by Jill Williamson
Since Leah is writing a screenplay, it wasn't as big of deal. She could add the pronunciation right onto the script and everything would be fine.
But for novels, it's not that simple.
When I first started writing my Blood of Kings fantasy story, I needed some character names. The mere idea seemed terribly overwhelming. How did authors come up with such cool names, anyway?
And then it hit me. J.K. Rowling had used Latin for many of her names and spells in the Harry Potter books. Maybe I could do the same. So, I looked on my bookshelf. I had a French-English dictionary and a Hebrew-Greek concordance. Well, so much of the English language is similar to French, but Hebrew ... it sounded almost Klingon.
So I thought, "Hebrew is is."
My plan was to simply look up a word that described each character and use the Hebrew word instead. This quickly backfired with lame-sounding names. So I kept looking up similar words until I found translations I liked. I repeated this process until the fear grew that I might be overdoing the Hebrew. The I came up with some other ways to name different characters, hoping the different types of names might sound regional.
But here's the thing: I wasn't careful enough. I get emails and meet readers who ask, "How do you pronounce Achan?" And they almost always have been pronouncing it wrong! Many people say, "Ah-chan" instead of "Ay-kan." *sigh*
My bad, though. Totally my bad.
When I first realized that this was happening, I was distraught. People were saying my hero's name wrong! What was I going to do?
Another example. While on staff at a writer's conference, several published authors were doing a reading. I had to choose a section from my new book and read it aloud to the audience. I hate this. I'm not afraid, I just never know what to read and how long to read and I get myself all worked up about it.
Well, To Darkness Fled was my new release at the time, so I read the scene where Achan and Vrell are in Mirrorstone, about to have dinner with Lord Eli and Lady Jaira, and they bloodvoice to each other through the meal, Vrell teasing Achan that Lady Jaira wants to marry him now that she knows he's ... well, who he is. I thought their banter would be fun.
But wouldn't you know it, I stumbled over the name Jaira, Hamartano, and, of course, Katiolikan too. I couldn't even pronounce my own names! They'd seemed fine in my head when I picked them, but out loud? I should have practiced or something ...
All this to say, if you have names that are difficult to pronounce, here are some tips:
1. Consider choosing another name or respelling it.
I know this isn't what you want to do, but you'll get used to the new name or new spelling. In my Blood of Kings, Lord Nathak was originally named Lord Ratsak. I liked it because it sounded like he was a rat. But my critique group talked me out of it, saying that it sounded like something crude involving rats. (Sorry if that painted a disturbing mental picture...) So I changed Lord Ratsak to Lord Piel. I grew to like this much better. Until one of my critique partners said that Piel and Porril were too close and she was getting confused. I could have left it, but I understood what she was saying and decided to change it one more time and settled on Lord Nathak.
But I called him Lord Piel for years.
2. Don't think it won't matter.
It does. It messes with reader experience when they don't know for certain if they're hearing the right name in their head. It creates distance.
3. Make the pronunciation part of the story.
I could have had Riga and Harnu mock Achan with a rhyme. Something like, "Look! Here comes Achan of dung. Get it, Harnu? "A can" of dung? Ha ha ha ha!"
Or I could have had a place early on where the pronunciation was taught. Maybe Chora could have read Achan's name from a scroll and read it wrong and Achan could have corrected him, teaching Chora and the reader--early on in the story--how to pronounce the name.
Or I could have had a different POV character meet Achan and think about how it's pronounced.
4. Add a pronunciation guide.
This is a last resort, and I don't recommend it. But if you must, make it a very short one. Because if an editor likes your premise and takes a look at your story and the first thing he sees is a pronunciation guide, chances are, he'll be turned off. It's just one of those cliché fantasy things.
All that to say, choose carefully. And if you do choose a name with an odd spelling, be clever in how it's presented. Don't assume your reader will figure it out. He probably won't!
How about you? Do you have a character name that's difficult to read? What is it? Did you do something to help the reader know how it's pronounced? If not, what could you try?