If I had a coin every time someone asked me where I am from…
Sadly, most of the characters from my older stories can hardly say the same. When I started writing, my characters were like me: not from anywhere in particular. I would give them what might be considered common names like Clover and Nicholas without thinking about the potential consequences.
I think Romeo and Juliet have effectively shown us the danger of giving names too much importance. But they can be significant indicators of identity, heritage, or surroundings. Even though I might not feel truly Indian anymore, my name is still Indian. This discrepancy forms one part of my identity.
Most of my earlier characters’ names were chosen based on name meanings or simple whims. I remember feeling smug about my subtleness when I named one particularly bitter character Sorrel.
It was last year, when trying to come up with a pseudonym, that I actually asked myself: What’s in a name? In doing that, I started asking my characters where they were from. A lot of them couldn’t answer: they had been settled in nameless little regions that weren’t geographically grounded. Others alluded to a place “near London” or some little village in England that I have never even seen.
In picking a name for myself, I suddenly wondered about my initial instinct to go for a more Anglicised pseudonym. More importantly, I realised my indifference towards potential connections my characters might have between their names and their places in the world. By ignoring the possibilities in names, I might have been leaving a whole part of their identities shadowed.
Maybe this indifference stems from my own identity, which I haven’t rooted in one geographical location. Consequently, neither have my characters. This was accompanied with an assumption that, given their generic names and vague surroundings, they would be of European origin. Yet, I don’t know any other culture as well as I know my own. The characters I wrote according to this pre-determined standard were inevitably, to some degree, flat.
I have started writing more Indian characters, even when this is not necessary to the plot. Sometimes it works, other times…
But if I set India aside and try to write, for example, English characters, they tend to feel contrived. How can I write a character belonging to a culture I have barely experienced? Sure, I’ve noticed the tendency of saying “You all right?” instead of “How are you?” and “Cheers” instead of “Thanks”. However, will I ever know any other culture as well as I know my own? For now, I don’t know. I can only hope that my characters develop as I do. What I have realised is that names can have power, and I won’t rush into making choices that may eventually come to matter.
In the end, I chose an Indian pseudonym for myself. Not that anyone outside India can’t have that name, but it was refreshing to choose one that wouldn’t easily be found on souvenir keychains, much like my own. I am trying to make the same effort in my work (and thus, for any potential readers); if I can’t imbue my characters with a particular nationality, at least they can reflect my own changeability. And their names seem like a good place to start.