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Character Naming

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Alien Names

It’s fun to make up alien sounding names, but can you make them pronounceable? A name like Fator is easy to figure out. Not Feignonae. Avoid putting two vowels together—and avoid names like Avignemonsorkei—that’s right, long, unfamiliar names (you could use the name one time, and for the rest of the book, have the character go by his nickname of Avi). It can be played up for humor.

“What’s your name, alien?”

“Avignemonsorkei.”

“Okay. When I say Avi, you come running.”

You don’t want to stop readers in their tracks while reading your story. Having them trip over a name is unforgivable—and readers may not forgive you and go to another author. Oh—the same goes for making up alien names for animal and plant life.

Assigning Names

Try not to name more than one character with the same starting letter. Don’t have an Eloise, Ella, and Ellen. A good way to keep track while writing your novel is to make an alphabetical list of your character names as you create them and keep it handy.

I created a template composed of the alphabet A – Z. When I assign a character name, I list it under its alphabet letter and never pick a name starting with that letter for the rest of the book.

Care in Naming

Don’t give characters unusual spellings of first names. It promotes reader confusion.

Example: Jhoney, Kathyrne, Sandhi, etc.

Real People

Be careful of two things: 1) using the names of celebrities of any rank, and 2) using the names of ordinary people you know. In either case, you could be opening yourself up to a lawsuit.

Unpronounceable Names

Don’t give someone a name so unfamiliar that it’s difficult to pronounce. In particular, watch out for ie and ei combinations. With the vast amount of immigrant names having entered the English language, no one knows for sure how to pronounce them—and there’s no consistency. If you’re unsure about your chosen name, reveal it to several people and see how many of them hesitate or get stumped. You don’t want your readers to do either, because they’ll be jerked out of your story.

Usage

Using a character’s name too many times is distracting. You can substitute he/she/her/him in narrative. The characters shouldn’t be continually calling each other by name. If they do, it won’t appear as natural dialogue.

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Eugene Orlando is a board member, group leader, regional director, and lifetime member of the FWA. He is also an author of works of fiction and books on writing. Early in 2015, he became an editor for FWA’s “Editors Helping Writers” program and is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association.

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6 Responses

  1. Jerry Tabbott
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    Aha! I’ve received repeated questions about my character’s names. The key aliens (the Klaadians) are Khressea, Toudratha, and General H’Saichat. Their ships are the K’leestra47, the N’Valdra6, etc. No one has particularly stumbled over Khressea’s (Cress-see-ah) or Toudratha’s (Too-drah-thah) names. However, the silent H’ troubles readers on H’Saichat’s name (Say-shat)

    Ironically, it is the surname of a French couple that received the most criticism – the Jerchons. I felt obligated to change it to the Coulons, because readers were pronouncing the former “Jerk-on”. Pronunciation of the latter is “Koo-lon” – which at least only sounds like “cool-on” if mispronounced.

    I’ve already decided to provide a key character list (with pronunciations) for readers.

    • Eugene Orlando
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      Really cool, Jerry! I pronounced every one of the names you had without reading the phonetics in parentheses, and nailed them all, even H’Saichat. H’s at the beginning of names often are silent. How well I know the run in you had with Jerchons. I think all Sci-fi writers have been surprised when readers pronounce your alien names that is something close to the intended pronunciation and that is “unfortunate,” to say the least. It certainly happened to me more than once. Thank goodness it was in a critique group. Your best bet is to avoid a pronunciation guide to alien names and make them pronounceable from the get go. Even if there are two different pronunciations, it won’t matter to the reader until you do a reading and they discover that you pronounce it differently. In that case, never insist that your way is correct. Tell them that either way is okay, it’s just how you want to pronounce it. They’ll love you for it.

  2. Aransas Vacilando
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    One caveat: When naming siblings, especially if they are constantly together, like Tolkien’s dwarfs, naming characters with similar sounding names can help the readers remember them.

    • Eugene Orlando
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      That’s interest. I never considered that. I once did that for triplet girls in a historical fiction novel, but I never got feedback on it.

  3. Tricia Pimental
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    I’ve also had fun choosing names associated with either character or situation. For instance, my character Libby Landis is tied to her past, but is freed–liberated–by the end of the novel. “Craig” loves the mountains and all things outdoors. By not applying the technique to every character, you avoid distracting the reader but also telegraph info about them.

  4. Eugene Orlando
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    An interesting point. Advice for us all.