The Naming of Names
Well. The epic LibertyCon report has finally ended so I’m back to wondering what the heck to write about. Not helped by the ongoing shenanigans with recently diagnosed diabetes (adjustment hell is adjustment hell, complete with a new set of symptoms every few days), and my specialist is saying this is more or less normal so, yeah. I’m flat out staggering through the day job at the moment, without anything else that’s going on.
Speaking of which… one of the little joys of my job is the data I get to sift through when I’m testing or troubleshooting yet another PEBKAC problem. And – dear Gods – the things people name their children (this could double as “the things people do to their children” or “why people hate their parents”. Seriously.
I don’t care if “Anal” is a legitimate name in your culture – if you’re in an English-speaking country and you name your child that, they will suffer for it. Not you.
And that leads into some pet peeves about character names. I’m sure you all know the drill: if you have to include a pronunciation guide, you’re doing it wrong. Even if the character name is legitimately Welsh (to pick one of the more notorious examples) or whatever, for the sake of your readers use an Anglicized spelling to prevent breaking people’s brains as they try to figure out how the hell they pronounce “Ercwlff” (or, for a less Brit-centric example, Þorfríður (Icelandic)). Glottal stops are right out.
Seriously, while having all your character names sound like the good ‘ole boys down home is probably not the best idea (unless your book is set in a time and place where that’s appropriate, of course), running into something that looks to someone accustomed to reading in English as if someone’s consonant box threw up on the screen is the equivalent of running into a bridge abutment at high speed. Even if the reader’s attention span survives the encounter, your work won’t have nearly as much appeal.
The simplest way I’ve found is to use names to give the flavor of the culture. If you’ve got a character named, say, Chen O’Reilly and nobody thinks there’s anything odd about it, you’ve got yourself a nice little bit of culture Heinleined in right there. If I want a fantasy culture to feel Celtic, I’ll use names that look and feel a bit Celtic without going full Daibhaeaidhaibh MacAeraith (pronounced Dave Mate) (and gleefully stolen from the Tough Guide to Fantasyland). And so on. Once I pick a theme for a cultural group I stick with it (and one day – thank you Overlord games – there will be somewhere for those uber-Germanic elves. The sheep-loving Scottishy dwarves has been done a few times too many to use but it might be a fun mind-screw to have the dwarves with the Celtic-esque culture dealing with the Germanic elves… )
Um. Yeah I’m rambling. Sorry.
Anyway, names. And sins authors commit.
Do not, if you value your readers sanity, give unrelated characters (especially unrelated characters from different cultures) damn near the same name. With siblings, theme-y nicknames can work, like Tim and Tam for Timothy and Tamara, as long as their best friend isn’t a Tom. Or even a Ted. It’s just too much similarity and you’ll confuse people – if you don’t confuse yourself and use the wrong name somewhere crucial. Alternatively, if your characters absolutely refuse to talk to you unless they have that name, use nicknames. The MacFeegle naming convention is also viable if you’re playing for laughs (although possibly not quite so obvious – nobody can out-Pratchett Pratchett).
Another option if a character insists on the aforementioned Ercwlff is to have a few other characters try manfully to pronounce the thing before settling on a happy medium (“Eircolf? Ehrcliff?” then later “Oi! Erkie!”). And if they won’t let go of the glottal stop, give them a nickname – most of us don’t know how to pronounce N!xau (personally I read that as ‘nk-zow’, but I’ve never heard the name pronounced and I’m probably way the heck wrong. I’d probably use a nickname like “Nicky” because that’s easy for most of us poor Western-centric folks to read).
Remember, have pity on your readers and make it easy for them, because unless they’re a really rare breed they don’t want to work to follow your book.