Strange Names Are No Fantasy

I will readily admit that when I was a teen I mispronounced Moria (i.e., the mines of Moria, in The Lord of the Rings), as well as a number of other names in that highly acclaimed fantasy work. Fantasy authors are often derided for having unfamiliar names that readers can't pronounce, and new writers are admonished to avoid this "sin." However, unfamiliar names—and the ensuing mispronunciations—are not restricted to fantasy, or even to fictional works. I learned this rather uncomfortably when I was in the military.

As a young, no-stripe, E-1 in the US Air Force, my job was to make flight reservations for military personnel; once those reservations were made, I would type (on a typewriter) their "tickets" and hand them across a counter to the waiting customer, along with an explanation of the flight details and so forth. We often had a small crowd waiting, so I would have to call somebody forward to get their paperwork. Everybody outranked me at that point, which made mispronunciations even more awkward. I'm sorry, Master Sergeant Sepulveda, but there weren't any Sepulveda's where I grew up. I slaughtered names left and right for awhile.

Read on for how this relates to my current fantasy work-in-progress.

Naming Challenges

It's a challenge to assign names in fiction, there's just no way around that. Readability is vital, of course. A name like Krbtkngfzlngtk is not going to win points with readers. Linguistic consistency is also important; if one character is named Ayehi'waharoa there had better be a good in-story reason that the character's sibling is named Kruulk. Avoiding well-known names that would imply a separate identity ("why is the drunken dwarf named Justin Bieber?") and having a suitable "sound" for the usage ("somehow Rob Smith doesn't sound like an evil wizard") is also important. Names must avoid other real-world references: Would you be able to read about Mary Cocacola without thinking of a certain refreshing fizzy drink? There are plenty of pitfalls when trying to find suitable names, and the more names you have in a story, the greater the challenge.

Unfamiliar Names: Real vs Fiction

But is it really important to avoid "hard to pronounce names" in our fiction, when we obviously encounter plenty of them in real life? For some quick examples using place names in my area, do you know how to pronounce Puyallup, or Sequim, or Coeur D'Alene, or even Spokane? If you do pronounce them correctly, is it because you intuitively knew how or because someone taught you the correct pronunciation or some specific (e.g., regionally-relevant) rules that would apply? And then there is Guerrero and Brunnthal and Bijeljina and Dhuusamareeb... and let us not forget Phuket. None of the names in this paragraph were taken from a fantasy novel, they're all from real-world maps.

Does an unfamiliar name make you want to set aside reality, breaking the "story" for you? (Sorry, Sergeant Flores, I'm heading home now, I can't pronounce this customer's name....) We don't get that option in real life, so we have to either ask (if possible) or just plow on through, sometimes with a horrendous mispronunciation, until (maybe) we learn the correct way to say it later. So is it really a deal-breaking distraction if you're reading fiction and you run across a name that you're not sure how to pronounce?

I didn't quit reading The Lord of the Rings as a teen despite being unfamiliar with Celeborn, and I later found out that the C is hard, as in Caleb, rather soft, as in Celery. Did it ruin the story for me? Definitely not, I still loved it enough to read it again (and again, and again...).

Names and My WIP

I do not think "foreign sounding" or "hard to pronounce" are valid goals for fictional names, but I'm also not inclined to think that "hard to pronounce" is a sin for them as long as they are otherwise fitting for the story. In my fantasy series work-in-progress there are some names that I'm pretty sure readers and I will pronounce differently. But is that bad? Does that make the reader wrong?

Or is a different reader pronunciation just another interpretation of the story? There is a narrow range of what is "acceptable" for pronunciation of a real-world name like Wahkiakum (a county in the state where I live), because people need to communicate the name for real-world needs. Fiction, however, is not so strict. I'm probably going to rename Bhonym anyway before this story is published, but if I don't, would it matter if you and I pronounce it differently? Personally, I don't think so.

If you have thoughts—or names!—to share, feel free to do so in the comments.

Photo credit: Alvimann via, used under license.