How to name characters of unspecific nationality and race?

Writing Asked by HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin on December 6, 2020

I am writing a generic story. I have a setting that is not tied to a specific region on earth, though the story certainly does occur on earth, and there are numerous references in the setting that would allow one to infer where the story might occur.

I am unsure of how to name the characters. If I use names that are most familiar to me, this may seem out of place in the handful of locations that the reader may presume the story to be taking place in. If I use names from one of the few regions on earth that the setting infers it may be taking place in, then I am bound to that specific place as the actual setting — that would require much more research that is necessary for a detail that is otherwise not meaningful to me (the real-life location on earth of the story.)

How may I name characters in this situation?

7 Answers

Frankly, I think this would be very difficult to pull off.

You could give all the characters made-up names that don't come from any nationality. But this has two catches: (a) One or two characters with unusual, made-up names would be plausible. Like if the characters are named Bob and Sally and Mamber and Fred, a reader might think, hmm, Mamber, what an odd name, but there are people all over with odd names, it wouldn't be implausible. But if all the characters have odd, made-up names, the reader will surely find this unlikely and disconcerting. Then the story isn't set "anywhere", but in a make-believe place. (b) In any case, made-up names are still likely to have the "sound" of some nationality. Like if I say that a character is named "Komomuro", I just made that name up, but I think most Americans, at least, would say that it "sounds Japanese". Every now and then I hear of corporations spending millions of dollars trying to come up with a name for a product that will sound "normal" in many different countries. It's not easy.

You could have all the characters go by nicknames -- "Baldy" and "Red" and so on. But that tends to sound odd, too. In real life most people DON'T go by descriptive nicknames. And the nicknames are likely to be place-specific. Do people in Zimbabwe call each other "Red"? I don't know.

You could avoid giving the characters names at all. Just call them "the tall man" and "the red-haired girl" and so on. Possible, but I think that would get tedious and awkward pretty quick.

You could have names from a mix of nationalities. Have one character named "Jones" and another named "Wang" and another named "Lopez" and so on. Possible. It would certainly make it unclear where the story is set. If there are only 3 or 4 characters that could work, but beyond that it starts to sound weird also.

Frankly I think the best solution is more along the lines of Filip's: you can discuss universal themes while still setting the story in a specific place. People all over the world can relate to, say, Romeo and Juliet. I'll bet many don't even remember where it's set. ("In fair Verona", right?, but whatever.)

It would be extremely difficult to write a story that gives absolutely no clues to where it's set. You'd have to carefully purge every conceivable cultural reference. If you say, "Bob wore a blue shirt", then this must be in a culture where men wear shirts and not, say, togas. "She drove home." A society where people have cars, and not just any people, but people of the social and economic class that this character is a member of. And women are allowed to drive, so apparently not Saudi Arabia, etc. Trying to write a story where everything that every character does is a plausible thing for someone to do in any society anywhere in the world would be daunting, even if you know the cultural norms of every society in the world. Odds are you don't -- I certainly don't. I'm sure that if I tried to write a story set in some place I've never been to, it would be filled with errors that people there would find jarring or at least amusing. Ranging from big to small, from, "Umm, your whole story is about these two people dating, but people here don't go on dates. Marriages are arranged by parents" to "You say the hero lit a cigarette during the meeting, but smoking is not allowed in any public place in America any more".

Correct answer by Jay on December 6, 2020

There exist some names, which are common throughout Europe and North America, no idea about the rest of the world:

  • Peter
  • Maria

Answered by Vorac on December 6, 2020

With global media, mobility and communication, certain names can be found worldwide.

There certainly is a John in most countries around the globe today, there are few countries without a Chen or Wang, and Muhammad is the most common name on Earth.

Simply find names that are present in all the cultures you care about. If you use several globalized names, each of a different cultural origin, your tale will not feel located.

For example, if everyone has names of English origin, it will feel like it is taking place in an English speaking country, although those names might be popular in other languages, too. But if you have a John, a Muhammad, a Sergey, and a Wang, they could be living in almost any country.

I would also limit the names to first names, because while surnames only travel with people relocating to other areas, first names travel with media alone. Ken Chen is a Chinese with a common-in-China English first name, Sasha Martinez is a Mexican with a common-in-the-whole-world Russian first name, José Rubineaut is a French (or Canadian) with a Spanish mother, and so on. First names are much less culture specific than surnames, so if you can, give your characters first names only – or mix first and last names from different cultures, like I did, to make them more globalized.

Answered by user5645 on December 6, 2020

You could provide fodder for those doing literary analysis and chose names for deep symbolic reasons from history, literature or for their meaning. This provides the dual benefits of layered meaning and non-regionalism.

Answered by hildred on December 6, 2020

My first thought was why not use non-typical/atypical names (or even codenames as another person suggests)?

You know, names such as "Dasher", "Dancer" and "Prancer" or "Onedwarf", "Twodwarf" and/or "Threedwarf"?

How about descriptive names such as "Oneeye", "Haircut" (could be great for a bald character) or "Beefchop" (for an especially muscular character)?

OR, you could even just use the characters' surnames. Think about it:

"Henderson looked over at Rimmer, furious."


"Joplin considered Lawson's suggestion, but ultimately dismissed it."

or even

"Norton skewered Clayton through the throat with his sword, lifting Clayton's twitching remains high above his head, showering himself and the other spectators with Clayton's life liquid." (apologies for the slightly gory example there - I got carried away!)

The reason for this (surname-only) suggestion is because the surnames could/would have originated from anywhere in the/your world and will not be directly affected by the birthplace of each character because surnames tend to typically carry on throughout generations within each family and are not allocated at birth.

You don't mention any specific detail of your story, so I am unsure as to whether or not this will suffice, but something along those lines may serve you well and I hope that you are able to find a little inspiration in my words.

Answered by M.Y. David on December 6, 2020

Firstly, I think that whatever you write will have a distinct flavour of your cultural background, no matter how universal your story is or how hard you try to conceal your upbringing. However, this is not necessarily a disadvantage. Think of Shakespeare's Macbeth: The story is firmly rooted in a specific time and place. But does this affect the universality of the story? Certainly not. In fact, it enrichens the story by adding a distinct flavour and atmosphere to it. In this sense, it might not be necessary for you to employ a universal setting for a universal story. If I was in your situation, I would probably just stick to the setting that I am most familiar with, since this strategy ensures that I get the background right. (Plus, I believe that it is every storyteller's duty to document his or her culture. One reason I like Hosseini's books so much is that he allows me to glimpse at Afghan culture, although the stories he tells are not necessarily specifically Afghan.)

Another possibility is to mix up different cultures. Think of - and this is a somewhat poor example following a masterpiece like Macbeth - the late Pixar movie Big Hero 6. I enjoyed the wild mix of San Francisco and Tokyo a lot, which not only affected the setting of the movie but also the names and the behaviour of the main characters. If you are well familiar with foreign cultures - be it Japanese, Chinese, Iranian, whatever -, you might want to give your characters culture-specific names and let them act as agents of their respective culture. This is another way in which "universality" might be achieved, although it is a different kind of universality.

Answered by Filip on December 6, 2020

Depending on how many characters, it may be possible to avoid naming them explicitly by using identifying characteristics or their role. If that is a suitable option, more ideas on how to implement it effectively can be found on this question.

Answered by Joel Bosveld on December 6, 2020

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