Writers, Heed the Name Sheriff

As self-appointed Name Sheriff In my writing critique group, Novel in Progress Austin, I recently cited Robbie Shapard for giving a key character in his very fine submission a name whose pronunciation was ambiguous. The name was “Strachan.” Every time my eye encountered the name, my ear balked: is it “STRAY-chan” or “STRAY-can?” Turned out to be neither. Robbie said it’s a Scottish name pronounced “Strawn.” Hmm. Don’t know if this ambiguity is a problem for other readers, but it seems to me the way to clear up confusion is to let the reader know the name rhymes with “drawn.” It could be handled seamlessly the first time Strachan corrects someone who mispronounces his name.

Robbie’s infraction was minor compared to one I encountered several years ago.  In a submission to the group, a writer whose story was set in Viet Nam had named his main character Phuc. Given my unsophisticated ear, this name stopped me every time I saw it. Turned out it’s pronounced “Fook,” I cited the author for choosing a name that would be a major speed bump for many readers.

Ambiguous pronunciation is just one way names can cause problems. Here are several others:

Names that sound too similar: Writers fixate on a single beginning letter. This is most problematical with first names for characters of the same gender, such as Joyce and Joan, and the confusion is compounded because both are one-syllable names.

Too many names for one character: I make a distinction here between major and minor characters. People generally have two names; some have nicknames. I would almost rule arbitrarily that minor characters be referred to throughout the novel by one name.  I say “almost,” because you can get away with more in a novel that has only a few characters.

All characters given Anglo-Saxon names: John Brown, Mary Crawford, Bill O’Brian, etc. Today’s novelists tend to me more sensitive to diversity. Unless your novel is set in Great Britain, there’s no excuse for not throwing in a Marta Letovsky or Zhang Wei.

Picky-picky: I’m not crazy about unixex names like Pat or Chris. I will most certainly arrest an author who fails to make the character’s gender clear upon first reference. I hate to have to adjust my perception of a character later on.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


3 thoughts on “Writers, Heed the Name Sheriff

  1. I think that names can be key to a reader’s perception of characters, especially in shorter works. Some things just cannot be covered in short stories and even more so in flash fiction. Names can serve as ways to emphasize differences and similarities among characters, a character’s nationality, even a character’s personality (ex. a woman’s name is Patricia but she prefers Pat because no one will be able to identify her gender based on her name alone). They should be handled very carefully and purposefully.

    I disagree with you on the pronunciation point. I don’t think that pronunciation is often that big of a problem. A lot of people didn’t know how to pronounce “Hermione” until the fourth Harry Potter book. I’ve run into many characters whose names I can’t pronounce and they didn’t deter me from reading the stories. The example that comes to mind is any name in a Gogol story. I can’t pronounce Russian names to save my life but I read the stories anyway. I do think that that Scottish name’s pronunciation should be cleared up in dialogue because it would also be a moment for character development. (Does the character get irritated when people mispronounce their name? How does he/she correct people?) Odds are that if the name is from a nationality that isn’t your own, you’re going to have a hard time pronouncing it. Of course, I have a last name that people have a hard time pronouncing (long “o” in Hoogstad, it’s Dutch) so I suppose it’s just not a big problem for me.

    1. You’ve provided insight into how other people read. People like me who stumble over difficult names may well be in the minority.

      I like your idea of turning a character’s response to mispronunciation of his name into a clue to the character’s personality.

      You’re making me remember the mangling of my former married name: Skarnulis. My favorite mispronunciation came from a junior high student when I was substituting on day. He called me “Mrs. Godzilla.”

      1. Honestly, I could very well be in the minority because it’s not a problem for me. I suppose it’s really up to the writer to decide if he/she thinks it’ll be a problem for their overall audience. I think it’s a good idea, when giving feedback on a story, to mention if a name is particularly hard to pronounce/get past because if multiple beta readers have a problem with it, the writer may want to give the name some more thought.

        That’s hilarious about your former married name. Leave it to a junior high student to say something like that. Fortunately the most mispronounced my name has been is “Hogstad”.

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