Character Names

I ran into another character name situation a couple of days ago…a story in progress kept hanging up on the protagonist’s surname.   None of my early readers had seemed troubled by the one I was using, but I kept feeling that niggling sort of feeling when you’ve left the door of the fridge ajar, and your mind’s trying to tell you to check it.  And finally you do.

So, character names…how to pick them, or make them up, in a way that helps the story feel right to readers.   I’ve mentioned before (but can’t recall if it was on this blog, or another, or another site altogether)  that when my first books were coming out, and I did a lot of book club visits and library visits…I ASKED people what they liked and didn’t like in SF and fantasy and mysteries, and so on.  The answers surprised me.  The thing disliked the most about SF and fantasy?  Weird names.  Names the reader did not know how to say, names full of unfamiliar characters (like apostrophes or difficult consonant clusters.)  Some people have trouble with unfamiliar words–foreign words, words with sounds their language doesn’t have.   Second to weird names: too many characters whose names look or sound too much alike–names that start with the same cluster of letters (I’m guilty!! Arcolin, Arvid, Arian.)    We have only 26 letters in our alphabet, so if you’ve got a long series and more than 26 characters in total, some of them WILL have their names starting with the same letter…but make something else different.  Again in the Paksworld books, I have several POV characters starting with B.  Beclan and Burek are both short, two-syllable names, easy to figure out, but with the different vowels and the tall letter “l” in the middle of Beclan, and the tall “k” at the end of Burek, they *look* different as well as sound different.

Readers want to be able to see the name and ‘hear” it in their head.  So even though a name like Sztkrink  is distinctive…what does it SOUND like?  A glossary helps, but then the reader has to stop the story to look up the pronunciation…not ideal  A book full of unpronounceable (for that reader) names may very well languish unread until it ends up donated somewhere.

And all this sort of thing–making names distinctive enough, easily readable, easily pronounceable–assists readers in keeping characters straight.   So does giving them time to become familiar, in a concentrated passage, so the reader “knows” the character, before introducing the other one somewhere else, after a transition of space or time.   Beclan and Burek have not, so far, ever been in the same places; they have very different pasts.  When you have large families sharing a surname (the Serannos and Suizas and Meharrys of the Familias group) and thus in the same place at the same time (thinking of the book where Esmay met a a good chunk of Barin Serrano’s family,  or was home on Altiplano with her Serrano family) the individual names are unique.

But names don’t have to just make life easier for readers. They must fit the character, too.  In a society that uses more than one name for a character, both parts of the name need to fit.  And that’s where I was stuck on this current story.  The setting is a society that uses a minimum of two names; no “middle” name is required but some people have them.  Some areas still use patronymics of the Scandanavian type: Name  Name-son, Name Name’s dotter.  In other places, the surname is typically related to occupation: weaver, tanner, fisher, hunter, mason, tailor, thatcher etc.   There are multiple distinct cultures in each geographical region, and each has its naming conventions.  In the cities that are on “great” trade routes, there’s mixing, and thus mixing of potential name types.

This story starts in a large trade city, and since it’s a fantasy story, the names are readable, but not exactly the names in the phone book (if you still have one.)   The principal POV is a trades in grain (primarily), a youngish woman (late 20s? earl 30s?)  who inherited the business from her father; she has a sister who is blind.  Her father’s father left a distant farm to move to the city with a pushcart he’d built himself, and traded trash to get started.   His son grew the business until he could rise to a wagon, and then to a half-share in a narrow building.   Shortly before his death, he secured a membership in the Sutler’s Guild, but with only one wagon his city license and membership really curtail his ability to go bigger.  She is a small trader–she has a wagon and team to pull it, but not much more; to support herself and her sister as a trader has been hard since her father died 12 years ago.  She’s hardworking (or they’d be destitute), very practical, but capable of dreaming of doing more, doing better.  I  figured out in the first week that her first name was Grethan, that she and her sister shared one room in the house and rented out two more.  But her last name escaped me for a long time and when I found one, it didn’t feel quite right.   Since “Sera” is the polite address for women, it had to go with Sera.  It needed to sound like it fit that part of the setting–the city, the region, her social class as well.

I inched toward it just rolling sounds around in my mouth.  And going online to listen to videos set in different parts of England.  Cornwall.  Wales a definite NO for this one.  Worcestershire.  Lake District?  Maybe.  Um…Yorkshire?   It helps to have a lot of different interests, because suddenly I was watching a video of the last place in England that had machines that could put fringe on a woolen throw…weave them that way from the start.  Tweedy kind of things.  Fascinating to watch and the narrators voices were feeling “right.”  They source wool from particular farms in Cumbria, native breeds of sheep…and suddenly I heard a sound combination that felt like Grethan’s family name…sort of.  I watched that bit several times.  Name of a village or farm, I wasn’t sure which.   Took those sounds and mumbled them around in my mouth again.  And again.  And moved a consonant over…changed a final vowel–argued with myself about the final consonant, back and forth, until it settled with the first name.  Grethan Hoddal.   Was there ever a Hoddal family in our world?  Yes.   It was an uncommon name in one county in Scotland in the mid-19th c.  As Tolkein said, whenever he thought he’d invented a name he would later find out someone already had it.  Just about anything people can say will turn into someone’s name somewhere.    Grethan Hoddal looks a fair bit like a friend of mine (much younger friend of mine) when the friend was younger still and has a similar “feel.”  She is nothing like Paks or Dorrin or Ky or Esmay…she’s a sutler, a supplier to some of the mercs in Valdaire.

So if a character doesn’t hand you a name from the first…be patient.  Think about it.  Will it work for readers?  Will it work for you?  Will it work for that character in that story at that place at that time?

10 thoughts on “Character Names

  1. Interesting to hear your thoughts about names. I have always liked the names of your characters. I even liked one name so much that I tried to give it to a cat that adopted me, but fortunately he was more sensible and handed me the perfect name for him. (I still secretly hoard the original name in hopes that I will one day get to use it :))
    I admit to being a bit biased towards your naming practices though, being from a Scandinavian country I feel very at home with the -sons and -dotters.
    The only time I found it hard was with the Verrakaien and Marrakaien. I understand that there is reason for the names being similar, but I think it took me until at least the third reading of The deed of Paksenarrion to begin being able to tell the names apart.

    1. Jenny, thanks for that additional data point…that you found the Verrakaien & Marrakaien seriously difficult. Nobody else has mentioned it to me, but I’ll add it to my questions for the audience, when I do that at intervals. There may’ve been more trouble with it than I know about. The writers who rail against books that are easy to read as sloppy, weak, inferior, who want readers to feel the full thrust of a writer’s intelligence (and one of Spinrad’s essays on this was loaded with sexual imagery) seem to have the view that if you can understand any element without a struggle requiring a Lit degree to untangle, then it’s not worth reading. It *ought* to be hard, it *ought* to be unpleasant. Having readers actually enjoy the story is selling out; they should have to earn their way in. Pretty obviously I’m not that kind of writer and I don’t read that kind of book outside of a classroom. (Though I do drag myself through certain set pieces once a year or so, to remind myself how I don’t want my readers to feel at the end. I do understand why Charlotte Bronte (for instance) wrote such downers–having your water supply come out of a combination of a graveyard and some cesspits so you’re constantly sick drags all the energy out of anyone–but ye gods The Professor is a 100 pound anvil chained to a reader’s ankle. Give me Surtees’ hilarious hunting novels any day (Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour, for instance. Dickensian gift of humor without the guilt, or the weird way Dickens handled the “good” young females.)

      I did the global search/replace for Grethan’s new last name last night, and this morning she seemed completely happy with it and the others involved in the story were not twisting their mouths to say her previous name. Happy writer.

  2. Very interesting. To think that a book will languish on the shelf until given away just because the protagonist has an unfitting name. A good successful author has a really lot to consider. It almost seems that coming up with a good plot is a small part of the whole business.

    1. No, the plot isn’t a small part. But neither is characterization, and the name is part of the characterization. Some people who said they didn’t like SF/fantasy because of the weird names were basically saying they would not buy or try to read a book if they could not get the pronunciation of a name pretty quickly. You can laugh at that, you can disapprove of them….but they are potential readers who aren’t reading books they might otherwise enjoy. Why turn off a segment of readers when it’s something a writer can control pretty easily? If they won’t read the book they can’t ever enjoy the plot, no matter how much time and effort the writer puts in. (If I sound a bit fussy here, I’m also listening to a podcast while I write, just to see if I can do that…and I am in general annoyed by suggestions, however delicate–because Spinrad and some others were loud and aggressive about this–that readers should submit to a writer’s choices and not expect to read & enjoy, just read & be taught whatever the writer wanted to shove at them.)

  3. I barely remember being taught to read by, I think, my mother, certainly pre any sort of school, but part of the way I was taught involved looking at the patterns both of shape and of the sound the word itself, and in relation to other words. So your point about varying the shape of the word really rang a bell for me, and I have found your names easier than too many authors’ to distinguish.

    And I entirely agree about the benefits to all of books that are easy to read. I find it amusing that the writers of opaque books are seen as clever, while the writers of popular books are too often disparaged, when it seems to me that a well written story is actually a rather harder thing to do. I suspect a lot of sour grapes 😉

    1. Thank you for this. I love the idea that words have “shape” as well as sound and relationship to the words around them, and will look at this for myself. Also, the idea that popular books are often disparaged vs the opaque books that are seen as clever. I find this also happens with books that are sourced in ‘romance’ – they are seen as second class, when they are well written and at least half of the population is female and find these books relatable.

      1. Especially useful when you have a reason for names to start similarly (family decided to name all its children starting with same letter or letter combo)…you can create a little more visible difference by putting a tall letter or two in a different part of the word: b, d, t, k, l. It’s not *obvious* in a sticking-out-distraction kind of way, but our pattern-making visual center will pick up on it without alerting you, and the mental sound you get for the name will be different. You’re right that romance is often seen as second class, but the reasons (for romance and other popular genres) are a little more complex that I first thought. I should do a whole post on the “popular” effects.

  4. Years ago a friend asked me to come up with a comet name for a story he was writing. I drew a blank until I invented a whole back story for the astronomer that named it. All that invisible work for a one word name!

  5. I don’t remember now whether it was somewhere in this blog or Paksworld. But I do recall you writing about this way back when in one of the two (maybe both).

    I’m glad for the reminder though as I’m starting to do a bunch for an RPG world background and have been sitting on fleshing things out as some of the names “just won’t come”. So your earlier post has probably been in the back of my mind. Now it’s at the front.


    1. You’re very welcome. It’s possible that in an RPG where you’re there to say the names for people, that the ease of pronunciation from reading isn’t as important…let me know if you have experience in that direction. Might be true for names in video formats, too, because the person watching is also hearing them. I know some people who are fluent (as fluent as anyone is) in Klingon and they’ve assimilated the phonetics of that language. I….haven’t.

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