Stranger in a Strange Book

24 Feb

Who is John Smith? The protagonist in most books has a simple name, understandable motivations… in other words, forgettable. They are taking the place of you while you walk through the universe. Because there’s a price to be paid if your protagonist is too exotic.

After reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I realized that he rotates between three or four main characters, of which one is American, two are Thai, and one is Chinese. It’s set in Bangkok, so that makes perfect sense, and you’d think that a guy with a complicated Portuguese name is going to be comfortable with characters with strange names to American ears. But Paolo struggles with this same problem. When you have to crank out a last name like Chulalongkorn (actually the name of King Rama V), you start using nicknames or first names fast. When I lived in Thailand, it seems Thais understand that, and are comfortable being referred to by their nickname because their real name is so long.

However, it doesn’t have to be just names. For example, when I sat down to write Drag’n Drop, I thought I would make my main character the dragon, because… that sounded really cool. However, it quickly became clear to me that if I wanted a two-ton flying machine running around an alternate New York, and not have him be a shape changer… he wasn’t going to be in all the scenes. So I invented a guy and a girl to hang out with him to go to all the places where a big green dragon just wouldn’t fit in.

The more I thought about it, though, my main characters were generally white guys, but do NOT have easy names, because… well I’m a white guy with a slightly uncommon name. You would surprised how often Marcus Johnston becomes Mark, Marc, or Markus Johnson. I generally refer to my characters by nicknames. In Defending Our Sacred Honor, I thought it would be fun to call my main character Javier Jackson, but he became Jax instantly. Fatebane is the name of the main character, but it’s not the name he was born with, for reasons that are clear in the book.

Predatory Practices is the only book I was involved with that where there was a non-human main character. However, his name was Heth… because the complicated three name alien nomenclature wasn’t practical most of the time. Mind you, I wasn’t the main writer on that, but I thought Ed did a great job creating a believable alien culture that was still relatable to the reader.

In the end, though, I am an American, and although I reach out to readers all through the world, I’m sure when I slip, my references are uniquely American. Since I prefer to write sci-fi, I hope it’s more universal. However, I’ve read books that use references that are distinctly English or Irish or Japanese and my mind hits a speed bump when I read them. I remember reading an article by a Czech, and since I was working through Google translate, I didn’t catch an idiom when I was writing it down. It was only talking with my Czech friends that they explained the reference.

What do you think? Have you been taken out of a book by all the strange names? Or do you not mind a main character named Massaponax? Maybe it’s better if he goes by Mass. Let me know in the comments below!

One Response to “Stranger in a Strange Book”

  1. Tekwor February 24, 2021 at 8:24 am #

    Lots of times I can pronounce certain names of characters in a book, I just say something in my head and keep reading, if I make the book audible and the computer voice pronounces it different then I find myself asking who is that? Then oooh that’s how it’s pronounced? When the book have local names that I know the right pronunciation, then I’m reminded computers aren’t right all the time.

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