Naming Characters (Or, Thoughts While Grocery Shopping. And a Food Experiment)

I struggle with character names. The first name I think of is often the one on which I settle, even if I’m not all that enthusiastic about it, because I can’t develop a character unless they have a name. This doesn’t matter so much if it’s a minor character who’s there in one chapter and gone by the next. But too often I’ve had one-offs blossom into series regulars, and when that happens I usually wish I had taken more care in the choosing.

When I gave the name “Durian Ridgeway” to one of my antagonists in Code of Conduct,  I did not consciously realize that I had chosen to name him after an Asian fruit renowned for its stench. I am guessing that I heard the word at some point previously, and that it stuck with me because it is a pleasing collection of syllables. It also worked well with the more clipped surname and denoted—to me, anyway—an upper class background. It wasn’t until a reader mentioned how well Ridgeway’s personality aligned with the durian’s legendary stink that I looked up information about the fruit and realized I had either made one of those serendipitous backbrain connections or stumbled headlong into the trap of one person’s perfectly good name being another’s curse word/term for a body part/pejorative.

Years passed. I never heard the durian comment from any other readers, so I didn’t think about it much—when I reissued Code in 2015, it never occurred to me to change Ridgeway’s name. I was, however, mildly curious about just how unpleasant the smell of a durian actually was. I poked around a bit online, and learned that the stink is so potent that the fruit is banned on Singapore Rapid Mass Transit. It’s also chemically complex, containing fifty compounds four of which were previously unknown. In addition:

Even apart from the smell, durians are a scientific marvel. According to a 2009 Japanese study, durian extract strongly inhibits the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), used by the liver to break down alcohol. This might account for a piece of traditional Asian folklore: that getting intoxicated while eating durians can lead to death.

Okay, then.

Earlier this month, as I steered my grocery cart down the Asian Foods aisle of the local warehouse grocery store, what to my wandering eye should appear but a durian fruit, safely confined within a refrigerator. It was huge, a deflated basketball covered with spikes.

A durian (not the one in the fridge) photo credit: davidgn

I did not open the refrigerator to explore further, but continued on my way, only to spot these in the cookie and cracker section:

Durian wafers

This, I decided, was an opportunity to evaluate a muted version of the infamous fruit. Stinkbomb Lite. I hunted around on my phone, and found mentions of savory/sweet, garlic and fruit flavors, and decided I could take the chance.

When I got to my car, I opened the package and sniffed. Definitely detected garlic. The faintest hint of burnt rubber. A mustiness that didn’t jibe with the concept of a sweet wafer. I took a deep breath, intoned “Research,” and took a bite.

Yup, garlic, along with a bit of blue cheese and a hint of sweetness. After a minute or so, the garlic and odd savory undertones bloomed a little more. Not unpleasant, but not a flavor that would make me jump up and down and yell “Yum!” I would consider serving these things with a stronger cheese like blue or Gorgonzola. I would also keep the Altoids handy because the garlic tends to hang around.

In closing, if I had a chance to do it over, I would still probably keep Durian Ridgeway’s name as is. It really is appropriate. But next time an interesting collection of syllables pings my brain and whispers ‘wouldn’t I make the best name,’ I will look it up first.



Naming Characters (Or, Thoughts While Grocery Shopping. And a Food Experiment) — 11 Comments

  1. I’ve eaten a durian cookie, and the scent associations it called up were things like “gasoline” and “sewage.” My sense of smell is really overpowered — I can smell alcohol on my husband’s breath hours after he had a drink — so my plan for life is basically to stay as far away from the actual durian fruit as I can get; I don’t know if it’s possible for a smell to actually kill someone outright, but I’d rather not test the hypothesis.

    • I’ve sealed the wafer package in a plastic bag, and may need to double up at some point. The smell when I first open it is not appetizing. The wafers were made in Hong Kong, and the list of ingredients is in English and Mandarin (I assume). The only flavoring I can find is listed as “artificial,” so whether it’s really derived from durian or is just a close, less potent, facsimile, I’ve no clue. The garlicky/musty/slightly sweet flavor is one I’ve seen described online, so maybe it’s close enough.

      I don’t believe I’d brave the actual fruit itself unless the fates of nations were at stake.

      • There are people who adore them. And people who despise them. The saddest thing may be people who can take them or leave them. One acquaintance was working overseas, tried the fruit, was like “Okay, nothing special….” and discovered that you cannot give that answer.

        Because the response will be “Oh, that’s because you haven’t had it the way *I* make it/serve it/etc..” And Asian courtesy means you have to try everything unless it’s life-threatening.

        He says he is ducking going back overseas solely because he can never face another Durian.

        For my part, those cookies sitting out were deeply suspicious. The smell was not appetizing. And I despise blue cheese.

        I intend to share this essay with the title “And this is why you should never try durian liquor.” Of course it has to exist.

  2. Which leads one to wonder how this fruit ever got categorised as “food” in the first place and why anyone would even bother to try: “Oh, look at this weird spiky thing, it smells like death. We should eat it!” Humans are indeed strange creatures…

    • Curiosity. Desperation/hunger. Or a different palate, with an acquired taste for flavors others find objectionable. Does Limburger cheese taste better than it smells?

      I often wonder about the folks who risk their lives eating fugu. The taste is supposed to be wonderful, but if the fish isn’t prepared properly, you will likely die.


    • I think for some people the smell isn’t as off-putting? I mean, it still smells funky, but not to the point where your instincts yell at you that if you eat it you’re gonna diiiiiiiiiiiie.

      Plus, y’know. Desperation. I’m pretty sure lots of things started out as “well, I have nothing else to eat so let’s see what this does to me.” Though fugu is the one I really wonder about, because of course the first however many people who ate it wouldn’t know what you need to do to make it non-lethal. (My pet theory is that it was used to poison people deliberately, and then one of the targets failed to die, and that’s how they found out how to make it safe. 😛 )

        • Buttercup: And to think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.

          Man in Black: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.

      • I have always wondered how humans figured somethings out. Anything that takes multiple steps to make it non-toxic seems strange to stumble across. One step? I can buy desperation and experimenting.

        More than one step to make things non-lethal is the best evidence I’ve heard for stories of Deities Giving Information To Humans.

        • It makes me wonder whether fugu is truly that delicious, or just an edge-of-the-cliff risk for adrenaline junkies.

          I can see perpetually bored/jaded members of an Imperial court eating it just for the thrill, maybe playing a version of Russian roulette where one serving is made with less care.