Today I’d like to welcome fellow author Heidi Noroozy who has written a wonderful blog post describing how she chooses names for the Iranian characters who populate her mystery novels which are set in Iran and the Persian diaspora.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Several months ago, I received a tweet from a follower on Twitter with an intriguing proposition. He asked that, should I consider putting him in one of my mystery novels, would I please not make him the villain? He bravely offered to die in the first pages if I found it necessary.
I was enchanted.
Usually, I try to avoid using the names of family, friends, and acquaintances in my books for fear that these people will think I am plunking them down in my books, personality quirks intact. And here was someone who actually wanted his name in my book!
Picking the right name for a character is not a decision authors make lightly. Think of the memorable characters in fiction whose names seem to reflect and support the character. For me, Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is a name perfectly suited to the character. What could be more inspired than to take the name of an ancient Greek philosopher and apply it to a man who would sacrifice everything for his convictions? Atticus is a noble name for a man with noble aspirations.
My stories are set in Iran and the Persian diaspora, a culture that is not my own, yet I have come to know it well through my Iranian-born husband, his family, and Persian friends. But because I write for an English-speaking readership and cannot assume that my readers will be able to get their tongues around the foreign names populating my books, I put a lot of thought into picking names that not only fit the character but are not too difficult to pronounce or remember.
Take the protagonist of my Persian P.I. series: I named her Leila because it would be somewhat familiar to English speakers. Arabic in origin, the name may not be the most common one in the West, but it’s short and clearly feminine (gender is not always obvious in foreign names).
For her last name, I chose Shirazi because I liked the rhythm it created when paired with Leila. And it’s derived from one of Iran’s loveliest cities—Shiraz—a place famed for its hospitality, beautiful gardens, and famous poets.
In Leila’s case the name came first, and the character grew to embrace it. Leila is a private investigator, who can be tough and driven when the situation calls for it. But she has a softer side as well and can stop and smell the roses of Shiraz, as it were.
Iranian names are fun to play with when it comes to pairing them with characters, since many of them have very specific (and sometimes quite ordinary) meanings. This goes for both female first names—Mozhgan (eyelashes), Arezou (wish), Roya (dream)—and for male ones: Atash (fire), Omid (hope), Kamyar (success).
In my novel, Bad Hejab, I have a character who comes across as arrogant, always acting in his own interest and sparing little thought to others. I named him Amir (prince). Over the course of several drafts, I realized this man’s arrogance was a cover for a sense of inadequacy. His family never expected him to amount to much, and as a man operating mainly on the wrong side of the law, he knows he has fully lived up to their expectations. I began to appreciate the irony of the name for a man whose actions were often self-serving yet who felt less than noble in his heart. This dichotomy seemed very Iranian to me, for Persian culture is one where appearances can be deceiving and a person’s true nature or purpose is not easily discerned.
Iranian last names pose a different problem. They are usually less difficult to remember or pronounce, but most end in the letter “i”: Molavi, Tavakoli, Esfandiari. Such names can get repetitive in a novel that has many characters. This tendency has historical reasons. Until the early 20th century, Iranians did not have last names, but were often referred to by their place of origin: Tehrani, Gilani (Gilan is a province in northern Iran), or Shirazi. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for names that end in a consonant: Amanpour, Daneshvar, Zand.
So where do I find names, seeing how reluctant I am to plunder the names of family and friends? (And I can’t always rely on Twitter buddies to volunteer theirs.) By necessity, I have become a collector of names.
I read a lot—memoirs, books on Iranian history and contemporary society, news reports, blogs. And fiction, of course. I maintain three lists: for female, male and last names. When I come across an unusual name, it goes into my list. If I can find the meaning associated with the name, that goes in the list as well.
Iran has a great deal of ethnic diversity. While Persians make up the dominant culture, many Iranians are Kurdish, Turkish-speaking Azeris, Christian Armenians, or members of nomadic tribes (Bakhtiaris, Qashqais, Lurs). Some names reflect these ethnicities. Naghshbandi is a typical Kurdish last name. A name ending in “ian” is usually Armenian.
In Bad Hejab, I have an Armenian policeman and when I needed a name for him, I turned to Google and searched for Armenian baby names – and ended up with 2 million hits! I chose Krikor from one of these lists and paired it with Goryan, a name the Armenian-American author, William Saroyan, once used as a pseudonym, although the famous author chose a different first name (Sirak). My reasons for picking Krikor Goryan as my detective’s name were not particularly profound. I liked the sound of Krikor and was intrigued by the fact that Saroyan had once used a pen name.
What about you? How do you feel about character names? If you are a reader, do you appreciate a good pairing between a name and its character? What are some of the most memorable fictional names you can think of? And if you are a writer, how do you go about picking names for your characters?
Heidi Noroozy writes multicultural fiction set in the Persian-American subculture and regularly travels to Iran for research and inspiration. In the Islamic Republic, she has pondered the ancient past amid the ruins of Persepolis, baked translucent flat bread with Kurdish women in the Zagros Mountains, dipped her toes in the azure waters of the Caspian Sea, and observed the dichotomy of a publicly religious yet privately modern society. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, and she is seeking publication for her suspense novel, Bad Hejab, in which an Iranian-American P.I. pursues justice for the murder of her journalist cousin while navigating the bewildering, male-dominated society of Tehran. Heidi can be found at http://noveladventurers.blogspot.com/, where she writes about Persian culture on Mondays.