Character names have the potential to say a lot about that character. Names have power, and authors go to a lot of trouble to make sure that their characters’ names fit the people bearing them. It can be as simple as the etymology—for example, Malfoy comes from the French ‘mal foi’, or ‘bad faith’, and ‘vol de mort’ in French quite literally means ‘flight from death‘. Sometimes authors draw inspiration for their characters’ names from religious sources, but doing so is a tricky business. When employing religiously-inspired character names, it’s important that they are not used in a way that’s insulting to the original religion’s tradition.
My inspiration for writing this post is Stacker Pentecost from Pacific Rim. To get what I mean, let me explain a little about the festival of Pentecost in the Christian church. Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, the followers of Christ were still feeling afraid. They were hiding in an upper room instead of spreading the message that Jesus had trusted them to spread to the world. And then the Holy Spirit came down on them, appearing as a mighty wind and as tongues of fire above the heads of the disciples. They were filled with courage and went out to preach the good news of Jesus to the world.
In Pacific Rim, we are thrown into a flashback of Mako’s when she and Raleigh first try to drift together. We see Mako as a child, running scared through the streets of a city that is being ravaged by a kaiju. She runs and hides in an alley as the kaiju seems to lock onto her, but someone in a jaeger appears to save her. As Mako emerges back onto the street, none other than Stacker Pentecost, serene and backlit by the sun, descends from his cockpit to gather her up and take her home. Basically, Pentecost arrives on a scene of fear and chaos for Mako and brings her peace, courage, and salvation instead.
The use of “Pentecost” for Stacker’s last name is an excellent example of a good use of religious name inspiration. It’s almost an Easter egg, in that it adds an intriguing extra level of symbolism to the character if you know the word’s deeper meaning, but if you’re not aware of it, it takes nothing away from the story. Furthermore, it doesn’t reflect badly on the religion that it’s drawn from, or come off as appropriative or insulting.
Another character with a religiously-inspired name is Teen Wolf alpha werewolf Kali. Kali, as you might know, is a Hindu goddess associated with time, destruction, and change.
Kali (to wiki-kali it for the newbie) literally means ‘Black’, the void, and in Indian mythology is literally the goddess of the Infinite. She is the fucking black hole of the mythological structure. Let’s go back to Shakti for a moment. In the many manifestations of Shakti, there are three that really count. Durga, who represents justice and strength, Gauri who represents benevolence and fertility and Kali who motherfucking represents annihilation. Let’s compare Kali to her male equivalent Shiva. Even in his wildest manifestation of Rudra, Shiva is a more rational deity than Kali. Shiva is Destruction, Kali is Chaos.
The iconic image of Kali (and there are many images and representations of her, because Kali like all Indian deities has many avatars) is literally a representation of Bloodlust or Battlefrenzy. Hair matted, eyes wild, a garland of skulls around her waist, and a scimitar clutched in her hand. Most importantly, her husband (the aforementioned Shiva, remember him, THE GOD OF DESTRUCTION) under her feet, consumed by her fury.
—Zorana on tumblr
Kali the werewolf is a destructive and damaged character, but I think it would have been better if she hadn’t been given the name she was. Kali’s name is problematic in a significant number of ways. For one thing, despite being named after an East Indian goddess, the actress cast in the role was not of Indian descent. Furthermore, although the goddess Kali is definitely worshiped by Indian women, ‘Kali’ is not a name usually given to children because of the “very heavy implications” that come with being named after a “dark and fierce and terrifying” goddess—rather, children are usually named after Durga, a different aspect of the same deity.
Naming your character Kali without any sort of follow-through on the obvious reference to Hinduism is a huge fail on the part of Teen Wolf. (Let’s not even get into the fact that she’s now dead, so add her to the lists of possibly-queer characters, women, and PoC who have kicked it on TV.) There are a lot of ways they could have done Kali right—whether it was tying the character more explicitly to the original stories about the goddess, naming her after a different aspect of Kali, casting an East Indian woman in the role—but instead we got none of that. To add insult to injury, it’s now nearly impossible to separate the character from the deity in social media—for example, anyone looking through the #kali tag on tumblr would be hard-pressed to find a post about the Hindu goddess. Imagine the outcry if the #jesus tag got overwhelmed by pictures and posts about a character on True Blood or something. Some fans have made the effort to use the #alpha kali tag instead, but they unfortunately don’t seem to be in the majority.
There are certainly ways to include religious references in the names of your characters, but it’s important to make sure they’re respectful of the religions they’re inspired by. Furthermore, if you’re going to make the reference explicit by invoking the name of a religious figure (as opposed to a less prominent part of the religion’s theology), you really need to follow through and acknowledge the history and weight of the name you’re using.