This morning, as I read Lucy Eyre’s essay in Granta 100 entitled “Human Safari,” I encountered a word used by the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia that jolted me back to watching Star Trek: The Next Generation years ago: ferengi. According to Eyre, this word means “white person.” Now, in the Star Trek universe, a Ferengi is a biped sentient being who lives to acquire things, has specific laws of acquisition, and possesses quite large ears that serve as their primary erogenous zone. A Ferengi male is also short, bald, ugly and devious but limited in his creativity because all he’s thinking about is acquiring things in order to sell them and acquire the money to acquire more things. Hmmmm…were the writers on the Star Trek shows making a sly comment on “white people” by using the word “ferengi” to name these Star Trek aliens? Or is it a totally unintended coincidence?
Oh, the minefield writers traverse when deciding on names for characters, fictitious places, or space aliens! Or what fun!
This past week, one member of a German conversation group I attend showed up wearing a T-shirt for the fire department of Duck, NC. Duck? Turns out, Duck, NC, is on the Outer Banks just north of Kitty Hawk, which suggests the residents of Duck decided on their town’s name in response to the Wright brothers’ flying experiments. Or maybe in response to hawks. So, instead of the bird, which was my first thought (and what would the town’s residents be called? “Quacks” or maybe even “Quackers”), perhaps the name is one of pride in how well the residents moved to avoid the Wright brothers’ planes…or progress? Or maybe they love the bird….
Ferengis are also excellent duckers!
I have chosen in the Perceval novels to use real locations for the most part, although sometimes it’s necessary to create fictional buildings within those real locations. So, I’ve needed to name characters, sometimes title fictional books and musical compositions.
Names are important. They can add to or detract from a character in personality, ethnicity, nationality, gender. I think of it as like a parent naming a child. It requires careful thought. And there’s nothing wrong with also being playful about it, if appropriate for the character. Fiction writers name a lot of characters.
I have used the names of people I know/knew when those names are fairly common ones. Using uncommon names risks reference to the real person when not intended, so I don’t use them (although I’ve run across some I’d love to use because I like them). I often use name books and I collect names in a file that I pull out and peruse at the beginning of a project.
For example, Evan Quinn, the main character of the Perceval novels. Originally, I wanted to name him John because of the layers of meaning in that name or its usage as slang but not John because it was so common and biblical, so a variation of John. I consulted my old paperback of E.G. Withycombe’s The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names which provides the history and variations of each name. (I love name books.) John, which means “Jehovah has favored,” has quite a few variations for different languages — Johannes/Hans, Jean, Giovanni, Juan — but I wanted something not quite as recognizable as meaning “John.” I found it in Welsh — Evan. Would Evan have a middle name or more than one? No. Just first and last names.
Family names can apply to more than one character in a book and need to fit all the characters that will carry it. I stumbled on “Quinn” — I saw a TV listing for a movie entitled “The Mighty Quinn.” It stuck in my head for Evan and his family, especially his father. I found out much later that it’s an Irish name which fits perfectly. Evan’s father’s name came from “randy” — not the name, but the adjective. I formalized it in a later draft to Randall.
In the search for the most suitable name for a character, all possibilities are fair game, although I have not yet considered using the name of a bird….