19 December 2010

Trope: Naming characters

Tropes are storytelling devices. This series of articles on how to use or not use them in comics was first published in my Comics & Cartoons Weekly on deviantART.

Naming Characters

To be honest this isn't truly a trope – it started as one but ended up as the sum of my thoughts and advice on the matter. I'll start by general points to keep in mind and end with my own personal approach. This is written with comics in mind, but it applies to writing for any other medium, too.

• In real life, homonyms are rife. Back in school there were 4 Karim's in my class, as well as 2 Samer's, 2 Zeina's, 2 Joumana's... You get the point. In a comic, this is best avoided unless it's a plot point (eg. J.K. Rowling's Barty Crouch, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), or a potential gag. Basically if you're not going to flaunt it, avoid it because it gets very confusing.
If you have tons of characters and it's inevitable that some share first names (for instance if your story is set in 18th century England, where only a handful of Christian names were shared by the entire population), at least refer to them differently – use family names or title, or even nicknames, so there is no possible ambiguity.
I ignored this rule for this page of Malaak, but these were one-off characters, so I could allow myself the whim of having "Noor and Noor" together. I might reuse one of them but not both, so the risk of confusion is null.

• Equally confusing, though, is using the same initial or same number of syllables for different names. Readers may mistake one for the other and not even know why, but if you have a James and a Jason, or Robert and Bob, or Lois Lane and Lana Lang (alliterative names used to be very popular in comics, now they just look quaint), you're going to have people occasionally stop and backtrack because they skimmed the name and got the wrong character. While this may not be a terrible problem when you're using common names, if you're building a fantasy or alien world full of entirely original names, it becomes a critical consideration because readers already have to memorize the new names, and register the subtle differences between them. Karamerek and Kiratelek, for instance, start and end with the same sound and have the same number of syllables. People WILL stumble. The same goes, unfortunately, if the culture you're writing has a prefix or suffix system for names – like, all names are preceded by Bel- or Ga- or en in -ru. Cognitively, we rely on the beginning and end of a word to recognize it. It's no good if the middle part is unique. It's much easier to tell apart Karamerek from Starameroff than from Kiratelek, as in the example above.
Of course, it's impossible to give a unique number of syllables to every name. In Malaak most of the names are two syllables: Malaak, Tareq, Zeina, Layal, Yeraz, Hassan... Longer names just happen to be rare in our culture. But notice that I stay away from alliteration among those names. They are all quite distinct visually and phonetically.

• Speaking of alien world, do keep your invented names pronounceable. If you have one character with a hard-to-pronounce name, they'll stand out, but if your whole alien culture is made up of X'ezstra and Qk'ezik, your readers will save themselves the headache and go read something more user-friendly.

• First names can't be copyrighted, but nobody can counter the power of association. You can't create a teenage character called Harry and not expect people to believe it's a reference to Harry Potter. This goes for real life as well – I met a powerfully built, 6'6 guy called Clark and I'll let you imagine what everybody calls him. On the other hand, if your character is a middle-aged executive, you could quite safely name him Harry. So it's a matter of being aware, and possibly submitting the name to a few people before making it final, in case they catch weird associations or unintended puns you missed. Over a decade ago I was writing a fantasy story and I named a tiger Cherk. It was my brother who pointed out: "Did you mean to refer to Shere Khan?" I had never noticed the similarity!
Of course, if the homage to a famous character is deliberate, it's another matter.

Let your choice of names make sense. To use J.K. Rowling's example again, her books are a wonderful example of thoughtful naming. If you examine the great variety of character names in her magical community you notice that Muggle-borns have "regular" names (Dean Thomas), full-bloods "wizardy" names (Draco Malfoy) and half-bloods are often a mixture (Nymphadora Tonks). Pick any name in the book and you can figure out something of the character's background or make an educated guess, which is an astute observation of the status of names in real life. By the way, in real life very modest families are as prone to using grandiloquent names as families of status, in this case as a kind of compensation (but not in all cultures, as some believe grand names attract evil spirits. I will have details on this in part 3.)

• When it comes to foreign names, please, for heaven's sake, research local names before creating a foreign character. Don't make up something that vaguely sounds right to you. Don't borrow names from famous people (like Marvel's Fabian Cortez, or another character named something Bonaparte). Rather, hunt down someone from that country on whatever online community you're a member of, and ask them for a list of popular names and likely family names. Yes, some first names are insanely popular in their respective cultures, but characters bearing "stock foreign names" (Ahmad, Jose, Boris) should be reserved for comedic stories, or for stories that have a large number of characters (and therefore of names) from that culture. Be aware that many countries have a high incidence of Western names: in Madagascar, where people have amazingly long names, they never use them with foreigners, but instead adopt for their benefit delightfully old-fashioned French names like Hippolyte and Jacquot. On top of this, countries that share a language do not necessarily share a name pool. British first and last names are very distinct from American names, even if the difference is often one of spelling; those names t exist in both countries do not do so in the same proportions. Hence the importance of talking to someone with an insider's view. In some places, both first and last names are connected with religion, and NOT in the obvious ways. A practicing Arab Christian family may have a child named Abdallah ("servant of God") while a secular Muslim family may name their kids Nadine and Carlo. These are real-life examples. By properly researching names you won't only do justice to the complexity of societies, you'll also contribute to the slow but necessary dissolving of the cultural stereotypes that writers perpetuate without even meaning to. For a long and detailed overview of naming habits around the world, see the upcoming parts 2 and 3 of this article.

Meaningful naming is more appreciable when it's not downright cliché (although one must note that clichés are always desirable in comedy). "Adam" for a character who's going to bring about a new start for humanity is really old (pun intended). Before going to watch the movie 2012, I jokingly told a friend "Bet there's a character named Noah who's among the only survivors." Well guess what!! Emma Frost is a less than subtle example, as is Otto Octavius who becomes Dr Octopus ("Guy named Octavius winds up with eight limbs. What are the odds?" ) If you want your character's name to be prophetic and foreshadow a plot development, you may want to make it less than obvious to preserve your suspense, while giving your most observant readers something to be smug about. The astronomy-literate for instance would have figured out Sirius (the dog star) Black at once.
On the other hand, misnomers can be quite effective for hilarity or to blindside the excessively observant readers who delight in spoiling you plot.

• You can get away with almost any character name by making it an appropriated name, i.e. a nickname the character adopted after his friends or enemies or the press started calling him/her that. Many superhero names have retroactively been explained by this device, including Superman, Wonder Woman and Plasticman.

Now, a bit about how I go about naming characters, for Malaak: Angel of Peace in particular.

I look for meaning. Malaak means "angel" and came up early during my initial brainstorming of what a Lebanese superheroine could be called. It fit my concept perfectly, but if it hadn'tt sounded good, I might have passed and kept looking, since the lead character at least needs something catchy. Yeraz means "dream", here for no particular reason related to the character herself, but as a hint of where the story in general was heading (and you never know, I haven't decided Yerz's fate yet.)
I never explain meaningful names unless specifically asked, they're kind of an Easter egg for readers to enjoy finding. I can tell you that one of the characters right now has something about them hidden in plain sight in their name. But nobody so much as wondered so far, and I can't wait for the big reveal ;)
Other meaning-based names in the comic are those from the scenes set in 525 BC. The high-ranking "priests" (not really what they are, but I'm not elaborating on this here) have long names that refer to the "deities" they serve, and they are meant to be ritual names acquired during initiation, not their original birth names. I made the names up based on the little resources available about the Phoenician language: Yodashtart means "hand of Astarte", for instance, Azmilqart "Strength of Melqart". Barkshamash is "Blessed by the Sun". In contrast, Kesep ("silver") and Mirr ("myrrh") have mundane meanings, reflecting their lower degrees as novices.

- I am society-aware. Tareq and Zeina, the first secondary characters to appear, have extremely common, almost stereotypical names. This is exactly what they were meant to be: representations of the typical young Lebanese male and female (at least at first; both grow with the story). They're also neutral names as in they don't denote a specific religious sect. (In this country, most of the time, if you know someone's name you can tell their religion and even their village of origin). When I had only 2-3 characters, I did not want them to stamp the story with any given social or religious group. When I added a handful more characters however, I deliberately gave them names that were the contrary of neutral, as I now had enough people to express the diversity of our society in a balanced way: Raffi and Yeraz, (Armenian), col. Ibrahim and his daughter Layal (Sunni), Hassan (Shia), Pierre (Christian; not named yet but he's there)...

- I don't try to have full control. Adrian and Col. Ibrahim were both named by Adrian's real-life model. Hassan, Kamal, Nour are all homages to the real people they were modeled after (Doctor Kamal being my brother). In this and in other aspects of the writing, I leave room for it to run wild, because that's what life is: random and uncontrollable. It just adds something to the writing, when it's not all governed by a single mind.

If you're looking for deeper info on the subject, I recommend to you my 5-part overview of naming habits around the world: Names and Naming.

1 comment:

Kirsty said...

I'm not a writer, but as a reader I agree with everything you said!

Another thing worth avoiding is names which are homonyms/phones/graphs with other words. I read a blog post by an author once, where he mentioned the difficulty he had with characters called Luke and Said. Luke looked; Said said, "..."

If you are wanting 'typical' character names for a particular place and time, census results can be helpful (depending what is available for the country). I design a magazine for 3-4 year olds, and if I need to name a character in a cartoon I go to the national statistics websites and choose from the top baby names 3-4 years ago. This of course only works if you are wanting a very typical character. And wouldn't help for social class or religion.

I'm glad your names have some kind of symbolic meaning. I once asked an author if his names were symbolic (I could see possible meanings in some of them) and he said no, which was rather disappointing.

I wait in anticipation to see whose name means something important...