The Naming of the Shrew– 4 Rules about Naming Your Characters


I’ve recently seen a couple ‘name your character’ blog posts and I thought I’d pipe up with an amusing little story about me. Well.

I have mild dyslexia. Take that into account when you read this post. It’s important in this story, too, mind. I read Tolkien as a ten-year-old. Let me rephrase that: I devoured Tolkien as a ten-year-old (and up, to today), but as a slightly dyslexic ten-year-old, names were a problem for me.

I got Sam Gamgee down fine, and Frodo, and Pippin, and Merry. But for several years I thought Legolas was, in fact, Lolegas. I never had the misfortune of speaking out loud about the characters about whom I was reading, and knowledge came about when I listened to the audiobook (it was actually about 20 CDs that I borrowed from the library, and that, unfairly, could only be checked out for a week at a time) and the narrator said ‘Legolas’. I was so confused.

So. I say all that to say, I don’t want to dampen your creativity (well, actually, I do. A little) but it might not be a bad idea to keep those poor slightly dyslexic ten-year-olds in mind while you write.

Names are hard.

So, storytime #2. Once upon a time I wrote a book and was published. I myself had an audiobook reader, and before he started, I recorded myself saying all the names so he could get them well in hand.

Except that failed.

Most notably for one of my main characters: Aen.
See, in my head, this was easy to pronounce. (A-eN) Not “I-en” or “E-eN” but like you are saying the two letters of the alphabet: “A-N”

Not so for my audiobook narrator, folks. He pronounced my character’s name wrong the ENTIRE BOOK. Actually, he quit halfway through revisions because he didn’t like me or my book and the names were too difficult. Oops.

But before he quit, I sat and cried. Hey, being 17 and getting a book published was a big deal, and having the audiobook get totally butchered hurt.

(Luckily, this story has a happy ending: the second audiobook reader got things mostly right)

But. Do NOT assume that your readers, even the savvy non-dyslexic types that have bookstagrams and get paid with free books and goods to take pictures, can manage your character names. So. Take my advice on this and think first.

Here are some hard and fast rules (okay, well. Maybe I just made these up but you’d be smart to listen) that you should follow when thinking about that all-important character’s name.

  1. Please do not. DO NOT. throw together names like this one: A’llszzmuthgwhpt.
    Using punctuation in names really should be outlawed, yon epic fantasy author.
    I understand the need to be unique, I do! But there are plenty of names that follow the general vowel-consonant combination techniques common in English.Let it be noted here that I know paltry amounts of both modern French and ancient Greek, and those languages also follow, basically, the rules of spoken English as far as letter combinations go.

    Let it also be noted that I am all about names and languages from culture about which I am unfamiliar.

  2. It is also a Bad Idea™ to reuse those really specific, really popular names from fiction. (Except for very limited purposes, like you’re poking fun, or the character acknowledges that their parents were total geeks and that’s why her name is Galadriel)
  3. Stick with the culture. How do I mean? Well.
    I just read a novel called RoseBlood. (You can find my thoughts here) and one of the main characters’ names was Thorne. While being pretty on the nose (RoseBlood and Thorne) he was born and raised in . . . . France. The word ‘Thorne’ is not French. The French word for thorn is Épine.
    Don’t ignore the culture and natural language of a place because you want your love interest to have a cutesy name. Don’t. Do. It.
  4. People won’t talk about things they can’t pronounce. I’ve learned about this in my wine service: people will not risk mispronouncing something and looking foolish so they will not order. They’ll say instead: I’ll take a glass of the house red, when they’re really really interested in the Freixenet Cava (It’s pronounced Fresh-in-net, by the way)
    Don’t let this happen to your favorite character because you really really just had to name them A’llszzmuthgwhpt.

Nano-ers, I’m looking at you.