Storytelling Geekery

What’s In a Name?

Lately I’ve been putting a bit of thought into the role names serve in fiction, about how they give a first impression of a character, place or culture.

One of the Star Trek franchise’s major alien races are the Ferengi, who began as accidentally comical characters in The Next Generation, developing into overtly comic characters who played a major part in Deep Space Nine. I was surprised to encounter a variation of the word ‘feringhee’ several years after first hearing it in Star Trek, in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, set in 19th century India. The alien species’ name came from a derogatory word used by Indians for foreigners, apparently particularly directed at white foreigners.
Production staff on the show have confirmed that this was the genesis of the word, with producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe stating that “Ferengi is, after all, the Persian word for foreigner, particularly for European.”
It’s difficult to work out the reasoning behind making this choice (particularly as not many of the target audience, in 1980s America, probably would have been aware of the meaning of the word) but it was a conscious choice to reference this meaning.

The Ferengi is the handsome chap on the left.

A more famous and clear example of an alien race being named in order to give an impression occurs in the original Star Trek episode Balance of Terror. This was the introduction of the Romulans. A map used in the episode shows that the Romulan Star Empire is based around the planets Romulus and Remus – the name of two major figures from Roman mythology.
In mythology Romulus and Remus were twins who fought alongside each other before falling out, leading to Romulus killing Remus, and founding the city of Rome. In their first appearance there are some clear Roman influences on how the Romulans are depicted. The main Romulan characters shown throughout the episode are a ship’s Romulan commander and his confidant, who he refers to only as ‘centurion’.
Unlike most of Star Trek’s alien races, helmets are worn by the Romulans – another thing an audience could be expected to associate with Romans. The episode’s writer, Paul Schneider, spoke about his intent to create “an extension of the Roman civilization to the point of space travel, and it turned out quite well.”
In addition to the Roman influences on the creation of the Romulans, it’s revealed as a crucial plot-point of the episode that the Romulans are biologically the same species as the Vulcans, but broke off into separate cultures centuries before. By referencing Romulus and Remus at an early stage, the story puts the idea of the warring twins into the head of viewers who are familiar with the myth (echoed here with the Vulcan Spock working against his genetic relatives), without doing so in an obvious manner.

It’s also possible to read into creatives’ intents with naming individual characters. At one point several major American TV shows simultaneously had a lead protagonist named ‘Jack’. Stargate SG1 (1997-2007) led the way, with the lead character of Colonel Jack O’Neill. O’Neill was followed by the terrorist-torturing Jack Bauer in 24 (2001-2010) and Jack Shepherd in Lost (2004-2010), a doctor who becomes the de facto leader of a group of survivors on a desert island. Prose fiction also saw it’s part of the trend with the Jack Reacher novels (published annually since 1997) and SG1 spin-off Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009) sits just outside the trend, with a military team under the command of John Shepherd.
Jack/John was the 18th most popular boy’s name in America in 2005, so this seems a bit of an over-representation. How many recent works of fiction can you think of with a lead character named Ethan, Anthony or Ryan?
Consider what the name Jack makes you think of. It’s a casual name, a familiar and ‘matey’ kind of name. It’s associated with the phrases ‘jack of all trades’, ‘jack the lad’. All of this will play subconsciously into a viewer or reader’s mind. In addition, John is a very traditional name, a practical, sturdy, long-standing name that doesn’t come and go with trends, but will stand the test of time. The name Jack is therefore likely to inspire such associations in the audience’s mind – to make them think of the character as an ordinary guy, a practical guy, someone who not only belongs in a position of strength and authority but who is in touch with those around him.

Maybe Jack Shepherd would have been happier if his existence wasn’t so derivative.

Compare that with The West Wing‘s President Josiah Bartlett. Josiah suits an upper-class, intellectual politician, and his folksiness makes the character very likeable. But it probably wouldn’t work so well in an action-adventure. The genre often calls for a ‘tough’ lead character, as the only person who can navigate the difficult situation the story presents. Giving a hard-nosed, cold or sarcastic character such an elitist name may have a negative impact on how the audience or reader initially reacts towards them.

The recurrence of the surname Shepherd is probably not accidental either. In countries with a strong Christian influence the word has religious connotations, as well as, in a more secular sense, being a person who guides and protects the flock. Firefly (2002-03) had a supporting character named Shepherd Book, though in his case shepherd was his religious title. Lost took this trend even further – Jack Shepherd’s father, a doctor who had a strong, overpowering role in Jack’s life was named Christian Shepherd.
Lost had a habit of giving it’s characters overtly symbolic names. A character who valued self-reliance both physically and spiritually was named John Locke, after a philosopher who first helped develop the theory of the self; a charismatic American con-man began the series with the name Sawyer; and a cocaine-addicted rock star was named Charlie. (Sometimes it’s just a bit patronising to the audience to make the symbolism so heavyhanded.)

Two of the other main characters on Stargate SG1 were named Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter. What were the writers trying to convey with these names? No idea. Sometimes names are just chosen because people and things need to have a name, and there’s no deeper thematic or character-based reason for that character or thing to have that name in particular. I’d imagine that the same applied to the name of the Ferengi – it probably won’t have been a reference the writers expected the audience to pick up even subconsciously, so maybe it was chosen just because the writers liked the way the word sounded.

Several years ago I kept a small book of baby names, with the intent of going through and making notes of the impressions different names had on me, with the intent of referring back to this list when naming new characters. Going back to the list of 2005’s most popular baby names, naming a character Tyler or Brandon may be a way to convey that they (or their parents) are the type to follow trends, particularly American trends. Naming a character Noah, Gabriel or Elijah could help convey that they have a religious background. Giving a character a flexible name like Michael, Christopher, William, David or Alexander allows the writer to give an impression of what other characters think of them, by showing which version of the name they use. James Bond, for instance, is almost always referred to as Bond, rarely as James, and never as Jamie. The X-Files’ spinoff The Lone Gunmen had a comic, buffoonish supporting character named Jimmy Bond – as with Romulus and Remus, playing off the ideas that are likely to already be in the viewer’s mind.

If you’re going to go to the effort of buying a book of baby names, you might as well kidnap a small human while you’re at it.

Returning back to the universe of Star Trek, the warrior Klingon race tend to have harsh, spiky or guttural names. Their homeworld’s name is spelled at various points as Qo’nos, Q’onoS and Kronos. Individual names seem to follow this same trend – Worf, Gowron, Gorkon, Martok and Koloth are all names which feel harsh. Even the female names Lursa, B’Etor, B’Elenna and K’Ehleyr are not easy on the tongue at first.
By contrast Babylon 5‘s Minbari (essentially a highly developed and spiritual race of space-elves) tend to have more flowing names – Delenn, Shakiri, Draal, Lennier.

As part of a current work in progress, I’m trying to construct the outline of two separate races – one high-minded, ‘sophisticated’ and a little pretentious; the other more earthy, and seen as primitive or wild, but powerful in their own way.
For the former, I’m looking at words and names from languages which have a sense of ‘flowing’ – primarily Greek, but also French and Italian. For the latter, I’ve been looking at more harsh, prickly words – primarily Arabic, but also German and Dutch. I’ve decided to call the latter race ‘Zakaria’ after the American journalist Fareed Zakaria – simply because the sound of the word feels right for the fictional race.

As well as looking out for writing in those languages, I’ve used Behind the Name’s ‘Random Name Generator’. It’s a useful tool for this, although I tend to find that it takes multiple clicks for me to get suggestions that I consider usable.
I also tend to mess around, to make sure I don’t get tidy one-to-one copies of names. As much as I like the name ‘Achilles Perseus’ which the site suggested, I think that sounds a bit too specifically Greek for the reader to accept it as a name from a culture with it’s own independent traditions, in the same way that the Klingon and Minbari names are. Instead, when I’ve been playing around with names, I’ve been taking the names that feel usable apart on a syllable-by-syllable basis and playing around with them, to see what feels right.

That’s my two cents – any thoughts?

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