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I am writing a book that I planned out as a kid; I've completely changed it around so that only the characters have stayed the same. I love them a lot and I love the names I gave them back then, because they fit them perfectly. But now that I am older, I am scared.

Their names are just words I translated into other languages until I found one that sounded pretty and that became the name. They aren't even in the same language as each other. Now I'm scared that using these names might be insensitive or appropriating. What do I do? There is literally nothing in my story that links to those languages or cultures and I am very worried and really don't want to hurt anyone. Does anyone have any advice?

(Sadly, I don't have the money for a sensitivity reader.)

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    Can you provide examples of something of the characters' names? What they are, what language they're in, what they mean, and (if applicable) what nationality the character actually is?
    – F1Krazy
    Jul 1, 2023 at 13:00
  • Is your story set in the real world, or in a fictional world? The latter will give you a lot more leeway when it comes to character names.
    – F1Krazy
    Jul 1, 2023 at 13:02
  • My story is set in an entirely fictional world, technically two worlds where one of them has more modern and one more medival touches to it, but neither has explicit timeline in human history or something like that because it isn't in the human world Jul 1, 2023 at 16:19

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I wouldn't deem it offensive if I ran across a name in your story that forms a word in my language, but it's a little too likely I might find it funny or distracting. Same goes for other languages if I can identify the language and meaning of the word.

If the word is something that'd be implausible as a name, has funny connotations, wrong gender for your character, a mismatch between the language and the character's ethnic background, a childish insult... Expect me to laugh where you were being completely serious, and my suspension of disbelief to threateningly shake in its base.

So unless the story is meant to be humorous (and even then, because any joke you put in should be a good joke and this is not a reliable way to get them), I can't say I recommend such a method of naming your characters, but for a different reason than you were afraid.

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Many names in English are just regular words from other languages. I know someone called Aimee, which is "loved one" or beloved in French. She is "named after" her father, whose name means beloved in another language. The parents don't speak either of these languages, they had a baby name book and looked up the meaning of their own names then looked up other names with that meaning.

If the words you chose "fit" the characters - Brave, Strong, Chosen etc then even if someone happens to know the language you chose, there won't be a dissonance. If the names translate into words that are not normally names, like Paper or Suitcase, then a reader will probably think something like "ha! those random syllables are actually a word in a language I know, interesting" and move right along. The name Rose in English refers to the flower. In French, those letters mean pink. A French-reading reader won't think I named my character Pink.

It's not appropriating or stealing from a language to use a word from it. But try not to use it in a way that would upset someone who happens to recognize it. Avoid swear words, political words, placenames of famous battles (imagine a character called Nazi or Alamo), and you should be fine. People aren't fine-tooth reading for offence, no matter what you've been told.

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  • Thank you so much! The Names mostly mean King, Shadow, light ect. Jul 1, 2023 at 16:20
  • much has been made of the surname Roy in the TV show Succession. Roi is King in French. Jul 1, 2023 at 17:39
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    The word "rose" actually means the flower in French. The name for the colour is only derived from that. Rose is also a relatively common woman's name in France.
    – Divizna
    Jul 1, 2023 at 18:04
  • There are so many languages on Earth (if you include dead languages or those with 10 native speakers or so) that I imagine almost any natural-sounding combination of sounds you can come up with will be a word in some language. Jul 3, 2023 at 12:46
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Hm, in marketing they made a strange experience several times: the great marketing slogan had a strange, rude or avoided connotation in other languages.

So I suggest to check carefully for other languages than the ones you used, too.

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I don’t see any issue with it, but I think the more unusual the name, the more readers are going to expect the background of how the character was named to be explained, even if it’s just one or two lines.

If the name translates to something silly in another language (like ‘table’), I’d probably put a joke/reference to that as well.

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Maybe some of the words you want to use as names could be the nicknames instead of the names of the characters.

Nicknames can be really weird and strange and totally different from people's real names.

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  • For a nickname to be plausible the meaning needs to be acknowledged in-universe, which doesn't seem to be the case here.
    – Divizna
    Jul 7, 2023 at 12:16

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