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Saturday, 24 April 2010

Character. Actor #1 : Michael Biehn and Naming

The first in a series of posts that connect acting and characters in a literary and creative writing sense. (Note: 'Actor' is used to include actresses too, its just that 'Character. Actor' sounds catchier...and I stress that I'm not a professional actor, I'm just writing from a literary POV)

"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare, who was an obvious master of naming his characters.  As a writer you have the potential to give your characters power through your choice of name; just take care that there's no potential for confusion. The question should not be,"What the $%@# is that name?".

Here's a personal example; when I was young, I used to have the following discussion with other girls about the actor Michael Biehn (right):

Variation #1
"Did you see 'The Terminator' on TV last night?"
"How do you pronounce that actor's last name?"
"Err, 'Sch-war-zen-neg-gar'?"
"No, not him! I'm talking about the cute guy protecting Sarah Connor."
"Ahh, 'Michael Bi-' 'Bine'? 'Behn?' 'Bin'?"

Variation #2
"Did you see 'Aliens' last night?"
"How do you pronounce the name of-?"
"'Si-Gour- nee-Weaver"
"No, not her! I'm talking about the cute guy playing 'Hicks'. The little girl bit him on the hand?"
"Oh, him again....'Michael B-i-e-h-n?"
"Eeleen, I know how to spell his last name but how do you say it?"

I was genuinely stumped. Movie encyclopedias entries listed him but did not say how his surname is pronounced (this was before the Internet, Google, Wikipedia and Imdb) I waited patiently for interviews and news snippets on programs such as Entertainment This Week (broadcast in Singapore one month late) just to hear his name pronounced by a presenter.
Nothing. Nada. I dubbed him 'Hicks' after his character in "Aliens" just for easy reference. But I felt like I wasn't doing him justice because he was in other major films before and after "Aliens".

One afternoon Karuna Ti and I took matters into our own hands; we sat down and dissected his surname. I decided that the name 'Biehn' could be Germanic , as in 'Bein' whereas she proposed that the 'h' was silent,  towards the Gallic sounding, 'Bien'. To pronounce the 'h' resulted in 'Michael Be-hine', which did not sound respectful at all. We agreed to disagree and use our individual pronunciations. Hence once we settled this issue, we talked about his other films such as 'The Seventh Seal', 'Navy Seals', and how I missed a brief screening of 'K2' at the cineplex.

As writers we all know that the naming of characters is important. "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names." goes an ancient Chinese saying. Name your characters well for the sake of first impressions. When in doubt, try the names on your beta readers and friends.
A good name does not have to be simplistic, for example an unwieldy monicker did not harm the careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver. My name has six 'e's in it and people always remember it. But beware the nebulous name which can be problematic. It's not that your readers are lazy or stupid, it's just that they want to be certain. Imagine your readers are meeting a new best friend; they want to get the name absolutely right and not offend the person.

Now I know Michael Biehn's surname is actually pronounced 'Been' (both of us were wrong although common sense told us the 'h' is silent) and I was right about the German origin. But it would've been nice to have been (no pun intended) sure in the first place. Just because he's a brilliant, versatile yet underused actor, ranging from the heroic :"Aliens" ,"Navy Seals"to the psychotic ;"The Fan" (1981) and 'The Abyss'.  Here's a website if you can't get enough of Mr. Biehn. And he meets all the eye-candy criteria for this blog.


Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Ha! That's hilarious. I've often thought the same thing--well not about this guy, although he is cute, but about other people with difficult to pronounce names. Great point about naming your characters, though. Shouldn't be difficult to pronounce. I think a lot of people really struggled with Hermione from Harry Potter. It took me ages to convince my 11 year old cousin that it was not "Her-mee-own".

By the way, I cracked up at your profile description. Funn stuff. Now a follower ;)

beth said...

LOL--he definitely meets the eye candy criteria!

Jenna said...

I absolutely love him! The fact that he was in Terminator AND Aliens - two of the best sci-fi movies ever, speaks volumes about him.

And I so agree about character naming. It's fun to come up with names that are exotic and look nice on the page, but sometimes you forget that most people try to pronounce them as they read, and if they can't do that easily it will jolt them out of the story.

I always make sure I run all the names in my stories past someone else, to see if there's anything that jars them at all. If so, Word 'find and replace' comes in very handy!

Sierra Godfrey said...

OK, I love that you posted this. I LOVED LOVED LOVED Michael Biehn when I was a teenager, like really lusted after him, for reasons that are best illustrated in the pictures you posted. My friend and I always thought his name was pronounced Been, but I heard it pronounced Bee-ehn a lot too.

He was so hot in his day. Bit of a grunter, though. See Navy Seals and Aliens both good MB grunting, and why wouldn't you cause he's hot in both. :)

Teresa Ashby said...

Brilliant post - and now I know after years of wondering how to pronounce the name of this gorgeous guy!

Elle said...

I also run my character names past a few friends to make sure they don't trip readers up. And I avoid reading books with names made up of apostrophes and a mouthful of consonants.

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Emily Ann Benedict said...

Ack! I hate it when writers give their charaters hard to read names...or really uncommon, fake sounding names...or when everyone in the entire town has uncommon, fake names. :P
Names really are part of the first impressions people have of the characters. ;)

Anonymous said...

I find myself easily confused if I ever read a story where two character's names are very similar. Especially if they start with the same letter. I had to change one name in my own WIP when even I started confusing the two characters in my revisions!
Thanks for this great post!

so jade said...

I hate when that happens. Cool post.

Terresa said...

I like the question you pose, "What's in a name?" Very much, indeed!

Thanks for visiting my blog. Stop by for a chocolate chip waffle anytime!

Jayne said...

I loved this, and could just picture you both sitting there trying to work out how to say his name. I don't think I would have guessed 'Been' either! But oh yes on the eye candy... :)

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I've done the same thing over and over. In my historical reading, I've come across famous names that I suddenly realized I had no idea how to pronounce. As a Detroit-born teacher, I mangled so many Cajun names. Who knew that David was pronounced as Dah-veed when used as a last name? Certainly not me!

I have a post "Names are dangerous things" on my blog that you might enjoy. As a courtesy only, here is the link :

Strength for the mid-week, Roland

Lynda Young said...

This made me smile. Fun post :)

Victoria Dixon said...

Great post. Came to see you from Agent Query and glad I did. ;D

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

When I’m reading, I usually make up a nickname for characters if I have no idea on how to pronounce their name.

As a writer, I have fun with characters names. In my first book I named the main characters Barbie and Ken because they are so totally the opposite of the image most people think of when the hear the names.

Theresa Milstein said...

The first time I read Harry Potter, I hadn't seen the movies, so I didn't know how Hermoine's name was pronounced. Perhaps in England it's a more common name, but I'd never heard of it in America. For about two books, I pronounced it as Her Mee Ohn to my son. Sad.

I try to choose character names that are easy to pronounce, but not the most typical or trendy. Choosing names is one of my favorite parts of writing.

MBW aka Olleymae said...

You're so right here. It really gets on my nerves when I don't know how to pronounce a character's name. Especially in SCIFI because you rarely can rely on a space alien's ethnicity to help you with pronounciation. I mean, I've got Klingon and Vulcan down pretty well...but the rest.

Also, Teresa- Same problem with Hermione!!!!

Leigh Russell said...

Names are SO difficult. I'm forever changing my characters' names. And sometimes I wish I could change them but it's too late because the book is already published and there's no going back!
As for difficult names - what about Dalziel (pronounced Dee-el) in Dalziel and Pascoe? Or Menzies (pronounced Ming)? Of course the latter occurs in real life, not fiction, so rules don't apply. I sometimes come across real people with the most unlikely or ridiculous names that I know I couldn't get away with in my books.

Anonymous said...

That's so true. I was just watching Terminator with my daughter and she asked me who he was, if he was famous. I pronounced it BEAN, but said I wasn't sure. Now I know I was right... And I hadn't thought about naming characters specifically to be easy, but I tend to keep names simple because I think the name shouldn't be what you remember about the character, it should be who they are.

Shannon said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I love the look of your site. Can't wait to dig in and read more!

notesfromnadir said...

Thanks for this information as I wasn't sure how his name was pronounced. Well, I didn't really concern myself with it as I was too busy admiring his biceps in Aliens!

Thomas Ives said...

That Dah veed pronunciation could be linked to french heritage. In France all Davids are pronounced Dah veed. :)

Rick Inator said...

I've always thought it was Bee-ehn. I just now was watching a video ( where it's pronounced Bean. I googled it and a pronunciation video says Bean. Now you say Been. I still think Bee-ehn sounds the best.

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