Playing the (Character) Name Game

anamikaFor as long as I can remember, people have slaughtered my name. Not just Charaipotra, but Sona. Four simple letters. Rhymes with Mona. For some reason, everyone insists on seeing that i, even though it just doesn’t exist.

My dad was the one who picked my name. He thought it was “an international name.” But it’s actually really specifically Indian. It means gold in Hindi and Punjabi, and is considered a term of endearment. Even amongst brown folks, it’s not irritatingly common. Over the years, I’ve grown into it, I think.

Given my own history with my name, when I’m picking names for “diverse” characters, I think long and hard about them. For one thing, they’ll already be “other” to so much of my readership. For another, I want the reader to be able to get comfortable with the name in their heads as they follow the story. Giving the character a name people trip over repeatedly feels like a surefire way to lead readers to put a book down. I don’t go quite as far as, say, naming my Indian-American character something like Jessica — a real name my father suggested for my daughter. (Yes really. And no, of course that’s not her name.) But I do try to use names that will be both culturally specific and universally accessible at once.

For example, in Tiny Pretty Things, the Korean-American character is named E-Jun. It’s simple enough to pronounce. But pretty much everyone except her mother calls her June. And that fits. She’s not quite here nor there, culturally. And so is her name.

The same goes for my current work-in-progress (the one which I’ve been working on for ten years now!). I was having a hard time figuring out the name initially, so I went with Anamika, which means the one without a name. (I know, so funny!) But it also fit the character in so many ways. Again, culturally, she’s not quite fully here nor there. Stuck in the middle. Most folks call her Ana for short, and that suits her just fine in the magazine world she works in. Still, it’s a good solid Indian name. Plus, there was a very successful Bollywood movie in the 70s called Anamika, and I imagine her parents would have named her after it. And she’d be pleased with that little fact.

The bottom line is: I don’t want to white wash my characters of color. But the name has to fit, and be accessible even as it culturally specific. It’s a fine balance, and one I’ll keep striving to achieve.

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An entertainment and lifestyle journalist published by The New York Times, People, ABC News, MSN, Cosmopolitan and other major national media, SONA CHARAIPOTRA currently curates a kickass column on YA books and teen culture for Parade.com. A collector of presumably useless degrees, she double-majored in journalism and American Studies at Rutgers before getting her masters in screenwriting from New York University (where her thesis project was developed for the screen by MTV Films) and her MFA from the New School. When she's not hanging out with her writer husband and two chatter-boxy kids, she can be found poking plot holes in teen shows like Twisted and Vampire Diaries. But call it research: Sona is the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book development company with a decidedly diverse bent. Her debut, the YA dance drama Tiny Pretty Things (co-written with Dhonielle Clayton), is due May 26 from HarperTeen. Find her on the web at SonaCharaipotra.com or CAKELiterary.com.

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