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Can I use names from other cultures?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Moonalight, Jun 13, 2020.

  1. Moonalight

    Moonalight Acolyte

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    A lot of times, for my characters, I like to take names that actually seem relevant for them. The only thing is that most of the names are from other cultures or religions that I know nothing about. Could it offend people if I named people and places using words from their culture?
     
  2. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Short answer: it depends. Yes, it can be seen as offensive, but it also largely depends on context. What is your genre? Are the names you're choosing relevant to the character's culture and backstory or are you just naming them willy-nilly? For example, we (my writing team and I) are working on a long-running urban fantasy series set in the United States. We have characters from many different cultures and their names reflect this. Japanese characters have Japanese names, dwarves tend to have Norse-sounding names, etc.
     
  3. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Going to just toss this out there, as well. It's an incredible resource on writing beyond the common narrative and can help to steer you through the rocks. I would spend some quality time with their searchable site and take their advice to heart.

    Braving Diversity: Intro Post
     
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  4. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

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    Not only is this really offencive, it's terrible for the readers' suspension of disbelief if you have a redhead from a grassy, rainy island filled with the fair folk, but they're called Abdul al-Bashir and the island is called Aokusajima.
     
    Moonalight likes this.
  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    IMHO, it depends on the culture and the name. First things first, if you have a name you want to use, the simplest first step is to google it and see what comes up. If it's a generic name/word, personally, I don't think there's a problem using it. But in certain cultures, names aren't as generic and often have different meanings. That's where you might want to tread lightly or you can make a big faux pas.

    I mean even within the English language slang can put a monkey wrench into things in significant ways. For example, remember the movie the Last Air Bender? Well, when they released that in the UK, nobody bothered to tell them or nobody noticed that the word "bender" in the UK has a different meaning. It's slang for a male homosexual. Soooo... whoops.

    But you also have to balance things out. People of all different backgrounds move around, and it's entirely reasonable and possible for a person to have a name that does not match what's skin deep. I'm Chinese, I have an English name because I grew up in an English speaking country. Why can't an Caucasian person have a Chinese name if they were born in a Chinese speaking country?

    I think where you start to get into trouble is if you just start plucking words out of the air willy-nilly without much thought to what you're doing or what the word actually means. Do some basic research and that should help you avoid some of the obvious pitfalls. Another thing you can do is to find the word/name you like and then shift it. Make up an new word/name that sounds similar but isn't that word/name.
     
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  6. Taniwha

    Taniwha Scribe

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    I'm a native of my country. I'd find it offensive to read one of my ancestor names used in someone's story that had nothing to do with them because our language means something. It isn't just words. At the same time I have no issue with using say 'Karen' or 'Debbie' for some reason. Characters have to have names. I've had to come up with probably 30 names so far. Depending on the chapter - the 'feel' of the name has to reflect the 'country' they inhabit. My countries are fictional but they do have a grounding in real countries with their cultures. I've chosen to use 'ish' names - names that have a Polynesian-ish feel, an 'African-ish' feel etc. I make them up but I usually do a bit of research first.
    I had interesting feedback from my editor though. She said one of the names I used for a male character was actually a Celtic female name. She asked me if I wanted to change it. I will actually when I get to it but it won't be easy - I've come to know and love that character with the name I gave him
     
    Dark Lord Thomas Pie likes this.
  7. Onemaus

    Onemaus Dreamer

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    You can go through the rabbit hole of etymology of names and find that often times they are variations across cultures. Depending on spelling and accent, some name cross that barrier.

    I've gone the route of using names that fit the persons temperament or magical affinity as placeholders and when I further develop the separate cultures can go back to make the appropriate edits.

    If you're going to the chance firstly educate yourself on the meanings and cultural significance of the names your using.
     
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  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I think - and, if people think I'm wrong, I can walk it back - but I think that some cultures are more sensitive to their use in this way than others are. Many Native Americans, for example, are very much trying to preserve the integrity of their cultural heritage, while on the other end, the Japanese have a rich literature full of creators remixing their folklore.

    I mention those two specifically because my own work is about sprites and hobs and other tiny fairies, and there are similar stories and creatures throughout the North American tribes, and in Japan. The fairies in our setting have their city in a barrow that leads into the fairy otherworld, and I'm intending to suggest that there are two others - a small one in a region styled on Japan, and a larger one in a region styled on North America, with fairy characters based on the relevant folklore. But when it comes down to it, I'm hoping to eventually introduce characters from the Peak of Mt. Holnai, and I'm hesitant to even name Nadilkal, the Singing Stones. Maybe that'll change, but at this stage it's just too hard to get a good grasp of what people would and wouldn't appreciate from it.
     
  9. Onemaus

    Onemaus Dreamer

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    This is where we get into heritage, cultural importance, and identity. I'm first generation Dominican and we have a history of colonization and "mixture" with other colonized peoples. So having a blend of Taino, French, Spanish, Dominican, Haitian, African, Dutch, Italian (so many more) makes it easy to have a wide field of names to choose from. Especially if I'm writing characters like that in my project. So MoonalightMoonalight if your region is one of constant and/or historical conquest with shifting power and regime dynamics: having various cultural/religious names can work and work well.
    But if you're writing in the lens of a marginalized group, like Native Americans, than keep those traditions sacred. Names hold weight in every culture, but the importance varies throughout. Or writing in the lens of an isolated group that has never or barely interacted with others, take that into account.

    This may be a confusing or heavier answer than needed to be but if you're concerned of culture appropriation or misuse than again take the time to learn. Create your own religions, customs, cultures using the framework of existing ones.

    It will take longer to craft your vision/story but that's where the richness lies.
     
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  10. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

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    I think it depends on the context in which the names are used. And it has to be said that some people will get offended for literally anything they can. I don't get offended just a bit irritated when people assume I'm Scottish or Irish just because I have read hair. Life becomes a lot easier and happier when you just get over it and stop worrying about offending others with harmless things. I'm not talking about a deliberate force or dig being made. As long as it choice of name feels right for that character and who they are and were they have come from.
     
  11. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I think you should be extremely, extremely cautious of using names that are specific to a culture that you know nothing about. For one thing, if you know nothing about the culture they come from, you're more likely to end up using the names incorrectly or inappropriately.

    But I'm a little confused about how you can know that a name is "relevant" to your character if you know nothing about the culture it comes from? How do you know that you are understanding the name and its usage if you don't know the culture? Why would you even want to use names from cultures you know nothing about? How could they be meaningful to you?
     
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  12. StrawhatOverlord

    StrawhatOverlord Scribe

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    I name the different kinds of humans after actual names from the irl culture they're most inspired by, but almost exclusively old archaic names, like Alaric. Other races I do the same, but I corrupt the hell out of the word so it doesn't mean anything, but still sort of invokes the air of where it came from, and still sounds neat.
     
  13. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    A lot of people here have talked about potentially being offensive, but another risk is having the name come across as just corny to a native speaker. I mean, if you're used to anime or video games you probably don't notice it anymore, but just think about it for a moment. You've got people named Light Yagami, Monkey D. Luffy or Cloud Strife.
     
  14. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    First off, simply because you may or may not "offend" some professional victim is no reason to do or not do something. Unless your catering to that specific audience, if so don't mind me.

    Second that writing with color website is rife with illogical political crap, I would avoid it IMHO. Better option is come here and ask people.

    The most important thing is how you use those names. If it's simply because you don't know what to call your chars, that's just lazy and most likely means the rest of the book will reflect such. There better be an explanation about those strange foreign names that makes sense

    If your setting is Eurasia and the nemes of villagers are Kevin, Tom, etc it doesn't really make sense. The same applies to any name used to give things an exotic feel. It just makes you the writer look lazy and incompetent, no one wants to read a book like that.
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2020
  15. nck

    nck Scribe

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    I guess I find the context for this question a little bit odd. You seem to be implying using names from different real-world cultures irrespective of whether they match the culture being depicted in the story, otherwise you'd presumably be asking about whether it's offensive to draw from real-world cultures more generally, not just names.

    If that's the case, I would say that while it might be offensive, I also just wouldn't do this from a writing practices perspective. The names of your characters should reflect the cultures you're depicting, and the names of characters from the same culture should have some measure of consistency. Don't just pull random names from the real world because you like what they mean.
     
  16. nck

    nck Scribe

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    I get that people have different opinions on this and that it can be something of a divisive issue, but I'm not sure we need to try and make people feel bad that they care about whether or not they might offend someone.
     
  17. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    That's my whole point I cannot control how you or other people feel. My intention is/was not to make people feel bad that they care, caring is good. Example, I am offended that you think I intentionally set out to make people feel bad about caring, you didn't seem to worry about my feelings. My intention was never to make anyone feel bad. Or... I find belittling that you think they need you to defend them, ( ok not really but you get my point).

    However it is not good to modify or censure oneself or others because it might/ or might not cause offense. The problem is now people get offended over everything. We as writers should be the last group to fear giving offence. Don't let fear of giving offence limit you. There are more important things to worry about such as writing well.

    My phone's text editor is going crazy. It delets words or inserts words when I go back to edit, sorry if it's incoherent, I'm not writing the paragraph agai.
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2020
  18. nck

    nck Scribe

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    Yeah, this is what I mean. If you're saying it's "not good" to censor oneself out of fear of causing offense, and that writers should not fear being offensive, then you're saying it's wrong and bad if they do censor themselves or do fear offending.
     
  19. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    Yeah it is wrong to censor themselves out of fear of possibly offending someone. I'm not really understanding what the terrible thing about this is... Unless your implying that self-censorship is a good thing. To which I would disagree, for the reasons I already mentioned.

    I have a question. What makes this hypothetical group who might be offended so much better than me that I should censor myself. Why are their feelings more important than mine, or my artistic expression. What about the hundreds of other people who think differently than them?
     
  20. nck

    nck Scribe

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    I think maybe you're misunderstanding. I am not taking a stand on whether or not it's good to self-censor one way or the other; I am pointing out that you are taking a stand that it's always bad to self-censor out of fear of offending.
     
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