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Writer’s Craft #100 – Weird names. Good or bad.

November 26, 2012
Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams, Author of Okal Rel Saga

Your host, Lynda Williams, is the author of the Okal Rel Saga (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing) and editor of the Okal Rel Legacies series (Absolute Xpress). She also works as Learning Technology Manager for Simon Fraser University and teaches an introductory web development course at BCIT. For a list of Okal Rel titles see: Lynda Williams on Amazon.com.


Readers mispronounce the names of my characters and places. It’s not their fault. The starry-eyed teenager who invented words like “Gelion” and “Ranar” was lousy at pronounciation and a creative speller. I’d give my younger self a C- for fictional proper nouns. Of course, people who have been to the Okal Rel Universe have been living with the vocabulary for years now, so it’s too late to name Amel something there’s only one way to pronounce.

So should I have named more characters something predictable, like Ann, the protagonist of Part 1: The Courtesan Prince? Or is it better to have a unique brand?

In an email exchange with Stephanie Ann Johanson, artist and editor of Neo-opsis magazine, she said: “when we first looked up ‘Neo-opsis’ online there were no hits … For a while, every hit for a search of Neo-opsis was for our magazine” And this is generally considered to be good.

Google “Ann” and you get many pages with no hit for the Okal Rel Universe. But everyone knows how to pronounce her name. Google “Horth Nersal” and it’s three pages before you find a hit that isn’t about the alpha-male lead of the Okal Rel Universe. (Yes, all right Amel, I know you get to be more powerful eventually, but alpha male? Come on! Be happy I let you punch Eler Nersal in Part 8.)

How about your character names? Did you go for unique hits or easy recognition? Would you change them now, if you could?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2012 7:14 am

    I go for unique names. I have a character named Shay Bladen, the wielder of a magic black diamond battleaxe, and his mentor, Bibi, the woman warrior. Other names in the novel are Tarver, Orlait, Meilin, and the names of gems–traditional for one family. Cinnabar and Spinel are the most prominent of those. Anyone can be named Sue. Not anyone gets to be Cinny.

  2. Olga Efremova permalink
    November 26, 2012 8:10 am

    A very hot issue for me. The first name of the protagonist in my novel is Harvie – and she is a girl. I’ve got a few comments from the reviewers that it doesn’t make sense, but the majority just accepted it. To make it more plausible I came up with a backround story how she had chosen this name – but it’s not in the book! How did I chose this name – I simply liked the sound of it and had no idea that this is a male name. After all, how many females named Nikita do you know in the real world? Those born before the movie with the same title came out? I contemplated changing it at some point, but all substitutes didn’t really stick.

    Also at some point I was taken aback by the comments that I often use different names for the same character, and that confuses the reader. Well, is that really confusing if the same person is addressed “William” on one page, “Bill” on the next and then “Billy” further on? I realise that English-speaking readers might not fully appreciate the nuances of addressing someone as “Timofey” / “Tim” / “Timka” / “Timosha”, but to me this adds a nice touch of authenticity to a dialogue that is assumed to happen in a foreign language.

    • November 26, 2012 9:37 pm

      I don’t see any problem with that. A long time ago I wrote a story with a character named William. I always referred to him as William whether in narration or dialogue. Then when my critique partners gave me notes, everyone called him Bill.

      It’s only natural to use shortened forms of names or nicknames. We do it without even thinking about it.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      November 28, 2012 9:30 am

      Olga! I got the same beef about multiple-ways to refer to characters. Horth Nersal, Liege Nersal, for example. Name vs. title. I confess it got bad in some places so I worked to clean it up. But didn’t eliminate. Did put in a paragraph in Courtesan Prince where Ranar is analysing the Ameron Biography where he notices the same person can be referenced in multiple ways, thinking — I suppose — to help the reader sort it out. I blame too many Russian novels in formative years.

  3. November 26, 2012 12:13 pm

    It seems odd to me to use ordinary names in a fantasy world, whether I am reading or writing. What is “Ann” doing riding a dragon and throwing flames at her enemy??

    For my novel, Dark Innocence, I listened for my characters to tell me their names and used those, though some of the names evolved over time as the characters developed. I also made up words in a magical language. I included a Glossary for those, but forgot to include pronunciation of the names. I guess I got so used to the characters’ names that it didn’t occur to me that readers might have trouble with them! I’ll be sure to include it in Book Two.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      November 28, 2012 9:35 am

      You are blessed to have characters who speak their names to you. About pronounciation, some authors use pronounciation from an existing language. Like Welsh. Helps to know the language concerned well, of course. And as a reader, I confess I often make up what I like.
      BTW Ann of Rire would totally ride a dragon if they existed in my SciFi series.🙂 But I do recall being startled to discover “Harry Potter” was the name of a wizard hero. In general, there’s something cool for me about a fantasy protag having a nifty name.

  4. November 26, 2012 12:39 pm

    For academic satire I use a lot of commonplace first names, but I draw many of the characters’ surnames from ‘Fishes of the World’ or other marine biology books. I usually name demons after species that gave me trouble in the lab.

    I suppose somebody might find this distracting, but how many marine biologists are out there buying fantasy? And who knows, I may pick up crossover readers from people who were originally googling the fishes.

  5. November 26, 2012 8:49 pm

    I used a lot of biblical names in Quantum Cannibals, but my characters were not necessarily like their namesakes. I used some Eskimo words also. Main thing for me was that the names should be distinct, but easy to remember and pronounce.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      November 28, 2012 9:38 am

      oooh I like that. I used the names of gods and goddesses for personal names for my Demish characters from planet Nirvana in Part 8. Usually feel obliged to consider how the meaning resonates with the character, whether in harmony or the opposite.

  6. November 26, 2012 9:40 pm

    In Tomorrow News Network, I try to use a mix of strange and normal names. I have characters named Talie and Cognis, but I also have an Isaac, a John, and even an Ann. I think surrounding my weird name characters with normal names helps them stand out even more.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      November 28, 2012 9:40 am

      I like Cognis. But have avoided names ending in ‘s’, myself, for fear of the complications when forming the possessive. Talie is pronounced “Tal – ee”, right? Anyone say “Tay – lee” instead? Always suprises me what readers do with names I’m used to but suspect I’m the one doing the odd pronounciation. Sigh.

      • November 28, 2012 8:58 pm

        My name is James, so I got used to the whole apostrophe s after an s thing long ago. I never even thought of it as a issue when I named the character. As for Talie (you’re right, it’s Tal-ee), I have yet to hear anyone mispronounce it, but anything is possible.

  7. November 28, 2012 9:34 am

    I tend to go for what I feel is unique and pronouceable – Lettice, Zared and Felice being some recent examples. But if I was creating a fantasy universe with its own language and pronunciation style, that would be different. I’d probably need to have a character be exposed to the names in such a way that the pronunciation comes across clearly on the page, then trust the reader to do the rest of the footwork later on.

  8. November 28, 2012 10:15 am

    I was a late reader… lazy eye, bit of dyslexia, and a preference to playing outside, building forts, exploring… meant that I was almost an adult before I found books that interested me enough that I was willing to make the extra effort to read. Unusual names didn’t bother me, unless all the characters had long and hard to spell names. If the writer’s characters are not distinct individuals, then similar unusual names can be confusing. I remember a novel I read, where I had to write the characters names, nicknames, titles, etc. on a large bookmark. It was like a logic puzzle trying to keep track of who was who. I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I might have. I have never had a problem keeping track of Lynda Williams characters, even if they are being called by their title instead of their name, she has set the scene well enough that I know who’s who. This is not the case with some writers, where I will have to go back and read pages again and again to be sure it is so-and-so and not a new character or the fellow from that other chapter. Some readers have no trouble at all keeping track of characters with long unusual names and several titles. That is not the case with me. I find myself wishing that if the writer is going to call a character by his/her nicknames, childhood names, adult names, and several different titles, that at least once in the book those names might be together in one place, or that each of those characters should stand out as individuals, so that I don’t have to figure out who they are when they walk into the room and are called by another name than they were called before.

  9. David Casperson permalink
    November 28, 2012 1:42 pm

    I hope that it’s not out of place for a non-writer to comment.

    I think that it’s important that names not be too weird in their context, and context is important. Imagine The Fellowship of the Ring with Galadriel named Lorelei or Buffy. Another example, it’s the “Tom”, not the “Bombadil” that’s slightly odd in “Tom Bombadil”.

    Nicknames work. Everybody knows who Sam is in the LOTR, but the top Google hit for Samwise (at least for me) is indeed Sam. Even Hamfast picks out Sam’s dad.

    If you hope to be translated be a little careful with hidden double meanings. The French edition of the LOTR has a really long footnote about old English meanings of Pippin.

    I’m willing to forgive authors a lot of strangeness in their names, as long as they’ve put a similar amount of thought into them. For me, names help create the atmosphere of the story.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      December 9, 2012 5:22 pm

      Not at all out of place, David C! Nice to hear from you. Be careful, or I’ll start soliciting articles on math and the Optimistic SF angle from your for Reality Skimming.

  10. November 28, 2012 2:35 pm

    Interesting post Lynda! Often people come to love whatever name bear good tidings… or perhaps names of characters they can really relate to…
    I always pick names I love, or I choose them for the ones I am particularly writing for.

  11. Krysia permalink
    November 29, 2012 10:29 am

    Eler: I hurt his hand with my face

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      November 29, 2012 6:28 pm

      Lynda: Yes, you did Eler. Do you feel better now?

      • Krysia permalink
        November 30, 2012 10:55 am

        Eler: Surprisingly, yes. It’s good to know that even when I lose, I win.

  12. Barbara permalink
    December 4, 2012 11:27 am

    Jo Clayton did a great job with naming in her novels. I bought Blue Magic because the characters had nicknames, and it made them immediately real to me.

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