The Curious Power of Giving Book Characters the Same Name

Did you register, dear viewer, that Downton Abbey had two characters named Thomas B: the malignant footman turned loyal butler Thomas Barrow, and the socialist chauffeur turned son-in-law Tom Branson? And if it did, did it bother you?

Chances are the answer is no—unless you happen to be Benjamin Dreyer.

Dreyer is an expert grammarian and influential arbiter of good writing, whether in the novels he oversees as the copy chief at Random House, or on Twitter, where he points out the proper use of the em dash, commonly misspelled names (Olivia Colman), and that while it’s kosher to spell omelette as omelet, dialog is beyond the pale, “Because ick.” This blend of pedantry and whimsy makes his new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, an instructive and entertaining manual—one that lays down the law of the jungle while being imaginative enough to allow personal idiosyncrasy to prosper.

But there’s at least one area where Dreyer displays a surprisingly rigid point of view. In advice that has the whiff of schoolroom dogma, he exhorts novelists to refrain from giving characters similar-sounding names. Citing a manuscript he had to edit, where “fully half the characters had names beginning with the letter M,” Dreyer intones, “This is not a good thing.” In the footnotes, he offers the example of Downton Abbey: “It was a point of ongoing perturbation for me that two characters on the Downton Abbey series were both—pointlessly, so far as I could discern—named Thomas and that both their surnames began with a B.”

No doubt the motive behind his rule is to avoid confusing the reader. But clarity is only one aspect to choosing a character’s name, and it would’ve been helpful if Dreyer had explored the significance of deploying same or similar-sounding names as a literary device, though he gestures to it by qualifying his criticism of the two Thomases with, “pointlessly, so far as I could discern.” The inference being that if there were a larger point, he might not object.

In comedy, for instance, the same-name device is commonplace, as in the delightful case of Thompson and Thomson, the bungling Scotland Yard detectives in the Adventures of Tintin comic series, alike in everything but the curl of their mustache. The contorted ways in which they introduce themselves, including, “This is Thompson, yes, with a P as in Philadelphia” and “This is Thomson, …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Culture

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