What’s in a Name? From a Writer’s Perspective.

Did you all see the supermoon eclipse last night because that was fantastic! Zoe and I had a blast and she got to break out her reflective vest—something she hasn’t worn in a long time.

About a month ago, I wrote a post about character names, especially those in fantasy, that are obviously or intentionally difficult to pronounce. As a reader I am passionate—perhaps more than others—about pronouncing a name as the author intended. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s because I want to interpret as much of the author’s work correctly as possible to ensure the world they build for my entertainment is as complete as it can be. Maybe it’s because there is a community around that book and I want to say things the way everyone else is (which is hopefully the correct way).

Maybe I’m just a stickler for getting things right. We’ll never know.

So I wrote the post and didn’t give a second thought to how I, as a writer, think about those who might mispronounce my characters’ names.

Then this happened:

J.K. Rowling Says Everyone Has Been Pronouncing Voldemort Wrong This Whole Time

It’s bad enough that I, as a stubborn American child, didn’t believe “Hermione” was a real name (much less pronounced “Her–MY-knee”) until the movies came out, now I hear that for over a decade I’ve been pronouncing the primary antagonist’s name incorrectly? Because it’s French?

What a terrible global citizen I turned out to be, right?

Rowling, though, seems to have shrugged off the various mispronunciations of her characters’ names, a thing that prompted me to consider how I would react to a similar event.

I’ve also talked about Chakran’s name before and how I plan to change the spelling for publication to reduce the likelihood of someone saying “chakra” with an “n” tacked on instead of the hard “Ch” name that rhymes with “Captain.”

I wanted to call him Jack, okay, but that was too human and too casual for this character—who is a 40-year-old, non-human doctor. For a few reasons, “Jack” wasn’t going to cut it.

But, along the way, I’ve heard upwards of five ways to say his name—all because of that second “a” there. What happens if I change my mind at the last second—because I’ve never done that before!—and decide to keep the spelling the way it is? There aren’t really any other names that might require clarification and I have an in-text aid for Chak (see, I kind of get to call him “Jack” anyway, just with a little spin on it).

In one conversation, Chakran’s name was butchered to such an extreme that I didn’t recognize it until a minute or two later. And that was someone who had read the in-text aid!

What fascinates me is that I don’t get annoyed or frustrated with people who mispronounce his name—as long as they don’t do it after they’ve been corrected a couple times. I get, as a writer, that “Chakran” is not a word: it’s a word with an extra letter at the end that isn’t spoken the same way the word is. Or, it’s that to certain readers.

So if I, as a writer, am not terribly bothered by people mispronouncing my character’s name, how do I reconcile that passion as a reader to have it right?

And I mean other than the in-text aid or a guide page in the book.

Well, there’s the cognitive dissonance that all writers have; that being a writer and being a reader are two totally different things even though we’re often both at the same time.

For example, I end my chapters on cliffhangers more often than not because I want the reader to keep going–even if it’s 2 AM and they have work or school the next morning. The reader wants to find a good stopping place so she can go to bed.

I strive to create complicated, 3-dimensional villains so that, from time to time, the reader sympathizes or feels sorry for him/her. As a reader, I want a villain I can hate without impediment.

I think it’s the same with names. I’ll do my best to help my reader pronounce all names correctly in my stories, but sometimes a name just goes mispronounced. Because a writer isn’t always a reader’s friend, when that happens, I’ll shrug it off and hope they found the character believable and compelling, despite the name.

It’s not like mispronouncing a character’s name is the end of the world.

Hmm…that’s a good story idea…

Author: V. Kane

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

2 thoughts

  1. There are some names (He-who-shall-not-be-named aside) that i mispronounced for YEARS. Mary Ann Spier from the Baby-Sitters Club Books being the more prominent that comes to mind. I always said “Spy-er” in my head, and honestly it messed with my head when I found out the truth. I mean, here she was, one of my closest friends (because I had a sad, sad childhood) and I didn’t even know how to say her name. WTF?

    I think as a reader I mainly just find it an interesting phenomenon that people can look at the same set of letters and get totally different things out of it. And much in the same way we’ve discussed the implications of synesthetic associations, I think we all to some degree probably experience some intangible suite of feelings/perceptions when we “hear” certain words. I imagine my perspective would be the same if I were writing, but who knows…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That reminds me of those fantasy stories where names–and the correct pronunciation of them–are terribly important. If you don’t know how to say a name just right, it’s meaningless. You’re right, we all probably hear and say character names just a little differently. Maybe no one but the author is ~really~ correct (and, heck, I say Chak’s name a few different ways).


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