What’s in a name?

Once again, I am speaking to you from the past. Oooooo. I have exams at the moment and therefore blogging is most definitely secondary. Good thing I planned ahead. I’ve decided to start interspersing in some posts about world building, character development etc, based on things I’ve learnt along the way, to help you out or just to give you an interesting read.

Today’s topic is NAMES (especially names in sci-fi and fantasy).

What is in a name? Do names really matter in fiction? How do we avoid alienating our readers?

1. Punctuation is NOT a valid part of a name.

I personally find that when reading a book, if the names are full of apostrophes, hyphens, exclamation marks or any other kind of unnecessary punctuation, I will zone out. Hal’ek, Mar’nes’h, and Zupi-ba-do’hey are NOT acceptable names. Unless these punctuation thingies are representative of an actual, well thought out culture avoid them at all costs. You readers, and your characters will thank you for it.

2. Long names lose readers

When I say long names, I mean names that have more than three syllables. Most English names have one, two or three syllables and our brains are used to processing information in at most three-syllable bites. A name with four or more syllables tends to lose the reader half way through. If a reader comes across a character named Farrenghenal they will read it correctly the first time (probably) but for the rest of the book will skim over it and if asked what the name of the character was, they are likely to respond Farragoo-something-or-other. You want readers to remember your characters, so keep them memorable.

3. Why nicknames negate the above rule (to an extent)

Of course, if you refer to your characters by a nickname, that is a totally different kettle of fish. We’ll take Farrenghenal again. If you introduce him by his full name but refer to him from there on in by a nickname, let’s say Farren, then that is fine.

4. Susan may have gone to Narnia but she does not belong in Middle Earth

As a reader of sci-fi and fantasy, nothing irritates me more than modern, undeniably English names in an obviously middle-earthy, fantasy setting. When you have cities called Fellinor and countries called Awiranek, having a character called Susan or Sam or James or Tom feels like a slap in the face. It draws you out of a setting faster than a bullet leaves a gun. Immediately, the images you’ve had of the characters in your head are replaced by the faces of people you know who have the same name and the characteristics of the people you know taint your perception of the character. Unless time-travel, portals or other spacey, timey-wimey things are involved, stay away from guy-next-door names.

5. Names should be familiar

Now, I know you’re probably thinking that this point negates my previous one but it doesn’t. While your names shouldn’t be recognisable, they should be familiar. I find this easiest to do through nicknames. To use on of my own characters, Karavere, as an example; Karavere is an odd name. I doubt that there is a person on earth who possesses this name but Kara, as she is referred to by most of the other characters, should be slightly familiar to readers because it is a name in English though usually spelt with C rather than a K.

Familiar names help the reader to ease into the story while crazy, long, overly-punctuated names can alienate the reader. And you probably don’t want readers to associate your handsome, dashing rogue of a male lead with the overweight, pimply kid who bullied your reader in fourth grade. Names are important, they can influence and affect your story in ways that you cannot predict. Be alert.

Hopefully this has proved informative or helpful in some way. I haven’t decided what my next topic will be so any suggestions are welcome. And if you disagree with anything I’ve said, or had different experiences in your own writing, tell me about it. 🙂

13 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

      • ReGi McClain says:

        I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. (*types into search engine* Dangit. I’m sure one of these names has got to mean something rotten. I found a whole bunch of awful names when I was looking for my kids names, but for my villain’s? Noooo. Stupid internet. I’m not using you anymore. I’ll get my Bible names book. Okay. Let’s see. Page 1…)

  1. Emily Witt says:

    Great post! I totally agree with point one, I find it so irritating! Apostrophes indicate letters that have been left out, why are you character names missing letters?!

  2. katemsparkes says:

    So, what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t have replaced a name in my series with Zi’pidE’e’eDo0da von Zz’ipidEEya’e?

    Crap. *goes back to drawing board*

    Actually, I agree with you completely. If I can’t pronounce a name, I can’t read the book, end of story. If I’ve been told I HAVE to read it, I’ll probably look at the first letter and skim over it, as you said. Oh, and that’s a tip I’d add: If you can use different starting letters for main characters’ names, that makes things easier on fast readers or people who tend to skim over names anyway. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but it does help.

    It’s funny you mention names; I just posted a few days ago about struggling with this. I think I found a good name and (surprise, surprise), it follows all of your suggestions! Yay!

  3. Lynne McAennyl says:

    Re apostrophes in names/words. Acceptable in a Pacific setting, where some languages (Cook Island Māori, Tahitian, Samoan and Hawai’ian) use the apostrophe as a glottal stop to represent a dropped consonant.
    E.g NZ Māori myth has them sailing from a home island named Hawaiki; drop the k and it’s Hawai’i. As Pacific island languages pronounce every vowel (general rule, may be exceptions) Hawai’i would be pronounced as Ha-wa-ee-ʔ-ee.
    So if a name has an apostrophe between two consonants, impossible to pronounce, and definitely “imaginitvely created” (synonym for ‘load of cobblers’?)

    • Ink and Papyrus says:

      I see your point about Pacific Island etc. names and they are fine because they’re a cultural thing. My main problem with overly apostrophied names is when they occur in an otherwise medieval Europe setting with no cultural justification. 🙂 Thanks for your input!

  4. Eléonore says:

    I agree with point 4 COMPLETELY! i was reading this amazing other-worldly book the other day , and the main characters names were Sue and John.

    That is why that particular book is still lying on my desk unfinished.It just annoyed me to much! Also the storyline was really weird and hard to follow ( it was following 17 peoples journeys)


  5. justanotherfirstyear says:

    When I was young, I read something somewhere that said Tolkien came up with his names first (ok, language first then names) and the story followed. As I want nothing more (secret confession) to be like Tolkien, this has been my strategy and I find it works for the most part. I also need my names to have a meaning that actually relates to their character, hence my hatred of boring generic names! There’s nothing that annoys me more than a character whose name doesn’t match their personality/role in the story! Especially if that name is Jack or Tom. I’m not sure why people think these names exude heroism, because they don’t!

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