Does Your Name Make You Keep Reading?

Posted: March 19, 2015 in writing
Tags: , , , , ,
My collection has plenty of people named Harry and Lucy, not so many Mantajs.

My collection has plenty of people named Harry and Lucy, not so many Mantajs.

A few weeks ago I named a character in a story after my friend Mantaj. To me it wasn’t a big deal – she’d given me some incredibly good feedback on a novella I’m working on, and it was an easy way to say thank you.

It turns out I under-estimated the power of a name.

Connecting Through A Name

Here’s how Mantaj responded to that story:

“I think the first thing that I realised when I started reading is that I am not use to seeing my name in any context that doesn’t relate directly to me. I think that it comes from having a very unusual name. My guess is that you’ve read a lot of stories about people called Andy, and met a lot of other people called Andy. But for me Mantaj always means me!

“This meant that when I was reading the story I felt even more connected to the character, when I visualised the story play out in my mind the protagonist had my face. Even though she wasn’t me, didn’t act like me, didn’t think like me she I felt like she was me. It was disconcerting in a very interesting way. It wasn’t something that I’d ever considered before, and how the associations we have with a name, especially our own are made.”

Representing

It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but what Mantaj wrote makes perfect sense. I don’t feel a particular thrill when a character is named Andy or Andrew, because I’ve seen characters like that half my life. Heck, there was another Andrew in my first primary school class, so the novelty of namesakes wore off pretty quickly.

I was thrilled to see that using my friend’s name had created a new experience for her. It also made me think about the use of names in a wider sense.

If you come from a fairly conventional white British or American background, as I do, then you’re in the privileged position of seeing yourself represented all the time, and that extends to names. We see ourselves in many stories, including many of those regarded as both the literary and the SFF canon. But this is less true for other groups, as Chimamanda Adichie explains in this TED talk.

Without opening up the whole can of worms that is identity politics, I think there’s something here we should be aware of as readers and can use as writers. When you’re a reader, think about how names of characters affect you. Do they feel familiar and comfortable or strange and alien? Why? And when you’re writing, consider what group you’re trying to reach through character names. Perhaps an unusual name choice will earn you a dedicated following among people who feel left out, or maybe you’ll catch yourself giving all your characters safe middle class names, leaving out the Kierons, Chantelles and even Mantajs of this world.

Names are powerful in fiction, and not just when they’re used for magic.

Comments
  1. Book Beat says:

    Interesting! I work in the textbook publishing world and even including non-Anglo names of hypothetical students in the book makes a huge difference in how the book is marketed

    • That doesn’t surprise me. Do a lot of books make the effort to include non-Anglo names?

      This reminds me of an incident early in my teacher training, where I created some worksheets for a primary school class. I picked names I’d been familiar with from a young age, thinking they’d be easy for the kids to work out. But of course they weren’t – for example, Margaret’s actually a long name and not very common on modern British council estates. I’d gone old-fashioned middle-class on a bunch of 21st century working class children.

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