Choosing character names from a different background to you
Last week, I discused how to choose appropriate character names. This week, I want to address choosing names outside of your own ethnic background.
Khaaaan!!!! One of the most popular Star Trek villains of all time is the genetic superman, Khan Noonien Singh. First appearing in the 1967 episode Space Seed, the character was also the eponymous bad guy in the second Star Trek movie, 1982's The Wrath of Khan. Khan remains an incredibly popular villain, even outside Trek fandom. But there are a couple of things about him that haven't stood the test of time so well. First, he was portrayed in both these instances by Ricardo Montalban - a respected Mexican actor chosen, in part, because they needed someone with dark-skin to portray a character of Middle-Eastern heritage. That's a casting decision that would likely be avoided today. The second issue is his name: Khan Noonien Singh. Khan is most closely associated with Muslims. Singh is a name traditionally given to Sikh males. Bi-racial or bi-heritage children do of course exist in significant numbers these days, but without an explanation being given, authors - especially those who are not from that background - run the risk of having their work dismissed as poorly researched. *It should be noted that this seemingly incongruous pairing is addressed in Greg Cox's 2001 novelStar Trek: The Eugenics Wars (Volume 1): The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, but it is considered non-canonical.
How do you name a character that is from a background different to yourself? I am a white male, of British ancestry, as are all of my closest relatives. But confining myself to only including characters from that ethnic background would lead to books that are not reflective of the modern society in which we live. I was forced to address this issue head-on in two of my novels: DCI Warren Jones 4: The Common Enemy, and next summer's release, which I recently submitted to my publisher. In both books, there are significant characters whose family heritage is the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, my suggestions apply directly to the subcontinent, but will likely apply to other situations that you may encounter.
How did I avoid the "Khan" problem? The Indian subcontinent is vast, and during its long history has been divided and sub-divided many times. The current configuration of countries and territories is largely a 20th Century construction. Furthermore, the continent is home to many different religions and caste traditions and languages. All of which have names - given and family - associated with them. Some names are traditionally female, some male and some both. There are also masculinised/feminised versions, rather like Paul, Paula or Pauline.
The website Behind the name has a random name generator. https://www.behindthename.com/random/ But it only has the option to choose "Indian". So you will need to do some further research. Most entries have a short sentence listing the name's provenance and variants on it - but don't take their word for it. I can't stress enough that this site should only be the first step in choosing a name.
Unless it's relevant to the story, keep it simple. Assume that both parents of your character (or their families) originally came from similar regions, religions and backgrounds and choose names accordingly. Give the character first and last names that are from the same traditions.
Then research the names further. Wikipedia often has short background articles for popular names.
Next, when you've chosen two names that you think will work, do some research on that pairing. First, does that person already exist? The fact that there are individuals in the world with the same name doesn't mean you can't use it, but if that name is associated with an (in)famous person already, it may be a distraction for your readers. There are a lot of Sam Smiths in the world, but if your character also happens to be a musician, perhaps reconsider.
Then do a final check that the pairing actually works in the real world. For this, I type the name into Facebook search. If I get a couple of dozen hits for people with that name (and their profile pictures suggest they are the correct gender and ethnicity), then I will assume that the name is not outlandish enough to raise eyebrows from readers from that background.
Fingers crossed, no complaints so far!
Next week I will conclude this particular topic by looking at how to deal with the problem of multiple characters with the same name.
Feel free to comment, either here or on social media. Paul