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weird character names, esp. non-Anglo names

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by buyjupiter, Feb 26, 2014.

  1. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

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    As I was writing merrily away yesterday, I realized that this short story is the first piece in a very long time that had used "normal" English names. I didn't realize that I normally use either completely made up names with a kind of vague feel of a culture to them, or I used more obscure ethnic names.

    For example: I have a character that is part of a world that draws quite a lot from Czech references/culture. His name, Dusan, is not immediately familiar to the English reader (I presume) and the pronunciation is a bit tricky (du-shan, but I dropped the diacritical mark that gives a hint that it's not "du-san").

    The thing is...I've listened to several people make a big deal out of "weird" character names and how they'll throw books across the room, etc etc.

    If I'm doing it as a "this word is the essence of the character" and not as a funny name like Spanglebottom Bumpkin III of High and Mighty Steel Fortress, is it the same thing (for those of you who object to odd character names)?

    Is it objectionable if it's a cultural thing, to give an additional flavor to the world building? If I'm intentionally drawing upon Czech culture, you'd kind of expect to see Czech names right? Do they have to be "common" names, that have parallels to English names for them not to be objectionable (like Jan/John)?

    Names are really, really important to me and I'd rather pick a name that is the essence of the character I'm writing about when I can, than pick something neutral like Peter (or the cultural equivalent of Peter).

    TL;DR: In other words, if I'm pulling from ethnic sources, how weird can the names be and still be acceptable to the average reader?
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. Graylorne

    Graylorne Archmage

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    Let them throw the book, I'd say.
    I use the names my story world calls for. Vikings have Nordic names, Gauls have Gallic names and Czech-flavored cultures have Czech names. People who object to that only show their own narrowmindedness.
     
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  3. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    If your reader doesn't know how to pronounce the name, your reader will probably be distracted by the name. I'm not sure that automatically qualifies as a MAJOR BAD THING, though.

    Speaking personally, I never quite got over !Xabbu's name in Otherland. (! is a tongue-click.) I could not pronounce it in my head. Still, he had that name because it was a normal name in the culture he came from. It would have been even more odd to give him a European name.
     
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  4. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    ^ Seconded. I use mainly Irish or Scottish names, with occasional Welsh or Scandinavian ones when needed. I don't often Anglicize them, because not every name can or should be.
     
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  5. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    My naming conventions vary with characters' racial and cultural backgrounds. My white characters' names tend to draw from various Celtic and Germanic sources. My black characters may have Egyptian, Bantu, or occasionally West African names depending on which part of Africa they are supposed to come from. Middle Eastern characters' names come from Hebrew, Mesopotamian, Persian, or Arabic sources, whereas Mediterranean Europeans' names are Greek or Latin.

    With regards to Hebrew names in particular, I prefer to go with the most "exotic" spellings instead of the standard English ones. For example, I would choose "Mikha'el" over Michael and "Yosef" over Joseph. It's rather important to me that my Hebrew characters come across as Middle Eastern in appearance and culture rather than white or Western like the Biblical characters in medieval European artwork.

    I have a similar policy when it comes to Egyptian names. A lot of the names you'll find in Egyptological texts are of Greek rather than native Egyptian origin, and I avoid those in favor of their native equivalents. E.g. I prefer Heru, Sutekh, and Auset to the standard Horus, Seth, and Isis. Again, I want to get across the point that my Egyptian characters are from a distinctly non-Western culture.
     
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  6. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    Readers won't always be right about how to pronounce a name, but a name like 'Dusan' is still easy enough to read. I'd say most Czech names are pretty readable, really. Maybe be a bit stingier with the diacritics than the actual language, but that's definitely not weird in the grand scheme of fantasy names. When readers talk about weird, they mean Chreultin-qua and Feyexe. Which could leave a few cultures in a tight spot. There's an Aztec god named Xiuhtecuhtli, for instance.

    But I think readers would be more forgiving of difficult names if it was clear the setting truly justified it, as in being based off of a culture that wasn't England. Weird names are only irritating when they serve no purpose other than to be weird. And if need be, Xiuhtecuhtli could be nicknamed 'Xiu' by his friends. Or you can just write for the people who don't care.
     
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  7. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Anymore, my main rule of thumb is to keep the names short, be they normal, ethnic, or made up. Two, three syllables tops, most of the time, though there are exceptions.

    Typically, I'll create or latch onto a list of suitable names for the 'theme' of a region, and then go with either the shorter ones, or try to shorten or simplify the rest.
     
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    A name might initially bother me as a reader. However, if the story is good that would be forgiven.

    For the most part, if I see an unusual name or one that I just don't want to put forth the effort towards a mental pronunciation for, I'll just wind up pronouncing it (in my head) in a way that easy.

    So if I saw a name like Xanathanaman, it would forever be Zan in my mind.

    As a writer, I try to keep names easy while still maintaining meaning & cultural flavor. That's my preference only because I don't want the reader to notice my writing at all. I want them immersed in the story. Even that slimmest of moments that pulls the reader away to ponder an odd or long name is too much for my liking.
     
  9. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Maybe an attached appendix of name pronunciations could address that?
     
  10. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

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    Thanks for all the input, it's given me some things to ponder over. The short story with Dusan, is finished and his name will remain that, but for the next major piece I have to finish, ethnic names with no hint of how to approach them are going to be an issue.

    I may very well have to either shorten them (and be happy with the authorial knowledge of what the name really is) or spell by phonetics and forget accurate spelling.

    @Feo, I loved thinking "click-xabbu" when reading that name. It was the first, and come to think of it, only time I've read about a Bushman in spec-fic. I need to read more outside-of-the-US narratives. (Suggestions?)

    @Jabrosky, I don't know that a short story market would accept a piece with a pronunciation guide. Which I was totally on board to just do until I remembered it was a short story!
     
  11. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    As long as the name is pronounceable I don't mind at all. If a name has zero vowels and is full of apostrophes, that's when I start to take issue. I make up names all the time and I've actually gotten complements on them. I create the name based on a feel for the character, and I stick to the guideline that it should be pronounceable.
     
  12. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Unless there is a reason why the exact pronunciation of a name is important, I'd not worry about it. People will find their own hook for the name. Regional accents within English [let alone between English-English and American-English] can radically change the sound of names... and sometimes it seem deliberate, Ralph [Fiennes] is said "Rafe" or maybe "Raife".
    If it is important to the plot that a name is pronounced in a certain way, then you name need to clarify how it's said.
     
  13. Dragev

    Dragev Scribe

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    I agree with Penpilot above. As long as it looks pronounceable (i.e. you don't have to look at it for 5 minutes to figure it out), you should be okay. Tywin is "tie-win" and Dusan is "due-sahn". Even more colourful ones like Shib-Niggurath and Yog-Sothoth get quite easy after a couple of readings, especially for people who are used to reading fantasy.

    The most important, I think, is "translating" the sounds into english, so people don't have to look up the specifics of, for example, polish pronunciation; How the hell do you say "Sczeczin"? Just go for Tsheshin. End of story :p
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2014
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  14. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    In our urban fantasy series The Books of Binding, we are going to have characters from a broad range of ethnic backgrounds, and their names will reflect this. In the first book, Faerie Rising, we have many classic American-English names because the setting is a city in the Pacific Northwest, but many of our characters come from the Faerie Realm and we have chosen Irish Gaelic names (Midhir, Niahm, Ceallach) for most of those characters to reflect both the cultural and linguistic heritage that we've tied into the mythology we've decided to work with.

    As the series expands geographically we will incorporate characters from many other regions and other realms, and we'll stay as true and authentic to each of our character's backgrounds as we can. That being said, we write with a mind toward the knowledge that our first audience are English readers, so we chose names that aren't too outrageous or complicated (none of our names is over 3 syllables). My writing partner is a good barometer for this. She has little patience for hard-to-pronounce names and won't let me get carried away. (The Gaelic just kills her.) When we do have complex names, say in draconic, we translate them into English. Our most complex name in the series belongs to a dragon named Death Comes Softly.

    And for those names, such as the Gaelic, for which there is even a question of pronunciation, we will have guides in each book as well as in the character profiles on our website. Because Midhir is pronounced "Meer" and Niahm is pronounced "Neev." ;)
     
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  15. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    How many readers use pronunciation guides or appendixes?

    I ask this as a serious question because I'm curious if you do as a reader. I know I don't. To me, that feels like work...flipping to back pages to ensure the sound in my mind matches the proper ethnic sounding.

    If I saw Midhir & Niahm, they would be mentally pronounced Mid-heer & Nee-aum forevermore. I've never wanted to search for an author's guide to names as I wouldn't consider the sounding of a name as something that would impact the story.

    This is my habit, but it's likely to be shared by others, but I'm equally certain it's not the only way. How many of you out there do use appendixes the author puts in the book, not occasionally for that one book or author you adore, but regularly?

    I suppose it doesn't hurt to include this material. It's inclusion won't affect readers like me while the exclusion may bother those who enjoy such things. Personally, I'd rather my readers never needed to wonder about pronunciation.
     
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  16. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    That's a very valid question. We're a house divided. I use them, but my partner doesn't. We've compromised by offering the guide for the few names that might need it (because I won't back down about the Gaelic names - yes, blame me), and maintaining the strict simple-is-best philosophy with the rest. But I would like to have guides available for those readers like me who do use them - and those who don't, won't worry about them.

    And, yes, she pronounced Midhir as Mid-heer, too. :p Drives me batty. lol
     
  17. Graylorne

    Graylorne Archmage

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    I've had the question once or twice over my Shardfall books, from readers who wanted such an appendix. And my names weren't all that outlandish, except, perhaps, for Gunthchramn (which would be Gundram, nowadays).

    By the way, a related point. I tried to find the Welsh pronunciation of Llewellyn, that Ll.
    I found a site that gave it, even with the sound and I still have no idea.
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2014
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  18. duagre

    duagre New Member

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    I tend to agree with this. When I see a name that's unusual or difficult to pronounce, I just generally come up with my own take on it in my head without even really thinking about it. I don't find it off putting or that it takes me out of the story at all.

    A few times when I have had my own interpretation of a character's name, I have heard it pronounced correctly years later by the author or somebody else discussing the piece: I nearly always like my own version of it better.
     
  19. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    It's not my inclination, although I might glance at it if there is something genuinely baffling that the author has keyboard smashed onto the page. Like, a disdainful 'yes please do tell me how you think this should be pronounced', which is probably my inner snarky linguist getting annoyed at pseudo-Nordic conlangs that follow, like, French pronunciation guidelines for no particularly good reason.
     
  20. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Pretty much never. If I can't pronounce the name, then the name becomes a symbol like "Begins with and X and is followed by an A followed by squiggle-squiggle. Which to me is when the uniqueness in the way a name is spelled becomes really important.
     
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