As I reread the first chapter of our novel, I catch myself thinking about how much thought goes into character naming and identification. What is their mission, their backstory, their voice? It reminds me of the name selection process I encountered when I brought my Chesapeake Bay Retriever home. What does he look like? What is his backstory? What are his personality traits? Is he a humper? A thief? A lowdown dirty … well you know. A breeder once told me it is best to give dogs two syllable names. I followed those guidelines. I named my last Chessie Morro — after Morro Bay, where I lived. My current Chessie is Hooper. He is named after a lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay.
That said, I wonder how much sober care and effort went into naming Shaggy? Witchy Poo, Sigmund the Sea Monster, or my favourite, Hong Kong Phooey? Did Schulz ever fret over naming Charley Brown? Linus? Hmmmm.
In our novel, the main characters required Chinese names. More specific, Guangzhou (Canton) names. More specific yet, 1850s names. Our characters required peasant names, names from the working class — and since neither of us speak Chinese, we had to spend a lot of time poring over name books and web sites, trying to find something appropriate and then verifying that the name was in fact Cantonese and not, as most of the names we came across, Mandarin. This was all especially difficult when you take into account all the various ways of spelling out Chinese sounds in our English alphabet.
In our research, we found that most Chinese names have sweet and thoughtful meanings*. To an English eye, some Chinese names are long and difficult to pronounce. Zhou Zhou was more difficult, obviously, than say, Chi-Yen. Secretly bringing modern culture names into the mix is always fun too. We’ve organized our scripts to reflect the time and genre. In this novel, for instance, we have a character named Doctor Woo. If you know my musical taste, you can probably guess the origin.
Sometimes character names originate from a closer proximity. For instance, our British Naval Officer is named Cosgrove (my mother’s Irish maiden name). Other times we make names up to reflect the very essence of a personality trait, especially where villains are concerned. The baddy in this novel (an Englishman) has a name that can be translated as “Bad Place.” Want to take a guess at his name?
Please stay tuned, as we continue to create characters, develop backstories, and name characters.
*An exception is something known as “milk names,” or temporary names given to infants and young children, which often implied that the child was worthless and unloved in an attempt to fool the demons who might otherwise want to steal the child away from its parents.