by Lucy Day Hobor
Every reader wants to read about someone like himself. Or herself. Immediately you see the problem! What if you want both male and female readers to identify with your protagonist?
This is the question I faced as a curriculum writer for a local education company. Tasked with creating a series of English lessons for young readers in kindergarten, I decided to write a story that had not one but two main characters: one male, one female.
Many authors have spun tales about a pair of children rather than one young hero or heroine. The author who springs to mind first is Ruth Chew, who in the period from 1969 to 1999 wrote and illustrated 29 chapter books, almost all about two friends or two siblings and their encounters with people and objects that take them on magic adventures.
I used to borrow Ruth Chew’s books from my local public library; now I own them all. I have always loved the idea that magic could happen to ordinary kids. Before Hagrid ever spoke those now-familiar, life-changing words, “You’re a wizard, Harry,” I was enchanted by the story of Ben and Ellen, a brother and sister who find a magic earthstar mushroom that shrinks them and takes them on rides through the air as though it were a magic carpet. Full of wishes, witches, cats, cauldrons, tunnels in trees and time travel, the stories all captivated me.
Because I loved this kind of fantasy story, it was natural for me to want to write one myself when given the chance.
I had a problem that Ruth Chew never had, however.
My reason for choosing to write a story about one boy and one girl was that I wanted each student who read it to feel that he or she identified with one of the main characters. But what should I name them? The students reading my story would be from a variety of cultural backgrounds. It would have been easy to give my characters English names like Ben and Ellen since the story itself would be written in English, and moreover many if not most of the story’s readers would themselves have English names. But others would have Chinese, Malay and Tamil names, and, possibly, Japanese, Korean, French or Spanish ones! My attempt to reach all readers seemed doomed from the start.
Then I had an idea. I wouldn’t give my characters names. I’d name them with words.
One thing students learn in English lessons is the difference between common nouns and proper nouns. Common nouns are everyday words for people, places, animals, things and ideas. Proper nouns are names for specific people, places, animals, things and ideas, and we capitalise them to show that they are special. But many words can serve as common nouns or proper nouns, depending on the context.
Many names in many cultures carry some concrete meaning. For example, there are girls named Hope and boys named Hunter. There are boys whose names mean ‘peace’ and girls whose names mean ‘jade’. The words that are considered appropriate to use as names vary according to time and place, so there are no hard-and-fast rules as to what can or cannot be a name of a person.
In principle, therefore, I could choose any two words to name my characters, and if I chose words with meanings that are not particularly known as being the meanings of popular names in English, Chinese, Malay or Tamil, the characters would not seem to belong more to any one of these groups than to the others. I decided to name the brother and sister ‘Orange’ and ‘Star’.
My challenges had not yet come to an end. I realised the siblings had to be twins because giving them different ages would have made one older and therefore dominant.
Then, because I needed to give Orange and Star distinct characteristics so that they wouldn’t come across as interchangeable, I gave them contrasting personalities. The sister is spontaneous and talkative, whereas the brother listens, watches, gestures and occasionally says something terse but penetrating.
As the story unfolds we learn that the twins can read English, that they attend school in Singapore and that they live in a tall building, but my intent was to leave readers largely free to imagine these children’s background any way they like.
Perhaps readers will notice echoes of typical American behaviour patterns, or perhaps they will assume that Orange and Star belong to the dominant or majority group they are most familiar with, whether or not that group is their own.
However, my goal was to avoid specifying any particular culture or ethnicity, since I wanted the twins to serve as convenient placeholders for readers, much as the heroes of plot-driven thriller stories do.
I hope young readers can relate to these fictional twins so that they can experience Orange and Star’s international adventure the way adult readers of those thrillers do, or, better yet, the way that I experienced the fantasy adventures I read when I was growing up: totally, completely, magically.
In fiction, we seek something new, unusual, exotic or alien to our own experience. Yet I didn’t write about this pair of siblings because I wanted to write about twin siblings and their relationship with each other—that’s a story for another day! The relationship that matters in this case is the one between the reader and the character with whom he or she identifies most. It’s easier for the reader to feel a part of that story if he or she can read about “someone like me”.
Lucy Day Hobor writes English lessons for kindergarten and primary students at My English School. She has taught phonics and reading and knows a thing or two about WordPress and PHP. She reads a lot and keeps a blog about Singapore, English, books and movies (among other things) at http://spjg.com.