Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What's In a Name?

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?


RK Charron said...

Hi Meg :)
Thank you for the fascinating post.
(I automatically pronounced Docia as "DOseeYa")
As a long-time reader of Fantasy & SF, I'm used to strange names & I just self-pronounce 'em.
For instance: Lloyd Alexander's Fflewddur Fflam.
All the best,

Cara Bristol said...

In general, I am not turned off by difficult to pronounce names that are authentic to the location/time period of the novel. When I read, I read to myself; I don't read a novel out loud.

However, if I found all the names to be difficult, it would bump me. Keep in mind there are common English names that people are familiar with and unusual English names. In any gathering, you won't have a bunch of people who all have hard to pronounce names, there will be Smiths, and Millers, and Andersons (and yes, I know these probably aren't names of English extraction), so why pack a novel full of unusual Spanish, German or whatever names. Use Gonzalez and Rodrigues and have one or two less common Spanish surnames.

Where I have the most difficulty with names is paranormal and sci fi, where ALL the names are made up. There have been quite a few instances where I did not read a paranormal romance because the made-up names took too much work.

Erin Nicholas said...

I'm with RK-- that's how I pronounce Docia too
And Cara's right-- I think it helps if there is something more "colorful" to mix in some easier ones. It does throw me a little at first as a reader, but I usually make up some way of pronouncing it and go on my merry way! If the characters are doing interesting things I don't really care what we call them
Great post, Meg!

Tinkerbellz22 said...

That's how I pronounced Docia as well.

I don't get too hung up on the names of characters. In fact, I seem to like when my favorite character have unique names because it makes them unique as well. And if I don't know how to pronounce the name I just make up my own version and move forward.

Natasha A. said...

I have learned over many years of reading,to not actually use names when reading, especially if it's something I can't pronounce. I use the guy, the girl, the girl's friend, etc. I find that if I try to use the name, it pulls me out of the reading because I am trying to hard to figure out how to pronounce it.

Debra St. John said...

I'm willing to tolerate unusual names, although I will admit, if it's a realy tough one, I'll just make something up and go with that!

(Which was bad when I found out the real way to pronoune Hermione's name in the Harry Potter series in like the fourth book!)

Kelly Jamieson said...

I totally agree, Meg, that you need to use names that work with the setting. And I've probably mispronounced a few names (in my head) as I'm reading some books but does it really matter? It's their character that matters more than their name.

Meg Benjamin said...

Thanks everybody--interesting comments all.

PG Forte said...

I like unusual names in books. And authentic, realistic names beat the kinds of names that authors suffering from Celebrity Baby-Naming Syndrome are likely to come up with.