August 11, 2008 11:06 PM   Subscribe

Why do novelists use "________" in place of a character's name?

Most recently, I noticed this convention in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but I've for sure seen this used elsewhere as well.

Is this supposed to make the novel feel more "real" - as if the author is protecting the identity of some particularly heinous or vulnerable character? That makes no sense to me since I've never read a non-fiction book or essay where there was a blank (or first letter only) instead of a name.

Am I missing something obvious?
posted by serazin to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's a 19th century fiction convention which (in its original form) was intended to create a sense of verisimilitude. It was used to obscure names to create the suggestion the character was or could be a real person (who couldn't be outed) and was used to obscure precise dates (esp. years, i.e. "May 8, 18__" so as to give a sense that the events might be now.

Its contemporary use is going to be in some measures to produce the same effect, and in other measure meta, to invoke the essence of the 19th century convention.
posted by MattD at 11:12 PM on August 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

i.e. was supposed to be e.g.

what a terrible kind of topic to make such an error!
posted by MattD at 11:13 PM on August 11, 2008

Response by poster: 10 seconds to a precise answer! I love AskMe.
posted by serazin at 11:15 PM on August 11, 2008

It predates the nineteenth century, actually; satirists used the convention to get their digs in at someone without setting themselves up for a lawsuit. Thus, John Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe" (1682), in which the Sh---- (the dramatist Thomas Shadwell, nowhere near so incompetent as JD makes him out to be) gets used to great comic effect:

From dusty shops neglected authors come,
Martyrs of Pies, and Reliques of the Bum.
Much Heywood, Shirly, Ogleby there lay,
But loads of Sh---- almost choak'd the way.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:53 PM on August 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

See also the convention for "The Man With No Name". I believe the idea - at least at least in the context popularised by Spaghetti Westerns - has roots in Japanese literature forms.

I was also reminded of this illustration from "Understanding Comics" - this is the idea that the more a character is made to appear de-individualised the easier it is for the audience to identify with it.
posted by rongorongo at 1:39 AM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's a 19th century fiction convention...

I think it's a bit earlier than that even. Eighteenth century novelists like Laurence Sterne ("Tristram Shandy" and 'A Sentimental Journey'), Tobias Smollett ('Roderick Random') and Henry Fielding ('Tom Jones') already use it.
posted by NekulturnY at 3:09 AM on August 12, 2008

posted by unknowncommand at 5:20 AM on August 12, 2008

Response by poster: Huh, and also previously. Thanks for all the context folks. I love the wonderful nerdery around here.

I gotta say, in contemporary fiction I find this device annoying and self-conscious, but this ain't the Times Review of Books around here so I'll shut my trap now.
posted by serazin at 7:32 AM on August 12, 2008

I've also seen in primarily used with nobility (Lord R--) where it'd be jarring to use a fake name but you wouldn't want to use the real one and piss someone off.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:04 AM on August 12, 2008

1 2 more previous threads, so this one makes 5 total. This gets asked a lot.
posted by Who_Am_I at 9:58 AM on August 12, 2008

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