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Create a character stage two: give him a name

What's in a character's name .. and why should it matter?

What's in a name? A lot. More than you might think at first glance, and when you're serious about the process, and you intend to create a character that really matters, don't name him/her willy-nilly. Think first — because names come to us complete with baggage.

The most important thing a name tells us about the character is his or her ethnicity; and this can give you a clue as to their upbringing ... which in turn can give a reader preconceived notions about who and what the character is, and how s/he will, and even should, behave. A name is a loaded gun, and they like to go off! Create a character with great care with regard to culture and ethnicity.

The names of 'Goldman' and 'Petrakis,' 'Rinaldi' and 'Chavanel' are very attractive, and you might be tempted to just pluck one of them and apply it to the character you're creating. However, each of them carries a burden of ethnicity, linking your character directly to a country, an immigration path, a religion, a culture, which you might not intend ... what's more, if you intend to write a good book, you can't ignore this, and you certainly can't afford to contradict it!

Take a look at these names:
Patrick Michael O'Flannery
Sahfraz Hafeez
Itzhak Goldman
Johnny Sakai
Maria Rinaldi
Gregor Danielovitch
Cheng Mei Ling
Theresa Cheng
Rosie O'Grady-Silverberg
Jessica Petrakis
Pat Chavenel
Yehudi Rosebloom
Wasim Malik
Joey Petrocelli

What's in a name? As soon as you see names, your imagination runs riot. When you create a character, always consider what your readers will construe, long before they get to your in-depth development of the character. Patrick Michael O'Flannery is certainly Irish, which until very recently meant almost certainly a devout Catholic, from a strict family background, doesn't 'sleep around,' still goes to church, wants a life-time marriage and kids, possibly lots of them. If your Mick O'Flannery is different, you'll have to deliberately and thoroughly explore how he's different and who he is ... just to overcome the ethnic "baggage" which hitched a lift on the name!

Johnny Sakai is almost certainly second-generation Japanese, living in the US, Australia or UK. Which means he's probably bilingual, speaks Japanese at home. Does he adhere to Japanese codes of conduct, or is he an American city kid? Does he have a sense of honor, even bushido, or does he (secretly?) consider the whole thing a load of rubbish? Cultures conflict in this guy; creating him must be done with great care, but this is your opportunity to create a character around whom an epic could be built ... if you can pull it off. (The downside is the research, if you're not connected to this guy's community.)

Rose O'Grady-Silverberg is most likely an Irish lass married to a Jewish lad. It happens ... do a little research into Harry Houdini! The opportunities to 'go to town' with this character are massive. Just be sure you know what you're writing about. Both the Catholic and Jewish communities are enormously complex, and the cultural quirks have the power to astonish. If you're not familiar with both communities, you'll need to research them. Thoroughly. Use what you learn to create a character that will absolutely rock your readers.

Theresa Cheng and Cheng Mei Ling are the same girl ... at work, and at home. She's bilingual, first or second generation ... Taoist, Buddhist or possibly even Catholic. But to which culture, East or West, does she lean?

Itzhak Goldman and Yehudi Rosenbloom are both Jewish ... but 'Izzy' Goldman could easily be a New York Jew, and the Rosenblooms are Yiddish, being Jews from Austria, Germany, even Hungary. Take especial care if you delve into these cultures by using such a name. They're complex almost beyond a Gentile's imagination, and their languages are so different ... Yiddish is not Hebrew, nor is it German.

Sahfraz Hafeez is a Moslem ... but is he an Aussie Muslim, or a Londoner? Devout, or atheist? On the run from the religion, or a regular mosque-goer? Just because the name is Muslim doesn't make the character a stereotype, but if you write a Muslim character, you'll have to be very specific about who and what he is, or readers will certainly have preconceived ideas. Again, create a character, real and genuine, not a stereotype.

If you don't intend your character to have Greek connections, choose a name other than Petrakis. If your character has no Jewish, Yiddish or Israeli connection, choose something other than Goldman or Rosebloom. 'Chavanel' establishes a French connection, but it it French, French-Canadian, or Cajun? 'Rinaldi' and 'Petrocelli' link directly to Italy — also to Catholicism, which might be far indeed from your character, who's an atheist, playing the field. You'd have some serious explaining to do, on that score. This could add depth to the novel; but is it something you want to get into? Create a character with cultural "baggage" only if you're prepared to do the work. Readers will definitely notice if you set it up then goof off.

Bottom lines: choose any name you want, but choose deliberately. Do some research and build up your character by delving into the culture, the immigration path, the political and spiritual environment in which s/he grew up. Are his/her parents still alive? What about siblings? The only cardinal sin is to either ignore the cultural ramifications of your name choice ... or to contradict yourself and get it wrong. For example, if your character has a Greek name and you write his/her parents as Italian, you'll really have to talk your way out of that one!

Parting shot: when you create a character, take care, beware of the pitfalls, do a little research, and write well!

Turn page to Know your archetypes from your stereotypes...

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