Victorian Monsters

I’ve always been a fan of horror fiction, and every October I watch scary movies all month long. During my first semester at St. Mary’s College, I took a Freshman Seminar called Victorian Monsters and Modern Monstrosities. Professor Jennifer Cognard-Black introduced us (we came to be known as “Marvelous Monsters”) to six archetypes. With each we read a corresponding literary classic:

  1. Freak – Frankenstein
  2. Madwoman – Jane Eyre
  3. Schizo – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  4. Horrorscape – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  5. Deviant – Dracula
  6. Animagi – The Island of Dr. Moreau

Here are some of my notes from the start of the seminar regarding core themes:

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Indeed these archetypes reflect Victorian social fears and limits. Yet there is something about what’s considered monstrous that draws people in. We delight in feeling terrified. We are interested in the unknown. During Victorian times revolutions were underway in science and philosophy. The establishment clashed with the Enlightenment.

The Freak is considered, as I wrote in my notebook, the “embodiment of cultural anxiety”. Freaks are the ultimate outsiders, who can never fit due to a social abnormality, physical or not. Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is a result of his desire to know higher truth. Yet out of fear for what he achieved, he abandons his creation. The creature longs to be human. Born innocent, he teaches himself by observing them. Yet they ultimately reject him. Mary Shelley was shunned for being her eventual husband’s mistress while he was still married to his first wife. Shunned himself, Frankenstein’s creation becomes a raging and vengeful monster, but only because society made him one. He still has a heart and feels guilt.

The Deviant can infiltrate society and take it down from within, without guilt. Count Dracula moves to London and attacks young well-born women, who symbolize what is valued by Victorian society. After the character Lucy is vampirized, she attacks children, representative of society’s future. The vampire deviates from social norms through murder and raw sexuality (something Bram Stoker could only reference indirectly in his time), and operates secretively. Yet Dracula is from a different world than Victorian London. His is one of superstition, presenting a clash between Christian and non-Christian. Exotic landscapes and languages are seen as beautiful yet terrifying. Though Victorians saw themselves as cosmopolitan, they enjoyed expressing exotic tastes. Stoker merged old and new, drawing from folklore while using a contemporary setting.

Sometimes what is deviant to one culture is not to another. A Horrorscape can be seen as a Deviant story in reverse. After tumbling down the rabbit hole, Alice enters a world where everything that defined hers, her whole cultural upbringing, is turned upside down. Everyone’s mad. Alice tells the caterpillar she’s not herself. She cannot conform. She’s transgressive. Perhaps the inhabitants of Wonderland saw Alice as a Deviant trying to tear down their world.

The notion of giving in to one’s “animal” instincts is most clearly depicted in Animagi. They represent a move away from rational towards emotional, thus revealing the beast hidden within, which is violent and aggressive. Dr. Moreau’s creations blur the boundary between man and beast. Another famous example is the werewolf. Often those animals personifying evil are feared, exotic predators. Such instincts can be classified as Christian deadly sins: greed, gluttony, anger, and lust. Yet there is something appealing about giving in; a sense of freedom. H. G. Wells defied convention by advocating “free love” – and was notorious for his affairs.

The schizo is the ultimate human split between good and evil, yet it is often unclear which is the true personality. Though Jekyll’s desire to know the unknown results in a physical transformation (which is not required for schizos – it can exist solely within the mind), even if Hyde is guilty for crimes Jekyll would never commit, Hyde is still a part of him, and slowly takes over. It calls into question identity itself. Identity is in turn reflected in residency and possessions. Jekyll lives in a respectable, cosmopolitan neighborhood; Hyde’s is far less respectable. Once I watched a documentary discussing how Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthplace, Edinburgh, was a city divided between old and new, rich and poor, suggesting that duality may be what inspired his story.

Victorians had a dual perspective regarding women, at a time when many like Shelley’s mother began challenging the status quo and seeking rights in what was still a male-dominated world (a world in which Shelley published anonymously while Charlotte Brontë and her sisters used male pseudonyms). On one side was virginity, marriage and motherhood. On the other were Madwomen: temptresses, mistresses, witches – women who played upon men’s desires, using their femininity for selfish, nefarious purposes. The lunatic Bertha Mason prevents Jane Eyre from marrying Rochester because she’s his wife (though she would later be portrayed as a victim in Wide Sargasso Sea). She dominates Rochester through marriage. Madwomen seek power over men, and greater knowledge (tied back to Eve in Eden). Women were linked symbolically with Nature because of their ability to bear children. Sometimes madwomen were associated with water and drowning, though Bertha herself dies by fire.

People are inexplicably drawn to what terrifies them. These fears and anxieties live on today. There are still outsiders, some by choice and others who have none. Criminals deviate. We all struggle with primal urges and desires. Wherever there are rules, there are always rebels. Perhaps that is why we still enjoy horror fiction. That seminar was the highlight of my first semester. I loved it. Hopefully someday I’ll apply some of these themes to horror stories of my own.

What’s in a Name?

So asks the heroine of Romeo and Juliet. Her new boyfriend’s name is hated by her family, whose own name is hated by his in turn. Names are an integral part of our identity, which Juliet acknowledges. Their families’ names define the feud, while their individual names have become symbolic of tragic forbidden love. As a writer, I have come to believe choosing the right name for a fictional character, or even a place, thing or title, makes a big difference.

Initially I paid little attention to those I chose and/or created for my novel. One beta reader who read early drafts said there was a “Gaelicness” to my story, which was what I wanted. Soon after I looked at the names more closely, and decided they didn’t reflect that feeling. With my characters, several felt too modern; a greater number didn’t feel like the kind I’d expect to find in a story set within an imaginary “Gaelic” world.

A few old ones have survived (and were moved around) as I felt they could still reflect that feeling. Nevertheless, most were changed. For my characters, the new names chosen were predominantly of Irish and Welsh origin, with a few Scottish and Celtic ones intermixed as well. At the same time I wanted to make sure most would be easy to pronounce. Several of the ones I looked at I knew might be hard to say. So for some I went with the Anglicized spelling. And every once in a while there is a “modern” name which originates from ancient history or myth. Places and things were given names created using actual Gaelic words with specific meanings. Like the book title, I won’t reveal any just yet. I have learned when you change them on beta readers, it causes confusion. Once they grow accustomed to a name, it sticks. And they could still change.

Genre I feel is a key factor to consider. Some I feel are stricter than others. Fantasy can be, often depending on the setting. Science-fiction in contrast, especially if futuristic, is very liberating. Historical fiction is perhaps the most strict. I recommend making sure most names are at least semi-common, if not known, in the chosen time period. For instance, I would be cautious giving a character in an 18th century setting a first name that didn’t come into use until the 19th century. Some stories, like mine, have names meant to reflect a theme or another aspect about them. Comedy and satire are others, where you will sometimes find “silly” names. William Goldman used that word to describe some he chose for characters in The Princess Bride.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against using uncommon names, nor creating either new names or new variants of existing ones. I created such a variant for one of my novel’s characters. A few more may certainly follow in the sequels. Sir Walter Scott and Oscar Wilde respectively gave us Cedric (derived from the Anglo-Saxon name Cerdic) and Dorian (possibly taken from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians) in Ivanhoe and The Picture of Dorian Gray. All I will say is, depending on the story you’re writing, be careful not to overuse them.

Even my novel’s main mythical species has variant spellings: griffin, griffon, and gryphon. The first, undoubtedly the most common, is also a surname (perhaps the most famous literary example being the title character of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man) and occasional given name. The second is also used for certain dog breeds. I was introduced to the third in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I chose that spelling because it not only seemed the most fantasy-like to me, but some feel it is the one to use when portraying this creature as noble and intelligent, much like the one in Lewis Carroll’s novel.

Often names come down to the characters themselves. Any combination of a number of factors can have an influence (or be influenced), such as ethnic background, religion, social status, family traditions, nicknames, or a change of name (if so, why?). Perhaps there’s something about their personality or appearance you want to reflect, or the opposite. Many comic book superheroes’ alter egos have names that sound common, meant to not draw attention. But some are unique too. Some could be inside references. The classic film Halloween contains several, to both people and places.

In his book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great, William M. Akers offers some helpful tips which I find very helpful and can be applied to all forms of fiction writing. He recommends varying up the beginning letter, ending rhyme, and letter length to lessen the likelihood of confusion.

It all seems a lot, and certainly can run the risk of being overthought. All those factors previously mentioned do not have to have influence, nor need to. Not every fictional character, place, or thing even needs to be named. In the end, we all have different tastes. We writers must choose names because we want them. But remember, these fictional creations are our children; the children of our mind. Those of mine whom I name, I want names which suit them.

Here are links to some websites I refer to when searching for character names (some of them are interlinked):

First names
  1. Behind the Name
  2. Think Baby Names
Last names
  1. Behind the Name: Surnames
  2. House of Names
  3. Scottish Penpals
  4. Surname Genealogy Search
  5. Surname Origin & Last Name Meanings at Ancestor Search
  6. Last Name Meanings & Origins at Ancestry.com

Writer’s Block: A New Perspective

I stressed the importance of persistence for a writer in my first post. Nowhere in the process of writing is this more apparent when the path you’re on hits a wall, blocking your path forward. That’s right. Writer’s block – no one likes it. Nevertheless, it’s happened to me many times and I’m sure many others before me and after me will experience the same thing. There can surely be nothing more frustrating for writers to not be able to write, as is shown in the beginning of the film Shakespeare in Love.

Often for me it’s a case where I have an idea of what I want, but I cannot get it out. Other times I don’t know where to start, or what to start. Especially now, with one novel being queried to agents, I have so many prompts I wish to expand on into other novels. But which one should I work on first? Should it be the sequel to the one I’m trying to publish, or something different? Or both? Can I work on more than one project, like Charles Dickens (indeed he started a new novel when in the middle of another)? I have tried, but find it a struggle. What can I do?

Late author Stephen J. Cannell gave his own description of writer’s block, which for me is very eye-opening. When I’ve blocked, I keep thinking about getting it right. But yes, nothing in life is perfect. With this novel I have gone through several drafts. At times where I thought I got it right, I realized I could do better, even in the latest draft. Even back in school when writing papers there were rough drafts and final copies. Cannell reminds us that the important thing is to have fun, just like when we played sports as children.

Early on when I went to a Maryland Writers’ Association meeting in Annapolis, another writer there told me that the first draft is always bad. Hemingway had said the same thing. No bestselling book is as it was when first written, I’ve said to others. If I can accept that in my mind, perhaps I can be more prolific. Of course I’m still going to worry about getting it right, perhaps because I’m a creature of habit. But as I said in my second post, if writing wasn’t difficult I doubt I would be as passionate about it as I am. We cannot achieve perfection, but we can get as close as we can and still be happy.

So what can I do to battle writer’s block? I am reminded of a scene where in my fantasy novel, one character was encouraged by another to climb trees to see the forest from the view of birds and tree-dwellers as opposed to ground creatures. Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society stressed seeing things from another viewpoint by making his students stand on their desks. I think when we block, all we can think about is the big problem of getting over the wall. It makes the wall all the more ominous, larger than it really is. We cannot concentrate then on figuring out how to get over, just that we cannot jump high enough.

Step back then and look at it from another perspective, in order to build a solid foundation from the rough materials, and refine it into a safe stairway. Get away from writing so you don’t force it. Try doing something else for a while. Take a walk. Dickens would walk for miles thinking about his work. At times I have walked and pondered over my work. Even today with this blog post I thought about it while working out. Talk to people too. They can help you find new perspectives and ideas too. Keep a notebook, and jot down whatever ideas you get, however small. A little seed can always sprout into a beautiful tree like you never imagined. More often than not, ideas come when you are not expecting them, and surprise you.

I overcame writer’s block with one novel. I must tell myself I can do it again with other projects. It will come again, I’m sure. If the wall seems too high to jump, find another way over. Connecting my first and second posts: there will be trial and error, but we live and learn. That is life, and writing. Don’t give up.