Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 27

by Laura Anne Gilman

Recently – okay, last week – I spent the day working with teenaged writers on their worldbuilding skills.  We spent a lot of time talking about the structure of the world, and the details that fill in that structure… and then I hit them with cultural conventions.

I shouldn’t have been surprised they had trouble with it.  A lot of adults seem to, too.

A story – a good story, one that pulls you in and keeps you until the last page, is one that’s believable.  If you’re writing literary fiction, or a mystery, or a romance, you’re working with a world that people already know.  The reader knows, more or less, what a gunshot wound does to someone, or what it feels like to get a love letter, or to lose a friend, or have a fight with their parents.  It’s all real, within their day to day experiences (ok, maybe not the gunshot!)

But there’s one thing that can kill a story – especially F/SF – faster than almost anything else.  Not the science.  Not the plot.  Not the dialogue.

The names.

Many years ago (how many?  The date started with “nineteen-ninety…”) my boss laid down a few basic rules (which were pretty damn funny and I wish I could find that list again) for evaluating slush manuscripts.  And right after “character breaks into song within the first three pages” as a demerit, there was “any name with an apostrophe smack in the middle.”

It’s funny, but like so much, it’s funny because it’s true.  Fantasy and SF are often rife with names that seem to have been chosen merely to look ‘exotic’ and instead read as “idiotic.”  Even without an apostrophe.

So when you’re writing… look at your characters names.  No, really look at them.  Not for their meaning, or their sound, but how they fit into everything else around them.

[a classic example of apostrophes that work:  Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonrider” books, where the change in name indicates a very specific change in rank]

Names are culture-specific, both place and family names, and naming conventions are a wonderful tool for the alert writer.  Properly used, they allow you to show a great deal about a culture without being overt or obvious, sliding it into the background for the reader to absorb unconsciously as they go.  So ask yourself: why did you choose those names?  What naming convention did you use? Do all members of a generation share an identifying aspect (middle name, etc)?  Is there a different styling for females than males?  Is there a distinction between ‘formal’ names and those used in daily conversation?  All of these things are subtle but oh so important bits of worldbuilding, no matter what sort of world you’re building (just ask any Regency reader!)

And, please, are you consistent?  If you have “George, Fred and G’neshk” as character names without an explanation of why one of these is not like the others, your readers will laugh themselves out of the book rather than settling in for the ride.

Coming up in Week 28:  circling the wagons and sharing the ammo…

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future, was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 27 — 16 Comments

  1. I’m pretty sure it was Anne McCaffery who started the horrible attack of apostrophes, so whether or not they worked for her, she doesn’t get a free pass out of the blame!

    I also think the unnecessary proliferation of ‘h’ is another thing to watch out for. Just because ‘h’ is a great shorthand for saying ‘this letter isn’t pronounced like it usually is’ doesn’t mean it can be thrown around willy-nilly.

    When I was 8 or 9 I would only name my characters either with names beginning with ‘k’ or with ‘l’. ‘K’ meant they were active and adventurous, and ‘l’ meant they were demure and princessly. Unfortunately now, when I run into one of those made up sorts of names beginning with ‘k’ or ‘l’ i have an instant revulsion, assuming that it’s going to be just as bad as if I had written it at age 8.

    The real issue here is that English spelling isn’t really phonetic. However, people tend to pronounce things the way they have most often seen that group of letters pronounced. (I always pronounce an apostrophe as a glottal stop. And word initial ‘ll’ is a lateral fricative. But not everyone agrees with me.) What would be awesome is if people were taught IPA in elementary school. That way there wouldn’t be as many embarrassing mispronunciations of names at award ceremonies, and you could name someone something like G’neshk and expect everyone to pronounce it the same way.

    The best thing about English, though, is that we have so many borrowings from other languages that we aren’t restricted to our own phonology. And with a little effort we can pull in references and patterns frequent in other languages, and evoke different flavors of foreignness. But it has to be consistent, or we just end up with a modern day yuppie elementary school classroom: not really a compelling atmosphere.

  2. Cara – McCaffrey gets a pass because she used it within a set structure, and was consistent with it (to the point that it became a point of contention in THE WHITE DRAGON, and lord I’m nerdy to remember that 30+ years after reading it…)

    Just because other people were sloppy and careless (and didn’t understand what they were doing) doesn’t mean she’s to blame, any more than you should blame a bad Regency romance on Georgette Heyer….

  3. I am a fan of Scrabble tiles. You can shuffle names around fairly rapidly that way, and see how they -look-. And it’s easy to go through all those made-up names (Balin, Dwalin, etc.) with new consonants and generate more.

  4. All right, I will allow McCaffrey to escape the scourge. Systemization and cultural intrigue can be a good thing.

    Of course, there’s also the problem of going too far, when writers spend too much time constructing a language, on the lines of Tolkien, and end up with long incomprehensible passages in their thrilling new tongue.

    You really have to be a phenomenon before people will learn your ConLang.

  5. I knew someone who defended apostrophes on the theory that they marked a glottal stop within the name. I asked him how many readers knew what a glottal stop was, or how it was voiced (if I can’t tell how a name is supposed to sound, I’ll make it up–my pronunciation of the Greek gods’ names when I was a kid was wildly creative). He found this picayune and irritating of me.

  6. Names are hugely important: it throws me right out of a book if a name doesn’t fit or is from the wrong time or place (note to writers of Celtic fantasy: neither Morgan nor Meredith are female names in Welsh or Irish. [Morgan le Fay is from Italian material, not Celtic; the Morrigan is not a name.] They weren’t in the past, they aren’t now. To the best of my knowledge, neither was in use as a female name anywhere at all until the 20th c. anyway. You can say ‘but it’s just fiction’, of course, but it jars and it jars more people than me). Names need to look like they belong together, like they have some kind of common, sensible cultural background. They need to feel real. Also, not all female names need to end in -a.
    Oh, and then there’s the polysyllable thing. I’ve ranted about this before on my livejournal: the idea that names are naturally mostly one or two syllables long is not true of all cultures, not at all. Many cultures have polysyllabic names and don’t find them at all unwieldy, unlikely or wrong. Old Irish names are one example — Toirdhelbhach ui Conchobhair; Mael Sechlainn mac Mael Mordha; Diarmait mac Mael na mBo. (The ‘h’ in those is pronounced, sort of, Cara — it marks a nasalisation — it’s Tor-thel-vach, not Tordelbac, for instance.)

  7. And names can date a character the same way his sword would. Lindas and Brendas were all born in mid-20th century; the 2011 baby girl named Linda is rare. Medieval historical romances with a heroine named Tiffany or Brittany are just annoying.

  8. I’ve always wanted to know what F’lar started out as, since none of the alternatives work very well as a name…

    I have a general rule. Unless it’s an urban fantasy or a portal story, any book containing Tom, Dick, and Harry will go back on the shelf. One familiar name, particularly if it’s a short one might happen – Kyra, Val, Alix – fine, but when the names in a SF novel are less varied than Ambridge (the fictional village in the long-standing Radio Soap _The Archers_) chances are that the rest of the worldbuilding has had serial numbers filed off badly, too.

    Can’t think of any counterexamples.

  9. @ Cari-
    Ah, well, the h is only in the modern Irish spelling. Old Irish assumed you knew that most consonants in the middle of the words were lenited (not nasalized. The random m before Bo is nasalization, you probably know this, h’s are usually lenition or aspiration.) unless they were historically consonant clusters or geminates.

    I love Irish, I really do, but it totally goes to show that speakers of american english are helpless here. The fact that most of the ‘i’s in Irish actually mean that the consonant is palatalized? That’s just painful.

    And Medb is an awesome female name that doesn’t get used often enough. Bilabial fricatives rock! And Findabair. (Probably those would be spelled with ‘h’s in modern Irish. This is why I’m pro IPA. /m?eð?/) I’m definitely a fan of longer names, but they have to have a ring to them. Both Conchobar and Vorkosigan manage that.)

    Of course, if we’re talking about ‘h’ and Irish rather than English, my favorite anecdote is that Old Irish didn’t have an ‘h’ sound, so when they borrowed the Roman alphabet, the monkish scribes didn’t know what to do with it. What they ended up doing was sticking it onto short words to make them look longer and more significant. 😀 )

    @ Madaline –
    Well if you want to be even more picayune, you should let him know that apostrophes actually mark ejectives, and clearly everyone (and not just beatboxers) should know what ejectives sound like and how to produce them. Names with ejectives are clearly awesome.
    Apostrophes marking glottal stops is just a silly little Hawai’ian convention.

  10. I’m not sure if it makes my point or undermines it utterly, but I can’t spell people’s names. I can spell ‘vorkosigan’ without looking it up, but Kari or Madeleine? Sorry. Really. 🙁

  11. As I was scanning my third book this evening, I realized what a great bad-SF-name-generator OCR is. For some reason the damned thing reads every capital W as V-and-something. “Why?” is rendered “Vlny?” And the type in this particular book has nice round capital Gs that the scanner insists are CTs, or occasionally C’Ts. Next time I need to come up with names for alien characters, I’m just going to scan something and see what comes up.

    Cara: I was nine before I could reliably spell my own name. I’m just saying.

  12. the real problem is when you have a genuine authentic medieval name — and no one will belive you because it sounds modern to them.

  13. Cara – and I note that it was “Irish” but not “American” or “English…” /tease

    Mary – True story: I had an editor call me out on a YA novel because she thought “Gerard was too French a name for an Arthurian story.”
    Reportedly, the sound of my head hitting my desk was heard on seismic sensors across the continent….

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  15. Heroines called Tiffany: see Jo Walton on The Tiffany Problem
    “There is of course the opposite of this problem, which I call the Tiffany problem. Tiffany is a good attested medieval Anglo-Norman version of Theophania, a post-Crusades medieval name. Unfortunately, even though it’s authentic, your readers are going to assume it isn’t because it doesn’t have much history in between the fifteenth century and the twentieth.”

    It’s amusing that Toirdhealbhach has now softened / compressed further to become “Torlach” or Turlough when anglicised. Lots of traditional Irish names have fossilised spellings but later pronunciation.