GWS Debate: Brand Names in Fiction…What Do You Think?

A couple weeks ago, I was doing something that you should do.  I was reading Dare Me, by Megan Abbott.  The book is a fantastic…thriller/literary novel/New Adult novel that has gotten a great deal of well-deserved attention.  Now, I was drawn in by Ms. Abbott’s beautifully drawn characters and her stellar use of language.  I especially liked the way in which she added humor to leaven the sad story.

The prose, however, was sprinkled with little bits that drew the attention of my fountain pen nib.  Ms. Abbott sprinkled in brand names from time to time.  Take a look at some examples:

“I know she was out there in front of my house at 2:27, hunched over the steering wheel of her mother’s Miata.”

“Eyes on Tacy’s toned legs, which look like mini butterfingers, Beth shakes her head.”

“Flair strewn about, rolling empties of zero-carb rockstar and sugar-free monster, tampon wrappers and crushed goji berries.”

Ms. Abbott doesn’t include too many brand names in the book and I’m not entirely sure why some of them weren’t capitalized.  (That’s not a criticism, really; Ms. Abbott is one of my favorite writers.)

Some writers embrace the inclusion of brand names in their work.  After all, most of us refer to brand names all the time in our daily lives.  We ask for a Pepsi instead of water.  We order beer and wine by their brand names.  When we don’t feel well, we ask our significant other to bring us a Tylenol or the bottle of Pepto Bismol.  Brand names are part of our world, thanks to the fine work of all of the Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons out there.  Including brand names in our fiction, then, could be seen as part of the responsibility we have to verisimilitude.

Brand names are also an opportunity for characterization and exposition.  If you’re writing a story that takes place in the time when fountain pens were king, you could let the reader know that your character is well-off by giving him or her a Parker “51” instead of a Wearever Pennant.  (The Pennant is a decent pen, but the “51” is sweet.)

However, this is a debate…

The use of brand names can also date a work.  If memory serves, Stephen King includes a fair number of brand names in his work; young readers may stumble on what were commonplace references when Mr. King was in the heat of composition.  Brand names could also be seen as a lazy shortcut that distracts from a work.  You may decide for yourself that Ms. Abbott doesn’t gain anything by referring to Monster energy drink instead of just “energy drink.”  You may believe that she violates Strunk and White’s first rule by including a word that could easily have been omitted.  Deciding not to include brand names can also be a restriction that nudges us to increased creativity.  Instead of a “Butterfinger,” could Ms. Abbott have included her own more powerful phrase?

What do you think?  Do you use brand names in your work?  When are they a good idea and when should you strike them with your red pencil?

 

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