What’s in a Name?

One of my greatest pet peeves is when I’m reading a science fiction or fantasy novel where a character’s name is clearly not a name used in our world and I a) can’t figure out how to pronounce for whatever reason or b)accidentally mispronounce it for however many books in that series until I find the correction.

I HATE that. So much.

Why?

Because the author made that name up. This wasn’t some foreign name I don’t know how to pronounce because of my own ignorance. If the author has to provide a pronunciation guide, why bother naming those characters as such in the first place? What do you stand to gain from making things harder for your reader?

And let me just say that includes any name: person, non-person living thing, place, whatever.

Let’s look at a couple examples that might sound familiar to you, even if you haven’t read these books.

A) I can’t figure it out

I read a trilogy that tried very hard to be high fantasy and failed very miserably. One of the things that drove me nuts while reading what I kept hoping would be an improving plot (I don’t know what happened with this author team-up but it did NOT work) was that the city names were almost impossible to pronounce. They were typically no fewer than four syllables–at which point, regular English emphasis guidelines go right out the window–and, because all but one were for a non-human race, I couldn’t rely on etymology or even a pronunciation guide.

In the end, I started thinking of them as “the P city” or “Ah-whatever.” This detracted from the reading experience and contributed to my disappointment with the book.

B) Mispronounced by accident

Once again, without naming the book, I read a very fun story that included a character with a name that started with “Ch” and a vowel. Typical pronunciation of this combo in English is the “chuh” sound instead of a hard “c” sound.

Guess how I pronounced it and guess how it was actually pronounced. 😦

I went the whole book without getting it right so, by the end, I was kind of stuck on that way of saying it. The real pronunciation rhymes with a vegetable, so now I just call that character “Vegetable Man.”

So, how do I name my characters?

Before I decided to just up and change the name of one of my characters (Chakran to Chakren), when I’m ready to publish, I had an in-text pronunciation guide for his name. I just put the phrase “It rhymed with his old military rank, ‘Captain.'” It was clumsy but, hey, it’s a work in progress.

The prevalence of difficult-to-pronounce names is so great that I wonder if there isn’t some kind of rule among professional authors not to include some kind of in-text guide and instead use an appendix or extra-story guide (that might also draw readers to some other useful information about buying future books). Or do people just not realize when something is difficult to pronounce? Is there some kind of convention/generally agreed upon, unofficial, top secret policy that I just don’t know because I’m not really in that community?

Or, maybe it’s me?

I should do a poll on various names I have trouble with to see if others have just as much difficulty. Maybe there is too much variance for any writer to really account for or I just can’t get my pronunciation act together.

Even if that’s the case, I will make sure all of my beta readers can easily understand how each name in my book is pronounced without a guide. And on the first try.

I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Author: JA Goodsell

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is INNATE, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @JAGoodsell or Instagram at books_and_dogs

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