On Naming and Diversity, Part II

Yesterday I talked about my discomfort with Louis Sachar giving his main character a made-up, generically ethnic name in his new novel, Fuzzy Mud. I wanted to talk about making up names in fantasy too, but that post was getting way too long, so I decided to write a Part II.

I objected to Sachar making up a pseudo-Indian last name in a novel set in the real world, but what about in a novel set in an invented world? There, I think it would have been okay, particularly if it was clear that the characters weren’t intended to be Indians transposed into a fantasy world but instead lived in an Indian-influenced society. Does naming a character in a fantasy novel Tamaya Dhilwaddi contribute to diversity in literature? Maybe. This question is trickier in fantasy because languages, cultures, and skin colors don’t have to align the same way in a made-up world as they do in the real world. The way the concept of race is constructed in a fantasy world may be totally different from the ways it’s constructed in the real world, but of course readers will still encounter the fantasy world through the lens of their real world understanding of race. Probably the best way to increase diversity in fantasy is to write explicitly non-white characters, but I think giving characters names that real world readers will code as non-white can help too.

In essence, I think fantasy writers should feel free to name characters however they want, including giving them names that sound “vaguely X,” but we should do it with our eyes open. One option for naming characters in a fantasy world is to simply pick a real world language/culture and draw names from there. Maybe the world itself is inspired by a particular real world culture and you want the names to match, so to speak. An example of this is Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix, which is set in the Chinese-inspired Kingdom of Xia and features characters named Ai Ling and Chen Yong.

Once it’s firmly established that a fantasy culture and its language have real world counterparts, a name that doesn’t fit the pattern and has no good reason not to will be jarring, at least to readers who can tell the difference. I once read a fantasy novel in which characters from a certain country spoke Mandarin Chinese. It wasn’t called Chinese in the book, of course, but the one example phrase of the language given in the text was actual Mandarin, not a made-up Mandarin-inspired phrase. The problem was the names of the characters who came from this country, and indeed the name of the country itself, were in extreme violation of Mandarin phonotactics (permitted sound combinations). I just couldn’t believe that the characters could simultaneously have the names they had and speak the language they were purported to speak.

That’s not to say I don’t think fantasy authors have the freedom to change things up. It just has to make sense. For instance, maybe you want Chinese-sounding names, but your invented culture has different naming practices, so family names come after given names instead of before or given names always have three syllables instead of one or two. Why not? Or maybe your fantasy world/culture and language come from two different real world sources. Say, a Chinese-inspired society where the language and names are Italian. It might seem weird to readers, but it doesn’t make your world internally incoherent. You can also have multiple influences for both culture and language (an Indonesian/North African-inspired society with a language that looks both Germanic and Bantu!), but here you do have to be careful not to combine incompatible elements (whether cultural or linguistic). Once you’re doing something like devising a Germano-Bantu hybrid language, you should probably figure out the rules for yourself so you can make sure your names and any phrases you put into your book are consistent and make sense.

Somewhat in the same vein of the Germano-Bantu language, maybe you want your character names to sound French but not actually be French, or maybe you just want them to sound vaguely French. You’re going to be making up names, but if you want readers to get a French vibe from them, you’ll have to make sure you’re using the sounds and sound combinations that French actually allows. Depending on how far away from French you want to get, you may decide to break some rules governing how French words and names can be constructed, but you should decide exactly which rules these are before you start throwing names together.

Of course, you can always decide to invent character names (and perhaps a language) from scratch. You’ll probably inadvertently have some real world influences, but they may be so deeply buried that your readers see nothing but a fantasy name. If you do this, you should probably still establish a sound inventory and make some rules about how sounds can be put together so that your names will feel like they come from the same language.

No matter which approach you take, but especially if you draw inspiration from real world cultures and languages, readers may criticize the way you named your characters. This is something you have to accept, and if readers have a point, all you can do is acknowledge it and try to do better next time. It’s not only errors in linguistic consistency that readers may take issue with. Names taken from real languages will have real world resonances even when given to invented peoples. If the only characters in your world to have, say, Chinese-inspired names are all servile and buffoonish, readers may object.

In Sparkers, I chose to use real world names. I’ve talked about this a little before, but basically I made an aesthetic choice to give north landers Hebrew names and Xanites Arabic names. If I were building the world all over again, I’m not sure I would make the same choice. I think this naming scheme almost inevitably evokes Israel/Palestine, even though the names and the axes of power line up differently in my invented world. Moreover, I know I’ve been accused of appropriation at least once for giving the majority of my characters very Jewish-sounding names despite not being Jewish myself. This is a legitimate criticism.

Although I haven’t heard of any complaints, I also played around with naming practices and flouted the principle of internal consistency. Firstly, the last names of the characters in Sparkers are actually first names (though some can probably also function as last names in the real world–I don’t know as much as I should about the distinction between Hebrew and Arabic given and family names). This was a deliberate choice I made, so even if some readers find it odd, I hope they don’t think I did it out of cluelessness.

Secondly, I tried to make the characters’ names closer to the original Hebrew or Arabic and less Anglicized (though I retained some Anglicization, for instance by omitting the glottal stop in Leah and in Yakov, which should also have another a), but in some cases, I blatantly violated my own principle. The most notable case is Caleb. If I had treated his name like the other characters’, it should have been something more like Kalev, but I decided I wanted his name to look more familiar to English-speaking readers. I took some liberties with Marah’s name too. The girl’s name Mara actually ends in a glottal stop, not an h like Sarah or Leah. Marah with an h is a place mentioned in Exodus, but not a given name. Nevertheless, I spelled Marah’s name with an h because I liked it. Melchior’s name is another one that doesn’t quite fit; while it has Semitic roots, it’s not really Hebrew or Arabic, so in the world of Sparkers it’s actually an odd name for him to have. This is something I know, but it’s not something that’s on the page, so readers might well think I didn’t know what I was doing.

Finally, I made up some proper names in Sparkers, some of which are not linguistically coherent with the rest of the naming scheme. For instance, people from Xana have Arabic names, but the country name Xana is made-up and doesn’t look Arabic, particularly in its orthography, since the x represents a [ʃ] (sh sound).  I could explain away this inconsistency by saying that the name of the country is a holdover from an earlier civilization, but that’s not in the book. Ashari names I made up include the surname Imael, the covered market called the Ikhad, and the school name Firem. Some of these invented names may not be possible Hebrew words. Firem is the only one I know is probably phonotactically bad; outside of loanwords, I believe Hebrew doesn’t permit initial f. By the time someone pointed this out to me, though, I was so used to the school being called Firem that I didn’t change it.

In Sparkers, I took the route of drawing almost all names directly from real world languages. I made a few mistakes with linguistic consistency and also broke my own rules a few times out of personal preference, but I take responsibility for all these choices and recognize that people have the right to critique them.

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2 thoughts on “On Naming and Diversity, Part II

  1. I remember a name that I saw in a Morse novel. It was, if my memory serves me right, Yukio Lee, which is a kind of Japanese-Korean hybrid and highly improbable, especially when you take the politics of Yukio Mishima into account! 🙂

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