While I’m struggling with the proof process on FC:II (the errors are entirely my own; nothing to do with CreateSpace), another topic came to mind on which I have an opinion: Character Names.
I’ve seen some doozies—in print and in workshops—that left me shaking my head in wonder. Don’t these people read their own stuff? Don’t they see/can’t they hear how awful that name sounds? Below are some of the naming practices that drive me batty.
The Unnecessary Apostrophe
This mostly occurs in fantasy works, where authors feel free to insert apostrophes into every character’s name. In one workshop, I asked the author how you were supposed to pronounce the name Sific’r’, and how would you make it possessive. Sific’r”s? Now I do not have a problem with an apostrophe in a name if it’s properly used or historically accurate. The apostrophe, used to indicate a glottal stop (e.g., Hawai’i) is perfectly legitimate. In the Ploughman Chronicles, I originally used the old Breton name of Guihomarc’h for one character (I later changed it to a more modern form, Guihomarc, to make it easier on the readers’ eyes.) But there are limits to what you can and should do in creating a name.
The Eye Chart
This is the science-fiction equivalent to fantasy’s Unnecessary Apostrophe, as budding writers give their aliens unpronounceable names to make them seem more…well…alien. The movie Paul, is in part a direct response to this trope of the skiffy genre. Slapping a bunch of consonants in a row doesn’t make an alien-sounding name; it makes a stupid name. I’ll grant that there could be life forms that don’t have lips and tongues, who communicate with clicks and buzzes, but if you want a human reader to be able to pronounce a character’s name, throw some vowels in there or s/he’ll trip over it every time (and trust me, that’s bad). Exception: Mister Mxyzptlk and his ilk, whose name is intended to be hard to pronounce.
I will admit to my own guilt in this realm. The name of one of my characters, Cesare Uccido, is something of a pun along the lines of Dickens’ Mr. Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock from Bleak House. However, unless you speak Italian, the pun will be sufficiently hidden. But leave characters with names like “Travis Tea,” “Pikup Andropov,” and “Warren Peace” to the guys on Car Talk. If you telegraph too much about your character by way of the name, you’re telegraphing too much. If the name sounds ludicrous (“It’s a joke name, sir!”) then so will the story. Exception: fiction intended to be humorous and/or farcical can handle such names (e.g., anything by Jasper Fforde).
The Flock of Seagulls
Okay, I didn’t have a quip-worthy label for this one…I panicked. Anyway, this is where you’re reading along and the names are so similar that you lose track of who’s in the scene. Robert, Richard, Bob, and Dick walk into a bar… You get the picture. I’ve read novels with Amandas and Amelias, James and Jacks, and it gets worse when an author starts throwing in a bunch of surnames all beginning with the same letter. I admit, I didn’t read all of each name when I was reading Anna Karenina; “Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky” became “Mister O” in my head, and I got completely lost in all the given names, surnames, patronyms, and nicknames that every person had. My personal rule: If you need a dramatis personae you’re probably doing it wrong.
Even so-called “normal” names can pose a problem. Case in point: my Fallen Cloud Saga has two characters with the same name, President George A. Custer, Sr., and Lt. George A. Custer, Jr. This could get very difficult for the reader to follow, both in general and specifically where the two characters are in the same scene. I decided early on in the outline process that the narrative would always refer to Custer the Younger as “George,” and Custer the Elder would either be named as “Custer” or by his nickname, “Autie” (which was, I’ll add, historically accurate). This gave the reader a clear line to draw and helped immediately ground them in which character was which.
Like any other part of writing, the character names shouldn’t intrude, shouldn’t pop up out of the prose and bother the reader. There are plenty of modern names that are designed to draw the eye (I once met a woman named “Vyvvyenne”) but unless you want your reader to snigger every time the character enters a scene, be wary.