The Ninja Detective Name Game

It’s November, and though I didn’t plan it this way exactly, I’ll be writing the first draft of the next Shinobi Mystery (#5, for those of you counting–#4 is already in the can and with the editor) before November ends. (Assuming I stay on track, it will be finished by November 21, if not before. But I digress.)

I’ve already got a rough outline–meaning I know the killer-or-killers, victim-or-victims, suspects, and baseline plot. I know the body count is high, and the stakes for Hiro and Father Mateo are higher than they’ve ever been.

And, after last night, I also know the names of the various characters (at least the ones with speaking roles)–wherein lies our tale.

Medieval Japanese names can be a bear for native English speakers, especially those without any history speaking or hearing Japanese. A lot of the names sound similar to Western ears, and the naming conventions also present some issues–for example, the fact that names of siblings of the same gender normally share a common syllable, or the fact that parents and children (again, of the same gender) often share a syllable also. 

That fact came back to bite me in the first Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, where the victim, Hideyoshi, had a brother named Hidetaro. Toss in a son named Nobuhide and a daughter, Yoshiko, and the family names comply with standard medieval naming practices. However, I didn’t think about how confusingly similar Hideyoshi and Hidetaro would be to unfamiliar Western eyes and ears.

I’m not sure where “Don’t create unnecessary reader confusion with naming conventions” falls in the top-20 rules of mystery writing, but it’s pretty high on the list.

And only the fact that Hideyoshi was dead kept me from totally failing that in Shinobi #1.

Lesson learned.

I now create my character names using both a list for the novel I’m writing and a master spreadsheet that contains the names of every character who has ever had a speaking role in a Shinobi Mystery. To make the list(s), a name has to meet three separate rules:

1. A character’s name can’t be confusingly similar to any other name in the novel I’m writing. Shared syllables aren’t an automatic disqualification, but I try to spread the names across the alphabet and to vary the ending letters, so I don’t end up with either a Hiro, Hana, Hanzo, and Haruki, or a Basho, a Hiro, Neko, and Kazuo as the four main characters in any novel.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

At a minimum, I try to spread the characters out so every name has a different first letter and opening sound. It’s not always possible, but I try not to allow more than two with the same first letter, and no more than three with the same final vowel, in any given novel (anymore).

2. No new character can share a name with any previous: (a) killer, (b) victim, (c) recurring character (whether or not the rest of you know (s)he’s recurring yet) or (d) speaking character who appeared within the last five books. For those of you counting–that means I haven’t re-used any yet, though I might be willing to do it for a minor character in Shinobi #6.

3. No more than 3 characters can have complicated multisyllabic Japanese names. I also try to have at least 2-3 characters whose names echo common Western names–for example, “Jun” (pronounced like “June”). It eases the reading strain and reduces the number of times the reader has to decide how a tricky name should be pronounced while reading.

Before I started writing the Shinobi Mysteries, I never spent much time debating character names. I went with what sounded right (or what the historical story required) and left it at that. Now, however, it takes an entire evening to name the cast for a novel–and some of those names will certainly change as the manuscript goes.

And I’ll share one final, interesting fact: The most difficult names often go to the dead, because they’ll end up being read, and used, less often.

If you write fiction: Do you use naming conventions when plotting your novels, or do you go with whatever seems right in the moment?

And if you read: does it bother you when characters have difficult or unusual names?