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.