Underdogs

WRITING TROPES: NAMING CHARACTERS

Tropes are storytelling devices. Used well, they enrich a story; used badly, they result in the dreaded cliché. This series of articles takes a closer look at some major tropes relevant to comics and the pitfalls they may present.

This isn’t a trope per se, but a collection of thoughts and advice on this subject from someone who was deeply obsessed with names at some point. It’s written with comics in mind but applies equally to writing for other media.

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In real life, homonyms are rife. Back in school my twenty-student class contained four Karims as well as two Samers, two Zeinas, two Joumanas… This phenomenon is to be expected. In a comic, this is best avoided unless it’s a potential gag, or a plot point, such as used by J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: the presence of two characters named Bartholomew Crouch is of major importance. Note, however, that it took a clever dosage to pass this off: the son had to be mentioned in passing in the course of the story, or the final bomb would have been a Deus Ex Machina, and that had to be done without the reader realizing that they bear the same name, so he was only referred to as his nickname Barty. The whole thing would have been very contrived if it wasn’t for the fact the custom of naming son after father is quite well-known, and it’s perfectly natural, when that happens, for the son to be known by a more youthful nickname as long as the father is alive – here Barty for Bartholomew. The resulting reader reaction, which we can only assume was intended, is a mighty “OMG why didn’t I see it!” This device was also used by Agatha Christie, and it requires inventiveness to keep on using it without giving the plot away early on. Basically, if you don’t need it, avoid it because it gets very confusing.

In some rare cases the setting may make homonyms inevitable. For instance, Victorian England only used a handful of Christian names that were shared by the whole population. There were Johns and Marys all over the place. Even now the percentage of Muslims named Mohammad, or Armenians named Hagop, to name just two examples close to me, are astounding. Even so, it would take a large number of characters for a writer to be completely unable to avoid homonyms – but what if it’s a historical fiction, involving real peope who shared names? In this case, past the first introduction to a character, it’s best to refer to them by what makes them distinct, as people in those times did: surname, title, place of origin, nickname… The point is that you want the reader to think of those characters as [distinct reference], not as [name shared with another character]. This is true both if the homonymy is accidental and if it’s a plot point: you want the reader to know it and forget all about it, for maximum effect.

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.

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Equally confusing, for less obvious reasons, 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 Roger, 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 be a minor problem when you’re using well-established names, it becomes a critical consideration if you’re building a fantasy or alien world full of entirely original names. This is because readers have to make the additional effort of memorizing 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 have trouble with this. The same goes, unfortunately, if the culture you’re writing has a prefix or suffix system for names – such as David Eddings’ Belgarath, Belgarion etc. Cognitively, we rely on the beginning and end of a word to recognize it. It’s no good if they are differentiated by what’s in-between them. Whereas Karamerek and Kiratelek, mentioned above, are hard to tell apart when you see them pop up at different points in a story, Karamerek and Starameroff are a breeze, even though they have no less than 3 syllables in common.

Of course, it’s impossible to give a unique number of syllables to every name. In Malaak most of the names have two syllables, because that’s the way most arabic names are (some have one or three syllables, none have more): Malaak, Tareq, Zeina, Layal, Hassan… Notice that to balance that, I avoid alliteration altogether. They are all quite distinct visually and phonetically. For the Arabic-speaking reader, they also have a different music, as some stress on the first syllable, some on the second, and some have no stress.

Speaking of alien worlds, do keep your invented names pronounceable. One character with a hard-to-pronounce name will 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 look for something more user-friendly to read. Not to mention this is largely taken as a symptom of the beginner writer who tries too hard to be unique and ends up pompous instead. There really is no need. Every chronicler that ever existed has rendered foreign names into a form their own language could grasp. Thus Y’hezqèl became Ezechiel in English, K’ung-fu-tzu is Confucius to the French, and John-Paul is Yohanna-Boulos in Arabic. In a similar vein, you’re only walking the path of authenticity by rendering your alien names as something that can be pronounced in the language of your narration.

Screen-shot-2011-12-30-at-11.42.02-AMFirst 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 constantly think of Harry Potter. This goes for real life as well: I expect it will be a while before people can use this name if they don’t fancy the association (and it’s safe to assume very few people under the age of 60 are named Adolf.) 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 running the name past a few people before making it final, in case they catch weird associations or unintended puns you missed. When in my teens, I was writing a fantasy story and I innoncently named a tiger Cherk. It was my brother who asked if meant to refer to Kipling’s Shere Khan. I had never realized the similarity!
This naturally doesn’t apply if a nod or homage to a famous character is intended.

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 have «wizardy» names (Draco Malfoy) and half-bloods are often a mixture (Nymphadora Tonks). Pick any name in the book and you can make an educated guess about the character’s background, which is an astute observation of how names achieve that in real life. Note that grand names can often be found in very modest families, as a kind of compensation, while in some cultures the opposite is true, and excessively good names are avoided because they would attract envious spirits. See final point for a resource on this.

Meaningful naming is more appreciable when it’s not downright cliché (though clichés are fine in comedy). «Adam» for a character who’s going to bring about a new start for humanity is really old, pun intended. Similarly, I just knew there would be a character named Noah in the movie 2012 before I went to see it – it was really terrible that I was proved right.
We are long past the time when a supervillain could be called Otto Octavius and still be taken seriously (so much so that the movie script felt the need to lampshade that: «Guy named Octavius winds up with eight limbs. What are the odds?») If you really want your character’s name to be prophetic and foreshadow a plot development, perhaps to give 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), subtlety is desirable or you’re just handing out a large spoiler. On the other hand, misnomers can be quite effective for hilarity or to blindside the excessively observant readers who delight in spoiling you plot, letting them chase the wrong trail until the moment of revelation. In my comic, Malaak and Amer are both well-established first names. Malaak means “angel”, but I make no mystery of that as that is the title of the series. Amer on the other hand was a major revelation hidden in plain sight, as it did not occur to anyone to look further than its apparent meaning of  “one who sets up residence”, or they may have realized that (blanked out for spoilers, highlight to read:) the word designates a jinn who takes up residence among humans…

You can get away with almost any character name by making it an appropriated name, i.e. a nickname the character adopted after friends, or enemies, or the press started calling them that. Many superhero names have retroactively been explained by this device, including Superman, Wonder Woman and Plasticman. We cannot now imagine those characters choosing such names for themselves, but if the press, which is an acceptable source of silliness, started calling them that and it stuck, then we can understand.

When it comes to foreign names, please, for heaven’s sake, do some research before naming a foreign character. Don’t make up something that vaguely sounds right to you, as I’ve seen done. 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 small 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 from that culture (and therefore require a large enough number of names for cliché ones to pop up innocently). Be aware that many countries have a high incidence of Western names, especially former colonies. As one exotic example, in Madagascar, where people have amazingly long names, they never use them with foreigners, but instead adopt for their use 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. Even the names that 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 necessarily meaning to.

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See more of Joumana’s comic and articles on http://malaakonline.com/

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One Response to “WRITING TROPES: NAMING CHARACTERS”

  1. Fish

    Very insightful article !
    Internet can be very helpful when you want to find a name that sounds nice, but when it comes to foreign names it’s a little more complicated. You can always use some tricks when a character make a short appearance, so you don’t have to mention his/her name at once (the general, the major…), but sometime you have to.
    I think character naming is handled by the unconscious part of the mind (even if you always nee to improve the original idea)… So to find great names, you need to have a great culture.
    +
    The link to http://cedarseed-air.blogspot.com doesn’t work 🙂

    Reply

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