Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Name Game: Go Anglocentric or Go Home?

Naming characters is something every writer has to deal with, and every writer has strategies. Some use baby name sites/books to find names with certain meanings, some draw from names in their own lives, and some (hello, fellow sci-fi/fantasy writers!) make up names from scratch, among other methods.

I want to talk about those character names today and ignore the making-it-up situation, assuming we're in some kind of contemporary setting.

First, a day-job detour.

I've heard some people bemoan the lack of time-honored, long-standing names like John and David among YA characters. As I approached the start of this school year, I looked at my class lists. Out of about 200 kids, all around 14 years old, I have no one named John. No one named David. No Sue or Jane. I do have a couple of Josephs (one goes by his initials), and a handful of Annas-or-Anns. A couple of Nathans and Andrews.

You know what else I have repeats of? Braden (or Braeden). Cole. Hunter. Parker. Brianna. And all kinds of variations on McCall, McKenzie, McKayla and the like.

So we can conclude that these names were trendy fourteen years ago. Maybe that trendiness didn't hold, so by the time our books are published, a teenager with that name may seem out of place. In that sense, the advice to use more "tried-and-true" names makes sense.

But here's something else from the day job that happened just yesterday. We were discussing a couple of story problems in class. If you're in education, you probably know that in the last 10-20 years, textbook writers have made a transparent effort to include more culturally diverse names in things like story problems.

One problem involved a girl named Pietra. A student said, "That's not a real name!" I said it was (and a boy named Pieter in the class noted it's the female version of his name). We moved on. Another problem involved a girl named Pilar. Someone said that wasn't a real name, either.

The Hispanic kids in class weren't very amused, and neither was I.

Let's bring this back around to writing.

Regarding one of my early stories, several people commented that I was trying too hard to make "unique" names for my MCs. I wasn't—at least, I didn't think I was. I'd chosen one Hispanic name, and one somewhat related to a Hispanic name. Not quite as straightforward as Rosa or Carmen, but Hispanic readers didn't bat an eye. Both were names I've encountered in real life, so I didn't think of them as rare.

The thing is, I didn't state anything else in the book about the characters having any Hispanic heritage. It wasn't the focus of the story. I'm clarifying some of that in a rewrite, but here's my question:

Should we only use ethnically/culturally diverse names in stories deeply rooted in cultural identity or discovery? Do we stick to Tom, Dick, and Harry otherwise because that's more "comfortable" for the caucasian majority?

Back to those sci-fi and fantasy writers. We have to be careful not to create names that are a reading-roadblock ... the kinds of names that make our readers desperate to either buy or sell some vowels. Similarly, in contemporary settings, we probably don't want to pick names that are difficult for the mental reading voice to get a pronunciation for. It interrupts the flow of the story, and no one wants that.

But is there anything wrong with a character named Pilar? Or Dai-Ling? Or Tiave?

Because those are real names.

(Of course, if we create such characters, making them culturally authentic is another matter entirely ... but maybe one we should think about challenging ourselves with. Myself included.)


Noelle Pierce said...

I tend toward Anglocentric names in my stories, because most of them are historical, set in England. However, in my paranormal, I was more interested in getting elemental names, so I dipped into several other cultures to do so.

What I especially wanted to address was your statement that the character's Hispanic heritage wasn't really discussed in depth because it wasn't the focus of the story. I'll agree that the culture itself might not be the focus, but every person I've met from another culture (even Caucasians from other countries) has a strong cultural identity. While it might not be central to a story's plot, their culture has shaped them and should be more obvious. A 14-year-old Hispanic girl excited about her quincenera, for example. A Jewish boy on the cusp of his bar mitzvah, who is forced by his parents to attend Hebrew School to learn the language and customs. Italians who have been drinking with supper since they were nine, thinks differently about drinking in general (okay, so that one probably wouldn't be highlighted in a YA novel, but you get my point).

These characters are going to act and think differently than a white American, in some ways, which can be shown and steep the character in their culture without making them unrelatable or deviating too far from plot. The lens through which they see the world is tinted differently.

I struggle to show those aspects authentically, and continue to try. And I applaud you for choosing names that are not Anglocentric.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Great post! When it's time to name my characters I literally sit back from the laptop and say, "Ok - what's your name?" and they tell me. Sometime they've got white names, and sometimes *as you know* they're named after liquor.

R.C. Lewis said...

I completely get what you're saying, Noelle, and I agree. In the case of my earlier ms (which you have a passing familiarity with), it just didn't make sense in the story to have much more than I did ... because the girls are only (assumed to be) half-Hispanic, and they bounce around the foster care system until the novel starts. The "foster-kid culture" is naturally more prominent.

Infusing more cultural content where possible is definitely something I'm trying to keep in mind, though. Due to my sci-fi/fantasy bent, most of my stories so far haven't had much opportunity. But I'm still looking. And another trick is figuring out how to make those infusions without falling into the assumption that everyone who's Hispanic, or Chinese, or Italian, or Tongan is raised the same way.

Tricky, indeed.

Mindy, yes, I do know that. :-D Sometimes my characters tell me their name similarly. Other times I'm very strategic about selecting them. It's always fun.

Ted Cross said...

The MC's in my sci-fi thriller are named Zoya, Artyom, and Marcus (a Mexican-American, while the other two are Russians). I do try to pick names I think US readers will be able to pronounce easily, so for Artyom I use the familiar nickname Tyoma.