As important as it is to use the right names for your characters, it’s doubly-important to get them right when you’re writing about another culture. You can’t just assume their names can be “translated” into English or that naming conventions are similar.

Apparently I’m old-fashioned for still doing this, but I’ve always called my older characters Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms., or their foreign equivalents (Heer, Vrouw, Herr, Frau, Madame, Froi, Fru, etc.). It’s so jarring when I’m reading a book set in another country (either a translation or an English-language book) and see the adult characters called Mr. and Mrs. That takes away so much cultural flavor.

When I began my first Russian novel in early ’93, I didn’t know that the titles Mr. and Mrs. are only very rarely used in Russian. However, I’ve retained these titles as a way to distinguish the younger characters from the older characters. For example, Lyuba’s mother is Mrs. Zhukova, later Mrs. Lebedeva, Ivan’s parents are Mr. Konev and Mrs. Koneva, and Ivan’s uncle by his aunt’s second marriage is Mr. Golitsyn (a deposed prince). Now and then, a few elder characters are called by first names, like Ivan’s aunt Valeriya.

I also didn’t know Russian surnames differ by sex, and that women’s names have feminine endings (like Konev vs. Koneva or Vishinskiy vs. Vishinskaya). It’s so important to know the nicknaming conventions of the culture you’re writing about, how to form basic nicknames and superdiminutives, if certain nicknames can only be used by certain people (like how you only call a man by his patronymic, let alone the shortened form of it, after years of friendship), and which nickname forms might connote different moods (playfulness, disrespect, tenderness). For example, Lyuba calls her uncle Mikhail Mishenka, which definitely wouldn’t be a nickname used by one of his male peers!

I don’t think this is done so much anymore, but I’ve definitely seen a number of older books where Russian characters’ names were “translated.” It’s just goofy, and culturally insensitive and inaccurate, to see very Russian characters being called Kate, Annie, Michael, Matthew, and Julie! I had that issue with the original sections of the first 7 chapters of my first Russian novel, but my excuse was that I was only 13. All of the offending names have been properly translated into Russian or Estonian.

One of the books that inspired me to write my first Russian novel was Felice Holman’s The Wild Children, in which the protagonist is named Alex and the leader of his band is Peter. At 13, I had no way of knowing that those aren’t Russian names, just as I didn’t know why the Romanovs were often called by decidedly non-Russian names. The protagonist should’ve been called Sasha, Sanya, or Shura, not Alex, and the leader should’ve been Pyotr. I also didn’t understand yet, at that age, that certain name formations I saw were nicknames, not full given names, like Anya and Misha.

As much as I loved the Leon Uris novel Mila 18, I had to deduct some points in my review for the decidedly non-Polish names. There are characters with names like Paul, Susan, Andrei, Simon, and Rachael. All names with easy to find Polish versions I’m shocked Mr. Uris didn’t run across in his historical research. The name that most stuck out to me was Rachael. That’s definitely not a spelling variation used in Poland!

Side note: I was not a fan of the name Simon till I read Mila 18. I always associated it with a geek or a wos, but then I had a whole new association with the heroic leader of the Ghetto fighters. Now I have a gigantic stuffed frog named Simon, who takes up half my bed. (Not named after the character in the book!)

4 thoughts on “Know the naming conventions of the culture you’re writing about

  1. Excellent advice. It is so important to not only follow the conventions of naming for a culture but to realise that it is a form of respect for that culture. To fail to do so shows a lack of respect and a lack of familiarity that strips the writing of verisimilitude

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  2. Reblogged this on Onomastics Outside the Box and commented:

    I wrote this for my primary blog on 30 November 2012. This is such a vitally important detail if you’re writing a book or story set in a culture outside of your own. There’s just no excuse for not doing such basic homework, unless you’re extremely young and honestly don’t know any better. And if you’re so attached to a certain outlier name, at least create a plausible reason for it and make it clear that this is an unusual name in that culture.

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