Posted by: kshayes513 | October 25, 2008

Using Arabic names

The first thing you may notice about “The Master Patterns” is that people in Khasran have Arabic names. This may lead you to conclude that Khasran’s world is an Arabian fantasy-the very words used to describe it by the editors of On the Premises. Fair enough.

I’m terrible at making up names from scratch. Made-up names and languages don’t sound real to me, especially if I’m the person who made them up. So I own a row of baby name books listing names from all over the world, and from different historical cultures (one even has a section listing names from Arthurian literature: kewl!) and I pull my story names from the real world culture that seems closest to the culture I’m writing about.

Khasran has mostly Arabic names because when I started writing the very first novel I attempted in this world, it actually was an Arabian fantasy for middle grade readers. I had been writing Star Trek fan fic (long before any of us knew it was called “fan fic”) when I came across this cheesy, wonderful Hanna Barbera cartoon called The Arabian Knights (now showing in reruns on Boomerang as part of the Banana Splits). As much as I loved Star Trek, my fanfic stories showed that I wasn’t much of a hand at coming up with solid science fiction ideas. When I saw The Arabian Knights, I realized that this kind of fantasy was something I could do. Before long, I had the beginnings of my first original characters and story, about a Prince of Bagdad who is driven into exile by his own usurping brother, and befriended by three sons of a wizard.

So-Arabic names. I’ve kept them all these years because they still seem to fit, more or less. The first Arabs were the Bedouin, and the first Khasrani were also a nomadic people. I also pull names from other Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures: anything that sounds and looks good, seems relatively easy to pronounce, and whose meaning fits the character in question. I’ve even used West African names, when I attempted a story set in a rain forest culture of this world. Maybe I’ll resurrect that one some day.

I pay almost no attention to whether a name is considered a man’s or a woman’s name in its native culture. If I like the name, I’ll use it regardless of gender. The exception is names ending in “a,” because English speakers, like everyone whose language has been heavily influenced by Latin, can’t seem to get past the assumption that an “a” ending means a feminine name. Tolkien had to change the Old English “Froda” to “Frodo” to accommodate this preconception, so who am I to tilt at windmills the Professor left alone?

Out of respect for Islam, I never knowingly use specifically Muslim names: I’ll never name a character Mohammed, nor one of the many Abdul-compound names, which are all in honor of Allah. And I’d like to think that people who have enjoyed reading about characters with Arabic sounding names, might find it easier to let go of any lurking prejudices about real people with Arabic sounding names.

Khasran, though, is a completely made-up name. When I realized the story I wanted to tell, didn’t fit within the reality of medieval Islamic culture-not even a Scheherezade version of medieval Islamic culture-I shifted it to an imaginary Middle East and tried to come up with a name that sounded like it came from that part of the world: Iran, Kurdistan, Khasran. I’d probably take a completely different approach if I were naming the place now that I’ve shifted it to a different planet. In fact, I’ve recently got the germ of a story idea that may retro-engineer where that name comes from…


  1. Hi Karen,

    This is great and really informative! I remember you telling me that horses are somewhere involved in your Khasran world, so that’s another reason to have mythical middle eastern nomadic type culture – they ride the best horses in the world.

    I was always fascinated by the Hollywood arabian-nights movies: the colour, the beauty, the good guys and bad guys, the exoticness of the whole thing.


  2. Thanks! As for Hollywood Arabian fantasies, TCM just showed the greatest of them all: the 1940 Thief of Bagdad with Sabu and Conrad Veidt. Khasran has grown a long way away from this flavor, but it’s still lots of fun to revisit those original inspirations. The genie and the flying horse made a huge impression on me back in my teens when I first saw this.


  3. I was listening to Copeland’s “Hoedown” the morning of the election, and thinking of “Arabian Knights” and so much else! A bit of nostalgia — and what fun to read your blog today and see those origins being brought up to date!


  4. I like the story. I want to read more!

    I had a similar discussion about names for a novel I was working on. The sound of a name conveys a lot, especially if it echoes a real-world culture. We chose Persian names for the people, and another language for places. Had some cool reason for it which escapes me now, but it did add something to the history and feel of the world.

    For some arabian-inspired lit, you read/watch Dune or any David Alec Effinger?


  5. Thanks, I want to read more too. So I have to keep writing more, which is the plan for this coming year. I just finished one, except for some minor polishing, and I’m starting on a new one.

    I like the sound of Persian names, too, and have borrowed some ideas from Persian culture, like matrilineal families (the husband becomes part of the wife’s family, instead of the wife becoming part of the husband’s). What’s happening with your novel?

    I read Dune many years ago, and enjoyed it, but it didn’t grab me enough to read more in that universe. It also didn’t strike me as being particularly Arabian inspired. I haven’t read Effinger (you mean George Alec, right?) but just looked him up on Amazon, and the books look very intriguing. Thanks for bringing him to my attention. And you’ve just given me another post topic, too.


  6. Yes, I meant George Alec (so many authors so little time). Glad I inspired another post. 🙂 I think the desert culture and some of the vocabulary in Dune struck me as arabian, or perhaps bedouin.

    That novel is on hold until my co-writer decides she’s ready to do some work on it. So I’ll just have to work on other stories in the meanwhile.

    You say you want to read more so you have to write more… is getting to read your reward system for writing?

  7. No, I meant that I want to read more Khasran stories, too, and the only way I can do that is to write them!

    I think the ultimate reward for writing itself is the pleasure of seeing the rough idea begin to come together, the surprises that turn out even better than hoped, and finally the pleasure of having a good piece of writing that came from my own efforts.

    Not to say I don’t have to come up with more mundane carrots for days when I’m stuck or not feeling particularly creative!

    Or sticks–deadlines make a good stick!

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