Recently, I got a review that was largely positive, for which I thank the reviewer. But she had one quibble that I found sort of interesting. She said some of my characters had names that were hard to pronounce, and she didn’t like that. Now I’m not entirely sure which characters she was referring to. Toleffson doesn’t strike me as that hard to figure out, nor Barrett nor Dupree. I suppose Avrogado might give some people pause, but still it’s pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. My continuing heroine Docia might have a name that would create problems for some readers, but again, it’s a short name and however you pronounce it will probably be okay (most commonly, it’s DOSHya). I finally decided it had to be one of my minor villains who was causing most of the problem—Biedermeier. If that was it, I apologize. Maybe I should have called him Schultz.
The thing is, though, this wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this criticism, although I think it’s the first time it was directed at me. It’s becoming another of those writing “rules” that get bandied about from workshop to workshop. Make sure your character names aren’t too hard to pronounce. Readers don’t like it.
Now leaving aside for the moment the fact that this new rule eliminates most Russian novels (Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov anyone?), it also strikes me as a difficult rule to fulfill if you’re trying for anything approaching realism in your work. Not everybody is named Smith or Jones, after all.
For example, most of my books are based in the Hill Country of Texas. Now one of the interesting things about the Hill Country is the mix of people who live there. A lot of the towns were settled by Germans, but there’s also a heavy Mexican influence (as there is in most of South Texas), as well as Eastern Europeans from countries like Poland and the Czech Republic. To be true to my setting, I need to use names that might actually turn up in towns like Konigsburg: Biedermeier and Avrogado, Richter and Maldonado, Rankin and Linklatter. And, of course, occasional emigrants from other places like the Toleffson brothers.
I’m not the only one who does this, of course. Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak books are set in the Alaskan bush and they bristle with Russian and Scandinavian names, along with Aleut and Tlingit. Janet Evanovich has Slavic and Italian names in New Jersey. Eloisa James has French names in eighteenth century England. And all of them help to give the settings some heft.
So I’m not inclined to follow this advice, although I can understand why it’s given. Occasionally as a reader I’ve had to struggle with pronunciation, but I usually came up with something that worked for me, although it may not have been exactly accurate (although Charlaine Harris, in her latest Sookie Stackhouse, threw me by telling me exactly how to pronounce a Roman character’s name, which meant I had to keep correcting my own pronunciation all the way through the book).
Character names shouldn’t be needlessly difficult, but by the same token they’re part of the setting you create. And in the end, I think you have to trust your readers to figure things out.
So what do you think? Are you turned off by difficult names, or are you willing to tolerate a few tongue twisters for the sake of local color?