Sunday, 8 November 2015

Diverse Names by Keren David

We’d reached the Q&A part of the school visit, the bit where they usually ask how long it takes to write a book, whether you’d ever thought of making it into a film, and how much money you get paid.
Not this boy. ‘Miss!’ he said, ‘Will you put my name in your book?’
It was the third conversation I’d had about naming characters in a week. The first two were at the YAshot event, a day-long celebration of Young Adult fiction, organised by author Alexia Casale in association with Hillingdon libraries and featuring more than 70 YA and MG authors, a gloriously interesting day of debate and discussion, socialising and eating cake. 
My panel was asked how we went about naming characters, and we talked about finding the ‘right’ name and making sure one character’s name doesn’t clash with another, asking friends and Twitter for help, sometimes changing names at the end of the writing process.
I talked about a problem I’d had writing my latest book, This is Not a Love Story. One character, Theo, is a north London Jewish boy of 16 with many similar friends. My son is a nearly-16-year-old north London Jewish boy, who could easily be Theo's friend. So in naming Theo, his brothers and his friends I was careful to avoid the names of my son’s friends. Unfortunately he has many friends. Luckily, many of them are named Zachary. Or Zak. Or Zach. 
Names were also touched on during a panel on diversity.  Lucy Ivison, who co-wrote Lobsters, a brilliantly funny and authentic teen romance talked about how one of her teen beta readers advised against making the ‘best friend’ character Asian, even though he’d been based on a real friend who really was Asian. It would be ‘cringey’, like a ‘CBeebies show', said the girl.
I tend to think that there’s nothing wrong with the tiniest bit of cringiness, if it gives your book an authentic flavour and reflects a multicultural society. Giving characters diverse names is a way of doing that.  Why does a group of friends need to be called Jessica, Charlotte and Oliver? What changes if you call them Laban, Hakim and Ayaan? 
I'm at the end of writing a book with (for various reasons) little physical description of the characters, I’m pondering the effect of changing a few names. What if Becky becomes Destiny? What if Arthur turns into Abdul? How will readers imagine that character? What assumptions will they make about them?
‘Maybe,’ I said to the boy in the Q&A. ‘Give your name to the librarian and she’ll email me, and I’ll try and find you a place in my book.’  Three others in the group wanted to do the same. ‘Please Miss,’ one said. ‘I never see my name in books.’ 
So, I have a list of names to try and get into my  books of the future. And here they are: Ehtesham, Ali,Tasnim, Minha, Nivethaa.  


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds like my school. ;-) Mind you, these days, characters in YA fiction have bizarre names that aren't multicultural. One heroine of a major series is called America! And that isn't even the weirdest. I sometimes wish they WOULD have dull names! Even dull multicultural ones that I can recognise.

I wrote a chapter book with siblings called Hanna, Ariel and Nehama. The education publishers changed the names to Hannah, Adam and - oddly - left Nehama.

Keren David said...

Aw, son's middle name is Ariel!

Nick Green said...

I was going to make a joke about biological relatives, but...