Monday, November 19, 2007

The Trouble with Names

The big (read: enormous) project that I'm working on at the moment, Magi, is a novel retelling the life of Jesus. (Yes, I know it's been done before, many times.) The issue of the names in the story has come up several times, both in Wyrdsmiths and in the years preceeding my entrance into the group. This is a complex story with a large number of characters, quite a few of whom get reasonable on screen time and end up being integral to the story. Also, they aren't characters I can "cut out" as it were--this is a very well-known story, so there are certain givens.

So there are a lot of characters for the reader to follow. Additionally, I am writing this as something of an international intrigue, and there are a number of plot threads for the reader to follow. Also, since I am using this as a vehicle for an argument about the merging of cultures, there are a number of myth-tropes that must be involved. It's a lot to follow.

So the difficulty with the names is this: They weren't Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; they were Yeshua, Miryam, and Josef. Easy enough, right? But what about when I get into the disciples? Natanel bar Talamai, Yaakov bar Zavdi, or Yehudah Ish-Kriyot? That becomes potentially problematic. The reader already has something on the order of fifty recognizable characters to keep track of (some of whom have exceedingly similar names--think "Mary"), along with a host of other characters as well as plot threads and timelines to manage--plenty of work. To have to sort through all that while trying to hold on to unfamiliar monikers from an unfamiliar language (or three) is, potentially, asking too much.

And yet, something feels off about using the exceedingly loaded and somewhat inaccurate name "Jesus".

The argument has been made for consistency across the board, and it's one I have a fair bit of belief in myself. And I want to be as accurate to the time and to the original stories as possible. But even I balk at this litany of names, and I am truly concerned that people will get confused and put the book down.

Is this just me not trusting the reader? People read the original Bible stories all the time--with all of its many characters--and while they don't memorize the whole thing and it's variations, they do know more or less that "Peter, James, and John" are big name disciples. But will they get ahold of "Petros, Yaakov, and Yochanan", or will they spend the whole time trying to relate this story back to what they already know, translating "Yochanan" to "John" every time it shows up?

Here is a very incomplete list of some of the names in question:

Jesus = Yeshua
Mary = Miryam
Joseph = Yosef
James = Yaakov
Joses = Yosei
Judas = Yehudah
Simon = Shimon
Simon [Peter] (b. Jonah) = Shimon, Petros, Cephas (Rock)
Andrew (b. Jonah) = Andrai
James (b. Zeb.) = Yaakov (bar Zavdi) [B'nai Ragesh]
John (b. Zeb.) = Yochanan (bar Zavdi) [B'nai Ragesh]
Philip = Pilipos
Nathaniel (Bar-tholemew) = Natanel (bar Talmai)
Matthew (b. Alpheus haLevi) = Matityahu
Thomas, Didymus = Toma
James (b. Alpheus) = Yaakov (bar Chalphi)
Thaddeus = Tadai
Simon [the Zealot] = Shimon
Judas Iscariot = Yehudah (Ish Kriot)
Mary = Miryam
Martha = Marta
Lazarus = Elezar
Mary Magdalene = Miryam ha-Magdalit

The suggestion has been made to use the accurate names, whever possible. Likewise, to use entirely the recognizable names that people are familiar with. And also the option has arisen to use all the recognizable names with the sole exception of Yeshua, suggesting that this is the same story they already know, but different, too.

And I am entirely too close to this project to adequately judge the answers. I know these stories pretty much inside and out, and the minor details that most people didn't even notice their first time through, so I can follow any number of variations without losing touch with the main story. So I'm asking you, dear reader--what works for you?


Shauna Roberts said...

Some books with large casts of characters have a list of them at the beginning, divided perhaps by religion or country or family. (Doesn't Guy Gavriel Kay do this in some of his books?) You could divide the characters into Yeshua's family, Yeshua's disciples, other followers of Yeshua, government officials, religious officials, etc. That alone would help people keep them straight. If you then put in parentheses after each name the English equivalent, people could establish a link between the person they know of and your character.

Gretchen said...

Hi Sean,

I was going to make the same point Shauna just did. As a reader, I don't mind referencing back to an index while in the midst of a story--if the writing's hot, I'll hang in there for all sorts of weirdness. Plus, using the authentic names may help avoid some knee-jerk assumptions folks may have about these stories, and help them see with fresh eyes.

Sean M. Murphy said...

Hey Shauna, Gretchen, that's actually a pretty good idea--and you're right, Kay does that regularly in his large ensemble works. I could use the historically more accurate names, but classify them into a srt of index for people up front. That way, anyone who does follow can ignore it, anyone who doesn't follow or gets lost can reference it, and those for whom the story just won't work... well, hey, it wasn't going to work for them anyway.

MariAdkins said...

I second what Gretchen said. ;)

Douglas Hulick said...

And now to throw off the consensus...

I'm one of those people who have no use for name indexes in the beginning of a book. If the characters are not memorable/identifiable enough for me to be able to keep track of them on my own, then I don't really care if there are family trees or a list of the cast in the front. If I can't remember who is who without a cheat-sheet, you've already lost me as a reader. (And I hate flipping back and forth to check, anyhow.)

However, you have an even trickier bit, Sean, in that you do not have complete control of over the names. In most large-cast books, the author tries not to have too many repeating names. As you point out, there are a fair number that repeat in your source material, making it trickier for you.

I suspect a lot of people would end up doing the mental short-hand of James = Yaakov, etc. because that is what they are familiar with. Some will see this as too much work, others won't mind, and some will think it is down-right cool. You will not make everyone happy here, so don't even try. :)

My personal instinct on this would be to either go completely with the modern familiar (save using Yeshua for Jesus), or use the closest historical version that easily corresponds to the modern for ease of identification. If there is no close historical analog, I would likely opt for the more modern version. In the case of the same name for different characters, I would try to develop some sort of naming convention that would make them immediately identifiable, or use a different variant for each character to help keep them straight (Mary, Miryam, etc.).

Also, try to come up with some sort of narrative or plot tag that immediately IDs each character right off the bat (Miryam last appeared hanging off the edge of a cliff in Syria - next time we see her, she is still there, or just getting off, or what have you).

Since you are writing this, you are the ultimate arbiter on how complex you want to make it. If you find it easier to do with naming inconsistencies but the story still rocks, then do that. Some people may balk, but if it works and is the best way to tell the story, then just tell the story. If the story is good, people will work around whatever you decide to do about the names.

Naomi said...

I'm with Doug. The rule of thumb I use is that if I'm feeling like my reader needs a cross-indexed character list, I need to pare down the characters my reader needs to keep track of.

Naomi said...

And for what it's worth -- I think if you stick with the modern names, you can get away with a larger cast, because so many of your readers already "know" these people. (It's Bible fanfic!) You lose some of that advantage with the Hebrew names.

Naomi said...

...which is not to say I think you should use the KJV version of the names. I like the Hebrew versions better. But, if you're going to have the cast of thousands, it's going to be a lot harder to remember who's who.

(Sorry for the serial commenting. I think I'm done now.)

DKoren said...

My question would be, do readers need to know who these characters are from the get go, or is knowing Yehudah = Judas irrelevant, as in we'll find out as the story progresses? I'm not religious, and most of what I know about that time comes from movies and one "Bible as literature" class from way too long ago). But I will recognize most of the modern names, and therefore bring some images/feelings/backstory with me to associate with those characters. But if I'm reading about some guy named Yehudah, you're pretty much going to get a clean slate from me as the name itself won't mean anything, at least until story events allow me to recognize him.