Monday, August 8, 2011

Chintithpit-mang, or, Naming Your Characters.

By Janet Fogg

Recently my husband shook his head and laughed when he saw me re-reading Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Dick liked Footfall but he also jokes about books in which a character’s name or title is overly long or not easily pronounced, as they often are in science fiction or fantasy novels. Footfall is one of those. Chintithpit-mang. Fathisteh-tulk. Raztupisp-minz. Sure, an alien named Ralph might not be particularly frightening or set the right tone, but if a reader pauses while reading isn’t that also a problem?

I encountered that while racing through one of the Harry Potter books. Yes, I was reading far too fast as I couldn’t wait to get to the end, but the first time Gregorovitch was mentioned I stopped cold. Huh? Oh wait, not Grindelwald, but Gregorovitch! Or was it the other way around? Anyway, I do remember a sense of frustration at the time, even though I was only pulled out of Harry’s world for a moment.

Then there’s the "Kwisatz Haderach" in Dune. Not terrible to pronounce but perhaps not euphonious, either. In fact, my husband calls Maud’Dib the “Itzak Kwaggle.” We were both entranced by the book but the phrase "Kwisatz Haderach" made Dick pause and he's always made light of it, though I didn't stumble while reading those words.

At the conference last year Connie Willis explained how she minimizes character-name confusion in her books. She makes a list of the alphabet and when she names one of her characters the first letter of that name is crossed off the list. No fair using the same letter twice, so you won't find Violet and Viola in the same book unless similar names are imperative for moving the story forward. I like that. No, it doesn’t address the science fiction/fantasy challenge of creating names that are appropriate for the culture AND easy to read without crossing your eyes, but then again, now I’m thinking about a story where the main character is a really scary alien named Ralph... Be afraid.

12 comments:

Giles Hash said...

Names can be confusing when they're similar, especially when you can't pay as close attention as you'd like. I'm listening to the audio for A Game of Thrones, and I can't tell you how many Johns and Robs/Roberts there are. It's driving me nuts. But I don't have time to sit down and READ the book. And I can't just sit and listen since I'm listening to the book at work. It's a great mental exercise, but it can be frustrating.

BJG said...

This drove me nuts in War and Peace and the first time I read Tolkien ... Saruman v. Sauron? Both bad guys? What was he thinking?

Lester D. Crawford said...

I have not settled on the final versions of the alien names in my story, but I do have a purpose for their difficult to pronounce nature: the names are supposed to be virtually unpronounceable by the Human protagonist. In response, the protagonist "humanizes" the names, or just makes up names to call the individual aliens. Those names are easier to pronounce.

Chiseled in Rock said...

I'm always pulled out of the story by strange names because I have to stop and figure out how to pronounce them. Short and simple is better, and I like Connie's method of making sure names are not even similar within a novel. Every technique that keeps the reader in the story is good.

Chiseled in Rock said...

Oops, I forgot I was signed in here. That was me...Pat Stoltey

Brent Wescott said...

As an American reading the Harry Potter books, I couldn't pronounce Hermione until like the third movie when my daughter slapped me and said, "Her-my-knee," pointing at the appropriate thing all along.

And what about book titles that you can't pronounce, like the third book in the Eragon series: is it Bree-singer?

Marlena Cassidy said...

Very rarely will I pull a name out in my writing that's unpronounceable or difficult. Since I read fast, I always gloss over crazy names and then I get all confused when I can't figure out who's doing what. Sometimes in my mind I'll just call them by their first letter and go with that.

j. a. kazimer said...

Great post, Janet. Fantasy names often make me laugh in their weirdness. But then again, romance novels can be so much worse in their genericness stub muffin names, like Agent Jackson Stone.

But I'm not one to throw naming stones. Recently I read through a MS I'd wrote years ago (one that will never see the light) and I noticed that all my characters in this mystery/crime novel had ie ending names, with the exception of the protagonist. It's amazing how much we learn about craft from each novel we write.

Susan S said...

Excellent advice. I have this same issue with novels that complicate names too much - especially Fantasy/SciFi, as you mention. When I'm writing, I actually employ the same strategy as Connie Willis wherever possible - no same initial letter and no rhyming names if I can avoid it. That's limited in my case by historical naming conventions and "reality checks" - since I write historicals, I am sometimes stuck with the names people actually gave their children, but I do what I can to make them readable.

Anonymous said...

I also prefer to use names that are quite different and often tangentially related to what the character does or his/her character.
Also fantasy? I think it is fun to take foreign terms/nicknames for objects and do direct translations into English. If one vegatable is gray slacker in another language...use gray slack. Quench tree? Water tree. it'll be recognized by those who speak the foreign language yet will make some sense, ideally, when it describes something.

Janet Fogg said...

Great comments, everyone. (And I'd forgotten about tripping over Sauron v Saruman!)

I apologize for not being able to respond on Monday or yesterday.

Next Monday I'm posting a follow-up to this subject with a few tricks that I use when naming characters. Hope you'll stop by and share your methods!

Esri Rose said...

I've taken to giving characters surnames that sound like what they do or are, if it's possible. Like, I gave a painter the last name "Pinter." Course, that's also the name of a famous writer, so hard to say if it works.