Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy...
William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”
Or should that be: Alas, poor Mark, Rick, or Steve?????
I ran across a blog poll last week, which begged the question: Is it important that you can pronounce character names? I was startled that 79% or 673 votes came back yes, with a paltry 182 votes for no. One commenter actual stated: Yes, I will stop reading a book because of the character name. However, as I browsed through the post comments, I found the majority to be in the minority percentage. The “No” votes were the most vocal in that naming conventions were not critical to whether or not they liked a story and would continue reading.
Now I can see where naming conventions would be important. Historical fiction for example can and should be rather rigid about the rules of naming conventions. After all, it is fiction set against the backdrop of historical fact. Authenticity is critical to the suspension of disbelief in this case, and so your characters should be named appropriately for their time and place in history. As far as contemporary work goes, most names have mutated from their native forms over the eons, cultures cross, and naming conventions have changed substantially with the advent of baby name books and web-sites. Family names are still used to a great degree as well as symbolic cultural names, but even those are subject to alteration. If we take a look at the Greek name Selena, which means ‘Moon’ we can see how that has changed with the passage of time, not just in meaning, but in spelling variations as well. In the fantasy and sci-fi genres, we have a great deal more creative leeway with our character names, just as we do with the world they live in.
All that said, ethnic bias and stereotyping can still come into play even in today’s modern society. If your main character is Irish then some readers will insist that the character have an approved Irish name with all the complimentary cliché Irish physicalities. So what you can get away with will mostly be determined by your genre, your story, and your ideal reader.
Personally -- as a reader of a wide range of fiction and non-fiction -- if a character name seems appropriate to the story, I don’t care if I can pronounce it or not. I wouldn’t meet someone for the first time and say, “I can’t pronounce your name, it seems odd to me, so, I don’t want to know you.” I don’t do that to fictional characters either. It’s the name the author gave them at birth, the name the author felt suited them, and so I generally respect the choice unless it seems utterly ridiculous for the language, the story, or the character, but in some cases a contradictory name can be important to the overall message, so I try not to pass judgement too hastily. I am always more interested in who a character is than their label. Maybe this is easier for me since I read a lot of foreign translations and fantasy fiction. I am just used to interesting, and in the case of Russian Literature, oftentimes lengthy difficult to pronounce names. I don’t go into books with preconceived notions. It’s the author’s fictional world, and as long as it’s logical within the confines of the piece, I am more than willing to embrace that world as reality for its allotted number of pages.
So tell me authors. How do you pick your character names? Do they come with names, like mine do in some cases? Do you research names like I do in other situations? Do you take creative license at times, or do you stick with rigid naming conventions? And lastly, when you’re reading, has an author’s naming convention irritated you enough to give up on a book, or are you like me -- When in Rome!
The art is Yorick’s skull in the gravedigger scene of Hamlet (5.1) by Eugene Delacroix
Cheryl Anne Gardner