Thursday, April 28, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Naming Characters, Part I

When I started writing Desert Jewels, my protagonist’s name was Martha. Although her father is Japanese, many Japanese Americans from her generation have European American first names. I chose Martha because it fit the picture I had in my head and seemed to work from both a historical and a cultural standpoint. I also wanted something that was easy for my English speaking readers to pronounce.

Unfortunately, my protagonist referred to her mother—also a main character—as Mama. My online critique partner said that the two M names had her confusing the characters. Since Mama is of Swedish descent, I decided to keep that title and rename my protagonist. I tried Ellen, then Jane, and neither felt right. I ended up with Emi, which is a Japanese name that is easy for English speakers to pronounce.

These issues persisted as I picked names for other characters. To make the story realistic, I needed Japanese first names for some of the children from Emi’s generation as well as for the generation before. Then there are the last names. I pronounce words in my head as I read them, and I assume that at least some of my readers do, too. So I looked for Japanese names that my readers could pronounce correctly.

The biggest roadblock came with names that had two adjacent vowels. (More about that in next month’s post.) I tried to avoid them when I could. For example, Emi’s last name is Katayama, and her Japanese American friends include Toyo and Yuki and Sam and Goro. But the entire process took on greater importance than it had for my previous books.

Because choosing realistic names and pronouncing them properly is part of honoring the culture.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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