Character Names

Because I "read" most books by listening to them, I usually end up experiencing character names the same way I experience the names of real people. I hear them, I know what they sound like, I recognize them when someone says them. I have no idea how they're spelled. Sometimes when I see them written down, I don't even recognize them as the same name.

And I think that's a bit of a problem.

Don't take this for me saying that everyone's characters should have names like "Mark" and "Abby" that can't possibly be mispronounced. That would be cool, but that's not what I'm angling for.

The problem with this is when you have a reader staring at the page which literally no idea of how to pronounce the name written there.

But it runs deeper than that.

When I was a kid, I read the Harry Potter books, yeah? Me and the rest of the known world. :) I love those books, and I sincerely believe I would not be so avid a reader as I am if it hadn't been for that series. I certainly wouldn't have had such an early start at being a writer. (I think I wrote my first story when I was 10, and titled it "My Teacher is an Alien." Very original, I know, but I was 10. Don't judge me.)

Anyway, I was young when I first read those books, and for a long time, I didn't know how to pronounce "Hermione."

Now, if I'd grown up in the UK, then I might have known that name. It's was about as popular at that point as the name "Elmer" was here in the US, but there's almost no overlap between the two names (as far as I can tell), because even if the US and the UK are separated by a ditch 8 letters wide in the alphabet, our cultures are separated by 200 years and several thousand miles.

You might think that 2 centuries isn't much in the grand scheme of things, and no, it isn't. We share a lot in common with our cousins across the Pond, but think about this: We don't have monuments from the 100 Years' War. We don't have churches that stood through the Black Plague. We aren't taught about the level of history they experience on their morning commute every day until we're in college, and maybe they don't care (I'm sure there are plenty who would rather eat broken glass rather than listen to another history lecture) but one can't help but absorb some of it simply through exposure.

The depth of culture is so highly concentrated in the British Isles, and the closest we can get is walking through Boston Harbor, remembering that one time a bunch of angry men in blackface decided to ruin a shipment of expensive cargo to make a point about taxes.

So to get back to the subject at hand (character names, in case I've gone too far that bunny trail) we have to keep in mind that a name that is intuitive for you to pronounce out loud may not be intuitive for someone in another part of the world. Even countries where we share a language might not understand that "the E is silent at the end" or what have you. So while I may look at the name "Xehanort" and know how to pronounce it, maybe another reader in Wales looks at that "X" at the beginning and pronounces it differently.

I can't say there's a one size fits all solution for this, and I'm actually pretty sure there isn't, but the problem is there, and I think it's important to keep in mind. Even if you can't make everyone happy, we can at least put in an effort not to frustrate everyone.

I personally believe that a name, especially for a main character, should be as intuitive and easy to pronounce as possible, because you want your readers to talk about this character. It's more important that they can talk about him, than the name looks exotic on the page.

At least, I hope I'm not the only one that winces whenever I read a sci-fi/fantasy name that starts with Y, X, or Z, has at least one apostrophe, and too many consonants.

But perhaps I'm wrong. What do you guys think?

#writing #names #characters

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