Tag Archives: names

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!

Kyoto Protocol – Spy Novel or Rock Band?

7 Sep

Ever look at a phrase too long and start thinking… “That’s a great band name!” Well, since my job involves building an online course for international environmental law, I kept having to research the Kyoto Protocol, so this thought came to me. Apparently, somebody beat me to it.

Actually, my first thought was spy novel. Can Bourne get the US Senate to ratify the document before he’s found by enemy agents? (Hmmm… need a better catch line. I’ll have to work on that one.) If you’ve been anywhere near Malaysia for the past ten years, you may have run into this band. It’s good… it’s got a slightly-harder-than-boy-band sound to it, so in my opinion, it falls under Pop or Light Rock. And of course, it’s in Malay, so… you might still enjoy it, you just won’t understand the words.

This is an extension of the “if you stare at a word too long, it looks misspelled” principle. Or… the problem when you’re trying to make international law sexy. You hit a limit of what you can do with pictures and highlights and start focusing on what you could do if the topic was far more sexy. I’m guessing this is what Al Gore had to deal with in An Inconvenient Truth. So you get a big globe, lots of flashy graphics, and tell everyone they’re going to die.

Oooh! Maybe you could go with a Yakuza story… eh… still like spy novel better.

Sometimes you run into this problem as a writer – you’ve got a cool story set in the… uh, not sexy situation. Such as Other People’s Money, which was a great story about a business takeover, or The Social Network, which is all about people typing on computers. The answer? Don’t make it about the subject, make it about the people. Tell their story, which happens to be set in a not sexy setting.

That way you can take a topic you like (but no one else is going to) and get people really engaged. Mystery writers do this all the time, setting their amateur detectives in landscape design, or on the Navajo Reservation, or even as a 13th Century Monk (those are all actual mystery book/movie settings, BTW). I had this trouble with my most recent writing project. I really wanted to write about merchant marines, but got so caught up in the setting that I didn’t focus on the plot. 56K words and boring as #*$&. That’s gonna sit in the electronic desk drawer until I feel ready to tackle that again. Maybe I’ll have to add so much it’ll get bumped up to 80K!

What’s a topic you find fascinating but others would see as watching paint dry? Let me know in the comments below!

Where is Coconut Grown in Germany?

8 Aug

German Chocolate is my favorite type of cake – my wife makes it for my birthday every year. However, there’s nothing German about it. Coconut does not grow in Northern Europe. So where the heck did the name come from?

The answer is that it’s a marketing ploy–this one happens to be a hundred years old, dating back to the turn of the century when they’re trying to sell a new recipe to an unknown public. Jake’s Coconut Chocolate Cake is a tactical risk; German Chocolate Cake sounds exotic.

This is an extension of the “different languages sound exotic” argument I made a few days ago, however, people keep doing this! Take, for example, this rather pedestrian example. This is a coffee machine where you get the option of “Dakota Roast” or “European Blend.” I can buy that there’s a favorite blend in Europe… why the #*$& would I care if oil frackers in North Dakota like their coffee a little darker? Do I imagine Sioux indians riding across the plains drinking coffee? Is the brew in Fargo worth travelling for?!

There’s lots of examples of this. Texas Roadhouse comes to mind instantly (great bread). There’s cars called the Tucson and Sedona, or my favorite, the Montana. When you’re driving in Arizona, this is not that exciting. The Arizona Bread Company sounds great in Arizona… the St. Louis Bread Company, not so much… which is why it’s called Panera outside St. Louis. 🙂

Wearing words that you don’t understand on your shirt is also weird… but hey, it looks cool, right? This is a Chinese example, but I remember kids wearing French phrases on their shirts in high school (thirty years ago), and I thought it was stupid then… especially since I could read French. If it says something cool, I’ll give it a pass (like my wife’s handbag which has a whole Psalm in Hebrew), but if you’re depending on someone else to tell you what it means (like tattooing Chinese characters on your skin), buyer beware!

Am I alone? Obviously this technique works or marketers wouldn’t do it, but am I the only one who notices? What examples do you find particularly outrageous? Let me know in the comments below!

Change Your Name, Change Your Life

31 Jul

There’s a saying among the expatriate community in Korea: “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Kim, a Lee, or a Park.” So you would think there’s a lack of last names in Asia. The real reason is far more interesting.

I happened to pass a TV that was showing the LPGA tour. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. However, it showed the leader board and it showed the name of Jeongeun Lee #6… which having never watched ladies’ golf before struck me as rather bizarre, but not that unexpected. Turns out that even those she’s is the only Jeongeun Lee in the LPGA, in the Korean league, she was the 6th one, and established her brand as #6.

Twenty years ago, my first real job out of college was at Taejon Christian International School, an international boarding school in South Korea. It was actually a very nice place and I’ve gotten the impression that it has been getting nicer since I left. At the time, they hadn’t built the new dorm and school buildings, and there was a small woods (with houses) nearby in the land between it and the Hannam University.

This is where I ran into the fundamental problem of a lack of Korean names. I believe JeongEun means “grace,” which considering the massive Christian presence, doesn’t surprise me. I’ve run into several “Graces;” the habit among most international Korean students is that their family named their kids something that could be translated into English as well as Korean and mean precisely the same thing.

I love this statue in Daejeon – outside the soccer stadium.

As mentioned above, there’s mainly three last names, so to have six women named exactly the same in a pro sports league is not that surprising. This was not always the case. You can look back through Korean history and find all manner of last names.

Why the change? Because after being occupied by the Japanese for fifty years, the newly freed Koreans in 1945 had burned the official records. There was no paper trail to prove that you were who you said you were. So people started giving themselves royal names. Kim, Park, and Lee all dated back to the families of kings of a free and independent Korea. These peasants wanted to improve their life, so they changed their name. The only problem was that EVERYONE figured this out and did it roughly at the same time.

This is not that unusual. Many of the new Zionist settlers to Israel changed their name to something more Hebrew sounding to start a new life. I knew one friend whose ancestor moved to Yorktown, Virginia and took his wife’s name to forget his past. I knew one guy in college who changed his last name to Angel because… it sounded cool. (Angel was also a popular show on TV at that moment.)

Does changing your name really make that much of a difference in your life? Have you met people who did this? Ladies, did taking your husband’s last name (or not) lead to a change in how people perceived you? Let me know in the comments below?

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