Friday, January 18, 2013

Names You Can't Pronounce

by Jill Williamson

A few days ago, Leah K. posted on the Facebook group that she'd discovered that people were mispronouncing her character's name. The name was Rene, pronounced "reen" not "ren-ay." But many people thought is was "ren-ay" because of the French pronunciation.

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?

Nothing.

I figured it was too late. Sure, I always set readers straight when I met then, but the book was published. This time it didn't occur to me to copy J.K. Rowling. I mean, no one knew how to pronounce Hermione until the fourth book when J.K. explained it, likely because she kept meeting readers who asked her, "How do you say that name!"

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?

59 comments:

  1. I mostly write contemporary fiction, so no. I have had characters' names that I spell differently than normal, though, so I've had people write to me about the story I showed them and talk about the character...spelling the name the normal way. *facepalm* I guess they just didn't pay close enough attention...

    One of the things I really love about starting a new story is picking all the names. One of my favorite parts ;)

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    1. It is a fun part, Amanda. Makes me want to think up a new story right now!

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  2. Ok. I really laughed out loud with the "Achan of dung". That's priceless. XD

    On a whole, I prefer to write characters with easily pronounced names. Vice, Emi, Avian, Benson, Miles, Dross, Gardner. The most complicated names I've ever had are Naranbaatar, Demetrius, Baldasarre and Yoshiteru.

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    1. oh, and I pronounced Achan right the first time, if it makes you feel any better. ^_^

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    2. From Amo Libros:
      I'd been pronouncing it "Ah-khan". Oops.

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    3. Ooh, those last few are very creative names, Ashley.
      Aww, thanks for pronouncing it right. :-)

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    4. No worries, Amo. It's a tricky one!

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  3. Haha. I find it a tad bit humorous that I pronounced both Rene and Achan the way you and Leah intended them to be said. :P

    Hmm. Perhaps, the name of one of my villainous characters? His name is Fanic. I guess I have to think of a way to describe his name. I've never thought much about this for my book...

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  4. I'm so glad you posted today, I thought of you last night, I was listening to the radio and they were doing a call-in about what woman don't understand about men & vice-versa. This woman called in and said "I don't understand when men dig a hole. There's always one in the hole digging and two standing and watching. It's always three." Hahahaha I laughed :)

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    1. That's funny, Tonya. And a good point. Guess there just isn't room for three in the hole...

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  5. Wow . . . this made me a little nervous :( When you're writing fantasy and the names are anything BUT normal, what are you supposed to do? What would your advice be for this? The problem is that to rename my hero would be to give him a different personality. Okay, it comes out--how would you pronounce "Reuel"?

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    1. Roo-ell?

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    2. I'd pronounce it Ree-you-el.

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    3. From Amo Libros:
      I'd ditto Amanda, probably.

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    4. I think Reuel is a fine name, unless we all said it wrong. For the most part, try to come up with clever fantasy names that aren't impossible to pronounce. I'm going to post on popular fantasy and sci fi characters on Tuesday, but most of the top characters have simple names. Simple is sometimes best.

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  6. I would pronounce Reuel as "Re-oo-el" with both "e"s short. I really like that name, it means "Friend of God" in Hebrew and was the name that Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, is first introduced as in Exodus 2:18.

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  7. Thanks, Jill, I really like this post. I have a list of names I like and I try to keep them easy to pronounce. Although, no matter how many movie credits or baby name websites I skim, I will always find it hard to come up with unique, creative names. Maybe I should try bringing out the Latin once in a while...

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      I took Latin for a couple years, and I can't wait to bring it out in names. I'll have to be careful, though. I'm a stickler for pronunciation, and when I named my villain "Malus Vir" (pronounced "mallus weer") it drove me nuts when people got it wrong. Biology class drives me up the wall: they can't say anything right!! ;)

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    2. LOL. You could. But names don't always have to be unique to be perfect. Look at Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. Simple.

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    3. Good point, Amo. Most readers likely don't speak Latin or know how to properly pronounce it.

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  8. From Amo Libros:
    I once had a character named "Camilea" (said Camille-ay) but it drove everybody nuts, so I changed it to Camilla. I still think of her as Camilea, though.
    Your friend was sorta right about the similar sounding names. I don't know if it would have confused me, but I spent most of my first read of Lord of the Rings trying to remember the difference between "Sauron" and "Saruman"...

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    1. Yeah, Sauron and Saruman bother me too.

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    2. I always remember Saruman as "Sauron's man." X) b/c he works for the Dark Lord, more or less. ;)

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  9. I say *Achan* right! ;) I never actually thought of saying it the other way...

    Even though I write fantasy, I try and keep my names low-key. And I do lateral spelling! I die in the novels where all the characters have 6-syllable names that I can't read, pronounce or remember. I like Lois Lowry's books where the characters have cool names (like Gabe, Jonas, Kira) but you can actually say them!

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    1. Same here for Achan. Ch as in chorus, right?

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    2. Yep, Leah.

      And, Cait--Love Lois Lowry!

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  10. Hmm, I just realized I needed this post. >.> Ugh, but it's hard to know whether your characters' names are hard for others to pronounce since they're so obvious to you...

    Anyone confused by 'Myrtis' or 'Eulah'? *crosses fingers*

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    1. Myrtis would be Mire-tis, right? Eulah confuses me though....

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    2. Oh dear, I was afraid of that. The myr in Myrtis is said like the myr in Myrtle... Murr-tis. And Eulah is just like Beulah but without the B. You-luh.

      Hm. So I'm going to have to respell those, I guess. Maybe Mertis? Or Myrrtis? And...oh boy, Eulah will be hard to fix without using a spelling I can’t stand. Yula... huh-uh. Yoolah, no way. Ula? Maybe. =/ *sigh*

      Well thanks for the input. :)

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    3. I was ok with the pronunciation of both names.

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    4. From Amo Libros:
      Ha! I got it right!

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    5. I think don't change them. I got them both right.

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    6. The feedback helps! Thanks, ya'll. =)

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    7. I can do Eulah. But I thought Myrtis was Mir-tis, as in mirror. Now that you mention it though, the right way makes more sense :)

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    8. I say Mir-tiss and You-lah. I got the Myrtle connection. And Eulah is an old school name, but I still know it.

      I think you're okay with both of those, Laurie.

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    9. Cool. :) Thank you!

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  11. I always pronounced Achan like it is. I could never think of any other way, and it came naturally. I have a few names in one of my stories that are probably difficult, but I dont know for sure. No one ever reads them out loud except me.

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  12. Your first example made me laugh. I can totally identify with that. I invited a friend of mine to give my favorite character his middle name, and she named him Rene. I thought she'd given my guy character the name Renee! My brother finally pointed out that the second e made the first one long. "Reen." That made me feel so much better.

    I had one character named Ailsee. I had to change it to Ailsa because no one could figure Ailsee out.

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  13. Wow, I was just thinking about how to spell one character's name. I want it pronounced "nye clee", but it seems I can only make it look good with a hyphen - Nai-Clea is my favorite version. Even that sounds like someone could think it was "nay clee-uh." And ideally, I'd like if people would think of it without a pause between "nai" and "clea". I also could do Niecli, Nycli, Nyecli, Ni-clee, Nai-klee... the possibilities are endless. Sigh.

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    1. When I pronounce it with the hyphen, I don't pause. So I think that would be okay. I love the way a and i look together, so that's my favorite. Nycli would be my favorite without the hyphen, although some people may pronounce it nick-lee instead. Good luck!

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    2. I agree with Kaitlin. Nycli is my favorite too. I have a friend who goes my Nairam online. Her nickname is Nai. She pronounces it Ny, and I say it Nay. So that spelling could definitely be confusing.

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    3. And there are always people who pronounce things differently for whatever reason. I'll post a pronunciation guide that will show you the phonetic ways the dictionary shows pronunciations. That might be a handy tool for name brainstorming.

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  14. I sadly pronounced Achan wrong, but if it makes you feel better Jill, I also pronounced almost every weird name that HP had to offer wrong... Hermione, Sirius, etc. I love what Donita K. Paul did in her Dragonkeeper books. She gave her characters unique names, but names that people could pronounce easily, like Kale or Bardon.

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    1. I LOVE THE DRAGONKEEPER BOOKS! I use the name "Kale" all the time. X)

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  15. Oh my gosh my writing club sponsor is a STICKLER for this! She's the reason I make sure all my names are pronounceable. She's like "No one wants to read a story where the main character's name is Rakshaklikeesha, because they're going to keep wondering if they said it right, and frankly I doubt you want to write that all the time anyway." She's a fan of more realistic stories, as opposed to Fantasy, but she makes an excellent point. So I think of how to say something and then spell it out phonetically, and then change it from there.

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    1. She is correct. We writers like to be fancy, but simple is best. Think through the most popular characters in fantasy and science fiction literature and movies and you'll find that most the names are very simple.

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  16. I definitely agree about pronounceable names. Especially when either the order of letters in the names doesn't make much sense phonetically, or it looks similar to another name, but is pronounced in a completely different way. One reason why I always try to keep my fantasy names simple.

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  17. Although I usually like weird names and spellings for fantasy (to write, anyway. They CAN be hard to read), I just realized that my characters' names are simple, for once. I have Zane, Tana, Orrin, and Allistar, and the only reason I spell Allistar like that is so his sister can call him "Star." X) So they're pretty simple.....unless I'm overlooking something, and they're actually hard to pronounce?

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    1. I have a Zane in my new book, Dakota. He's a minor character, though. And I love that Allistar's sister calls him Star. :-)

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  18. I do contemporary Christian Fiction, so all my names are easy :) like Jessica, Hannah Ember, and Ava. One of the few I spelled different is Abygale. I haven't even decided if I want it pronounced Abby-gale or Abigail. But it doesn't really matter, because her nickname is Gale.

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  19. My character names might be found difficult to the reader: Charletta, Anika, Adele, Élan, Khristien, Katriel Ösel, Willihad Pelagruža, The Bonenffant's, The Achard's, The Parcien's.

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Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!