focusing on his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. For those who haven’t read the work, it shares the story of a young boy, Joel, who comes to stay at his estranged father’s house after the death of his mother. He is not immediately introduced to his father but instead meets other inhabitants of the house, including the housekeeper Missouri “Zoo” Fever, his stepmother Miss Amy, his cousin Randolph, and the driver and longtime servant Jesus Fever. His only friends, other than Zoo, are a set of redheaded twins named Florabel and Idabel. The narrative follows Joel as he does finally meet his paralyzed father and begins to discover the darkness in the world, the way he feels about love and friendship, and who he really is.
The protagonist in Other Voices, Other Rooms is named Joel. The name seems ordinary, except for its Biblical origins, reminding one of sins and blessings. This fits in with the religious overtones of the novel, such as at the beginning when Joel participates in a service with the aptly named Jesus Fever and Zoo. However, the regularity of the name provides a solid foundation for this character in the near mythical world that he is thrust into. The name Joel is grounding and lets the reader know that whatever the transformations of the main character—his falling in love with the “real” him—all will be well.
Eschewing her name of Missouri in favor of “Zoo”, this character is a friend of Joel. As the name implies, there is a wildness that exists about her. Below is Joel’s description of Zoo:
The length of her neck is something to ponder upon for she was almost a freak, a human giraffe, and Joel recalled photos which he’d scissored once from the pages of a National Geographic, of curious African ladies with countless silver chokers stretching their necks to improbable heights. Though she wore no silver bands, naturally, there was a sweat-stained blue polka-dot bandana wrapped round the middle of her soaring neck. (Capote 44)
The name Zoo conjures up images of animals in cages, trapped in small spaces and never roaming free as they might wish. This describes Zoo in the novel, as she longs to escape from Skully’s Landing and the heat of the South. She wants to see snow and to escape from the constant specter hovering over her of Keg Brown. His name, too, is telling, as the reference to an alcoholic container and an earth tone—the color of dried blood—alludes to an already questionable character. Indeed we learn that Keg Brown was responsible for the scar around Zoo’s neck, hidden by the bandana, that came from when he slashed her throat.
Two important places in the novel are also given life by their names. Skully’s Landing is the run down mansion at which Joel stays. It is vast and parts of it have been destroyed by fire. This lends it a haunting air that the name “Skully” perfectly matches. The Cloud Hotel is situated next to the Drowning Pond. The Drowning Pond received its name from the deaths of visitors to the hotel. After rumors of ghosts and more deaths, the hotel was abandoned, its owner committing suicide. All that remained was a hermit named Little Sunshine who, although little, feels more sinister than like sunshine. The Cloud Hotel is run down and people are afraid to visit it. Therefore it floats in the memories of individuals and is carried on through stories, seemingly suspended in a dream-like state.
Other Voices, Other Rooms contains beautiful prose and a near tangible atmosphere. Although a number of successful craft choices were used, Capote truly strengthened his work with the decisions he made in regards to naming, and I think his methodology is something we could all apply to our own work.
I imagine all of us writers are particular about what we name our characters. For instance, I will figure out my character’s age and subtract that from the year the story is set in. I then research the most popular baby names from the character’s birth year so that it fits with the time period. I also consider how obtrusive I want the name to be and what I want it to tell the reader.
As we’ve seen through Capote, the purposeful use of names can be a very satisfying way to round out a character or location. In my next blog post, I’ll be examining ambiguity and how leaving characters unnamed can work for you as well, so make sure to stay tuned!
We at literarylabors.com would love to hear from you. How do you approach naming your characters or places? If there are any tips or tricks you’d like to pass along, please comment below!