top of page

The Nominative Minefield

By Tom Anderson

Illustration of western naming conventions by wikimedia user 'Hyacinth' and shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

One of the more common reader comments I get on my Look to the West series of alternate history books is ‘How do you come up with all those names?’ It is a reasonable question. When I write LTTW, I am trying to cover the history of an entire alternate version of Earth, with all its languages and cultures. This requires frequent name-dropping for names of politically and culturally significant figures, and represents a significant challenge. Decades and centuries after the Point of Divergence (POD) of a timeline, in a ‘hard AH’ scenario it is unreasonable to reuse the names of real-life (Our TimeLine, OTL) figures, on the grounds that their parents might not have met, that even if they did they might have had a child at a different time, place, the child might be the opposite gender or have a different genetic makeup… Of course, royal families are relatively easy because they typically reuse only a few names over and over, and just because a child might have a different mother and be of a different character, that doesn’t mean you can’t call them Edward, the seventh king by that name to rule if you count both before and after the POD, so they’re Edward VII – even if they’re nothing like the OTL figure called Edward VII. This still comes with caveats, as we’ll see; but for the vast majority of allohistorical figures, it’s nothing like that easy.

My answer to the question ‘how do you come up with all those names?’ is the same as the answer you’ll get from writers to a great many questions: practice. I’ve been writing LTTW for almost 15 years now, and other works before it, and I’ve come up with strategies to address the problem. This isn’t to say that I always get it right, as we’ll see, but making mistakes is part of the process of learning. This question is not a niche topic that belongs only to the field of alternate history writing, though it is more complicated there than anywhere else. It also applies to historical fiction, and indeed simple and straightforward fiction of any sort that attempts to cover people of any culture outside the writer’s own—which is almost inevitable in this day and age if one wants to be realistic, given our world is more interconnected than ever before. Fortunately, doing such research has gone from being borderline impossible to relatively straightforward with the advent of the internet—though many writers still ignore the advantage it brings, as we’ll see. One point I do want to make clear in this article is that it is easy for younger readers and reviewer to criticise the inappropriate foreign names chosen by writers of a past generation, as they have grown up with the internet and simply cannot conceive of a time in which this kind of research was almost unfeasible for the average person.

Let’s begin by looking at some common mistakes, which can be found in any kind of fiction. First of all, where do you start with names if you have no background information on a culture? Well, the natural thing is to consider the people you know from that culture and simply reuse their names, perhaps mixing and matching first names and surnames. This approach is not inherently flawed if applied with additional knowledge of that culture, but on its own can be a minefield. Firstly, it can frequently lead to what the website TVTropes refers to as the ‘Famous Named Foreigner’ trope, where a short list of famous people from a country typically includes people with very distinctive, and sometimes now historically archaic, names that will stick out like a sore thumb if combined. For example, the minor Batman villain ‘The Monk’ is an Eastern European associated with vampires and other monsters, so he eventually got the name ‘Niccolai Tepes’, a crude combo of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and historical ruler Vlad Țepeș (particularly absurd considering ‘Țepeș’ is the title translated as ‘the Impaler’, not a surname). Ironically, The Monk was introduced way back in 1939, when nobody had heard of Ceaușescu, but did not get his name until much later. An even cruder case is where the writer gives up and just uses the name of a town or other place name from the country in question, such as The X-Files having a Norwegian fisherman called Trondheim or a Chinese film having a British character named Heathrow. Of course, if your fiction becomes successful, it will cause more damage due to making people from your language who watch it think that that is a plausible name for a character from that culture.

Statue of Zhang Chongren as shared under the CC-BY-SA 4.0 licence

Historically, if writers wanted to avoid this problem, they did not have many options. The best solution would be to simply have a friend from the culture in question who could suggest names and correct misconceptions, as happened with Hergé, creator of Tintin, and his Chinese friend Zhang Chongren (also the inspiration for the character Chang Chong-chen in the comics). For this reason, Tintin comics (among other things) correctly represent Chinese surnames as coming first and given names second. Mistakenly reversing this remains a common problem in Western depictions of Chinese names (and those of many other East Asian cultures which do the same) to this day, despite China’s modern prominence. It is remarkable that there are a substantial number of people in the West whom, when asked to think of a culture where the surname comes before the given name, will mention the fictional Bajorans from Star Trek before any of the real ones which collectively represent at least one-third of the people on Earth. When writing LTTW, Chinese names are probably one of the weaker areas as I do make sure to combine pinyin transliterations of real Chinese characters and try to make sure they have been used as names, but doubtless many of the connotations and whether they are time-appropriate pass me by.

But while one might be fortunate enough to have a friend from one culture one might be writing about, it would be unlikely to be able to call on friends from multiple foreign cultures. Hergé made mistakes when writing about other cultures, and created the Eastern European countries of Syldavia and Borduria rather than be trapped in making a mistake about real ones. A writer might revert to the ‘mix and match names’ approach. But perhaps try to be more nuanced—expand the pool of names by scouring libraries for books with lists of Olympic medallists and the like. A larger number of names to draw from helps hint which ones are more common/frequent, which helps. But there are still many problems. Gender is a problem, and I don’t just mean making sure your character has a given name of the appropriate gender. Just as an English-speaking writer is not used to surnames coming in a different order (or some cultures not having surnames at all, as was still known even in Europe till relatively recently) they also are not familiar with the idea that surnames can be gendered. This is the case in Russia and a number of other cultures, and ignorance of it leads to cases like the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Watergate’, in which Marina Sirtis plays a Russian scientist named Markov. In reality, this would be Markova.

Notable AH writer Harry Turtledove is keen to show off his research in the Worldwar series, which was my first exposure to any western writer who actually understood anything about how Russian names work (unless you count Charles M. Schulz’s periodic mentions of Russian literature in Peanuts). For example, let us take the name of current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. His full name is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the middle part being not a western-style middle name but a patronymic, indicating his father was also named Vladimir. (The end changes to –ovna for a woman, but it is still attached to her father’s, not mother’s name). The –in ending to his surname means man or person, and the –ov ending also common in Russia means –son, i.e. something which used to be a patronymic but has now become a surname, like all the English surnames ending in –son. (Again for women these would be –ina and –ova respectively). Putin’s name would be officially abbreviated to V. V. Putin, but never to ‘Vladimirovich V. Putin’, as it frequently is rendered in American sources used to the idea of US politicians being slightly obsessive with middle initials. The situation is confused further in Russia specifically due to the legacy of Communism, which discouraged the use of ‘bourgeois’ formalism like ‘Gospodin’ for ‘Mr’ and leaves writing dialogue set in TLs without the Revolution (or without the fall of the USSR) to be a complex question. Putin would be referred to be a friend (assuming there are any he has not got around to murdering yet) as ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich’, and by a close friend or family member as ‘Volodya’, a cutesy diminutive of ‘Vladimir’ (not ‘Vlad’ as we might imagine in the West). Russian diminutives are complex and unpredictable, often with multiple versions available for different layers of intimacy, and little obvious connection with the original name. (But then in English we can have Mr John Smith, Johnny Smith, Jack Smith, Jacky Smith, etc. for the same person). Whereas once it would have been nigh impossible to get this right without a Russian acquaintance, today it is the sort of thing that can be researched online with relative ease.

Roger Pic's photo of Andre Malraux

Similarly, there is no need to scour libraries anymore for lists of Olympic swimmers; Wiki and many other online sources have Lists of Notable (people from country) or, for preference, go for something like ‘members elected of the 14th National Assembly (1954)’ and find obscure redlinks. This may require going to the version of the page in other languages. This does not make mistakes unavoidable, and try to learn from them. In the past I’ve used names that turned out to be unrealistic stage names that would never occur in reality, or accidentally combined names in a way that produces a famous person’s name I’d never heard of (French writer and political theorist André Malraux). At the same time, sometimes we can be too sensitive to the ‘famous named’ factor; the existence of V. V. Putin might discourage a writer from using Vladimir, but this really is a fairly common Russian name that would not excite comment, as can be found from consulting the lists.

Speaking of surnames, it’s interesting to reflect that in the modern West, the idea of a woman not taking her husband’s surname, double-barrelled compromises, etc. are still considered vaguely radical and feminist by many people. This represents both an ignorance of their own culture’s past and of other cultures. Many cultures (including European ones) historically did not see wives take their husband’s surnames, and Spanish-speaking countries routinely give double-barrelled surnames to their children (although not all the proliferating names are retained with each generation). Furthermore, in aristocratic society in both Britain and the United States, it was common to double barrel names, or use the wife’s maiden name as a middle name or first name in children, in order to recognise a man marrying into a prominent (sometimes more prominent) family. This also led to some names which were once only surnames becoming given names, as continues to this day, particularly in the USA. A century or so ago, a girl named Shirley would be considered as strange as one named Taylor in the 1970s or one named Harper more recently. (Note the tendency for names that end in –a sounds to become female first names, even if they are not spelled that way).

I’ll therefore finish by talking about time periods rather than AH timelines – though the two interact. Russia is another good example here, as are other countries that were under a Communist or other ideologically motivated regime (the French Revolution also applies here). Sometimes such regimes might discourage particular names due to their association with the old regime, with a religion they are persecuting, etc., and promote neologistic names associated with the new ideology. A writer needs to be careful not to put one of the latter names far back in a historical setting. Conversely, they may be too literal and assume that obviously no prominent Soviet would have a saint’s name, which the many prominent Soviet Georgies and Yuris (ultimately named for St George) would disagree with; sometimes names can enter a culture and be retained regardless of any former connotations.

Do not forget that what now seems like a name emblematic of a culture might once have been unknown. Sometimes this is fairly obvious; one would not write a story set in pre-1776 colonial America in which Jefferson is an unremarkable first name. Other times it requires a bit of research. The 1632 series novel “A Parcel of Rogues”, set in England and Scotland of the 1630s, is mostly well researched, but has the glaring problem that it has to use a contemporary English character introduced by a previous book and writer, Victoria or ‘Vicky’. Though Victoria might seem a quintessentially English name today, in the 1630s an English Victoria would be considered almost as bizarre as Elon Musk’s ‘X Æ A-12’. The name was, of course, popularised by Queen Victoria, who was christened Alexandrina Victoria after her birth in 1819; she was named for her mother, as it was a fairly common German name. However, many other Victorias were named around this time in order to specifically commemorate the Allies’ victory at the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier. This was a common fashion at the time, and indeed Victoria’s diaries can be slightly confusing due to the number of other Victorias of similar age she grew up knowing, and one of them is usually referred to under the French name ‘Victoire’ for clarity. When Victoria was due to take the throne, the Government attempted to force her to change her strange foreign German name to something more English, like Elizabeth or Charlotte. (This itself shows one how much times change, as ‘Charlotte’ had also been considered foreign and German a century earlier!)

Victoria held firm, however, and her lengthy reign and periods of high popularity ensured that the name would become ineluctably associated with England to the point of anachronism. A Swedish colleague and fellow SLP writer noted to me that ‘Victoria’ is such an obvious English name to suggest, he was taken aback by the existence of BBC journalist Victoria Derbyshire: combining that name with an incongruous place name. The fact that Ms Derbyshire is a real person and not a literary creation is a reminder to all of us that truth can be stranger than fiction…



bottom of page