Monday, October 27, 2014

His name is … Hynrair Laithugz

Don't you want to wince at the name in the title? 

Character names are important in fiction. They help create the story’s atmosphere. They reflect the historical era or the locale where your characters live. Of course, writers are free to choose any names for their characters, but I’d suggest a few guidelines. As I’m predominantly a fantasy writer, most of my guidelines apply to my genre.

Often sci-fi and fantasy writers make up their character names to sound otherworldly, so everybody would know the action takes place elsewhere. It’s a worthwhile practice, with a long tradition in the genre, but the names should still be readable. They shouldn’t pile up consonants, like in some old Celtic names. A few random examples(1) include Amerawdwr, Kyvwlch, or Arglwyddes. Even if you’re Welsh, resist the temptation to use such mouthfuls, unless you’re writing a historical novel set at the time when such names were commonplace. If the reader can’t pronounce the hero’s name after two glances, he gets irritated. I know I do.

In general, non-English sounding names are tricky and should be used with caution. I made such a mistake when I called the heroine of my fantasy novel ALMOST ADEPT Eriale. I’m not sure how most of my readers would pronounce her name(2), but if a name needs a pronunciation guide, it might be better not to use it. 

There are websites that generate odd-sounding names, and some writers use them or similar names for their speculative fiction novels. Below is a short list of names lifted from one such site(3):
  • Nechynr Neic Spanryar Dusesp
  • Irurh Uemh Laicchair Saicspir
  • Atoc Uemh Laubir Balgzed
  • Ceca Neic Hynrair Claubarc
I wouldn’t use such names for any of my novels, wherever they are set: in space, underground, or in an imaginary, quasi-medieval kingdom. The reader gets lost after the third twist of the tongue.

In one of my short fantasy stories, I called my heroine Aglaya. It’s not a usual English name, it has a vague exotic feel (after all, the story takes place in a world of my own creation), but you still can recognize and pronounce it from the first glance. This name doesn’t distract the reader from the story.

On the other hand, for a monster or a villain, it might be a good idea to think up an appropriately repulsive name. Maybe here, that name generator site could come in handy. I can’t see Liarsob Ssynec Tleuscrocr as a hero, but he could be a great dragon or an evil sorcerer with the delusions of grandeur. Don’t call Frankenstein Tommy. The reader won’t believe you.   

Another guideline concerns any genre, not just speculative fiction. If you have a few leading characters in one story, make their names look and sound different. If you have three girl friends in one novel, it’s not recommended to call them Sarah, Sally, and Sadie, unless it’s absolutely necessary for the plot. After a few first pages, the reader should be able to know who is talking from the shape of the name, without reading it each time. A good practice is using different first letters and varying the number of syllables in the names of your characters, e.g. Sarah, Dorothy, and Liz.

How do you choose your characters' names? What are your guidelines?

(2) When I say her name, I pronounce both first and last E, and the middle two vowels sound like in the name Tia. 


Liz Fountain said...

You remind me of one editorial comment I received in an early stage of An Alien's Guide. Those alien species names looked cool on the page... but couldn't say them "out loud" (even out loud in my head).

In that book the alien characters choose their own Earth names - that was fun, b/c they all come from movies and television/pop culture. And mostly, the aliens get them wrong - like males picking female names.

I think it was Dickens who said the name is the first thing you learn about a character, so don't waste it.

Thanks! Liz

Big Mike said...

I find SF/fantasy stories that use names I can't pronounce very hard to get into. My old brain can't keep a running tally of who's who. Now in terms of naming alien species, sure I give them exotic monikers (like Tarrain, Vegans, Salmaiens, etc.) but I try to stick with names people can easily memorize.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Ute Carbone said...

I have enough trouble with my own name, lol.
And I agree, Olga, that those very odd names make the story hard to get into--I find them very hard to remember as a reader if there are bunches of them.
I don't write fantasy, and sometimes have trouble naming my characters (John and Mary gets old, fast) I've used baby books to get meanings on occasion, or just chosen names I like. I had a lot of fun with the sausage queen, where I purposely played around--Randy and Mandy Handy being the main characters. Yup, on purpose.