The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘characters’

Brief Encounter

April 1, 2016 | by

“Polite New Yorker”

Guess who I ran into this morning? Three guesses. And if you guessed Jacob, my neighborhood friend, you’re right! 

I was enjoying a toasted, buttered bialy, a coffee-cart small, and a newspaper on a traffic island, when who should sit down on the bench opposite but my old comrade-in-arms! He was looking very natty in a bright green fedora and tweed jacket. On his lapel was a button that read POLITE NEW YORKER.Read More »

A Boy with No Birthday Turns Sixty

March 3, 2016 | by

The long and tangled history of Alfred E. Neuman.

Norman Mingo’s canonical Neuman.

In a 1975 interview with the New York Times, MAD Magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman recalled an illustration of a grinning boy he’d spotted on a postcard in the early fifties: a “bumpkin portrait,” “part leering wiseacre, part happy-go-lucky kid.” It was captioned “What, Me Worry?”

That bumpkin became Alfred E. Neuman, MAD’s mascot, who turns sixty this year—kind of. The impish, immutable redhead made his official debut in December 1956, when he appeared on the cover of MAD no. 30 as a write-in candidate for president. He’s appeared on almost every MAD cover since: possessing, spoofing, and spooking cultural icons with nothing more than a drowsy rictus. Though MAD gave him a purpose, a permanent home, his origin story remains elusive. It involves, among other things, a plum-pudding advertisement, a dubious lawsuit, and a traveling nineteenth-century farce. Neuman is forever synonymous with the magazine and its infinite irreverence, but the riddle of his real age may be the trickster’s trump card. Read More »

Getting to Know Professor Bhaer, Part 1

February 22, 2016 | by

He isn’t old, nor anything bad, but good and kind, and the best friend I’ve got next to you. Pray don’t fly into a passion; I want to be kind, but I know I shall get angry if you abuse my Professor. I haven’t the least idea of loving him, or anybody else. —Little Women

Literature has known many divisive characters. The dubious morality of Humbert Humbert, the disreputable spikiness of Holden Caulfield, the judgment and snobbery of Emma Bovary—all have pitted readers against one another since time immemorial. That said, there’s one character more controversial than all of these put together: Friedrich Bhaer. Read More »

What Kind of Name Is That?

February 8, 2016 | by

How to name your fictional characters.

Characters in need of names.

To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.

The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More »

Sorry, Judy

November 23, 2015 | by

Judy doesn’t even deserve this picnic.

I recently had a thought while reading Marjory Hall’s A Picnic for Judy, a YA book from 1955. The premise was promising: a young woman is forced to move with her family to a rambling old inn on a Maine island. Score! I thought. It seemed like it would combine my favorite fifties YA themes: coming of age, pine trees, and redecorating, with setting to rights into the bargain. Yes, surely this would be the sort of book that Betty Cavanna could whip up with her eyes closed—that I find so comforting and fun.

It’s true, I’d had mixed results with Howell before. Her books have been known to involve inexplicable decision-making, mysterious romantic motivations, and leaden dialogue. But with this setup, how could she go wrong? At the very least, there’d be a picnic scene. Read More »

The Art of Paños, and Other News

February 9, 2015 | by

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Photo: Reno Leplat-Torti / Paños Chicanos, via Vice

  • Wackford Squeers, Peg Sliderskew, Charity Pecksniff … the names of characters in Dickens novels are outré enough to put Thomas Pynchon to shame.
  • Relatedly: naming one’s characters is arguably the fiction writer’s most critical task. “I make up names for people all the time—it’s part of writing. Very often, the name comes with the character, along with of a sense of who they are and what they do … All names are masks, as well as identifiers.”
  • For her services to literature, Hilary Mantel—with whom we’ll feature an Art of Fiction interview in our next issue—has been made a dame.
  • Early in the twentieth century, an unlikely duo developed the first mechanistic theory of the mind: Warren McCulloch, “a confident, gray-eyed, wild-bearded, chain-smoking philosopher-poet who lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before four a.m.,” and Walter Pitts, “small and shy, with a long forehead that prematurely aged him, and a squat, duck-like, bespectacled face.” They asserted that the brain “uses logic encoded in neural networks to compute.”
  • Finally, without further ado: Mexican prison art. “The tradition of paño (from the Spanish ‘pañuelo,’ which means ‘handkerchief’ ) began in the correctional facilities of Western American States sometime in the 1940s. At the time, decorating handkerchiefs was the only way for illiterate Mexican prisoners to communicate with the outside world. To this day, paños are still often sent to friends and family instead of letters, while, in certain prisons, the handkerchiefs are a popular form of currency.”

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