The Name of the Prose, Part 4: A Ghoti by Any Other Name is Still a Fish


JRR Tolkien

As I commented previously, my first novel was also my first experience trying to create a fantasy world from the ground up. With Tolkien as my only model, I waded hip deep into Scottish history and Auld English linguistics to come up with character, clan, place and object names for my fantasy trilogy, The Mer Cycle. (Of course, it’s available from Book View Cafe, IBooks, Amazon, and Barnes&Noble).

Here’s what I learned: whatever names I use, it pays to simplify their spelling wherever possible.

Take a name like Foneiel (pronounced Fo-nee-el). Why, I asked the writer who came up with the name, couldn’t it just be Foniel, which has the virtue of allowing the reader to pronounce it just as it’s spelled. His answer was that he liked what it looked like and thought it seemed to fit in a fantasy novel. Another name in the same manuscript was Taruu, which could just as easily have been Taru. 

Why simplify? Because it will allow a reader to actually “pronounce” the character’s name in her head. I wish I’d simplified my heroine’s name in The Meri (Mer Cycle, Book One). I had a lot of readers who said, “I didn’t know how to pronounce ‘Mereddyd,’ so I just thought of her as ‘Mary.’” Mereddyd was the Gaelic spelling of the common name “Meredith”, but my readers didn’t know that. (Did you know that Merlin is from the Gaelic Myrddin?)

The Meri by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

I could have made Mereddyd, Meredith, I suppose. Instead, I opted to use story action to hint at how readers should pronounce it. Her classmates at Halig-liath tease her by calling her “Merry did” and that was how I got around the fact that I’d chosen to give my character an archaic name.

Stan Schmidt, an editor I respect immensely, also cautioned me against using unpronounced apostrophes in names. For one thing, he said, they can fool the reader into thinking the apostrophes should be pronounced, thus unwittingly changing your character’s name. He told me this because I had rendered a character’s last name “M’butu”, which in some African dialects would be pronounced “Mk!butu” — where the k! is a click of the tongue.

If, however, you are dealing in words or names that require pronounced apostrophes (or other diacritical marks), it’s a good idea to use them. In writing Mr. Twilight (my first collaboration with Michael Reaves) I used the Navajo language for some names. For example, an appearance is made by Ma’ii, or Coyote, the trickster god. In Navajo, the apostrophe calls for a full stop in the middle of the word. Without it, the name might appear to be pronounced “my” or “may” rather than “mah/ee.”

THE_WIZARD_OF_OZ-293Sometimes writers do things with words just to change stuff up or to remind the reader that they’re not in Kansas any more, however much the surroundings may look like Kansas. I find this is especially true with fantasy set in alternate historical times.

Sometimes these little alien touches work; sometimes they don’t. One of my favorite writers of middle school fantasy—Patricia Wrede (whom both of my daughters also adore)—has a series (Frontier Magic) set in an alternate America she calls Columbia. Some things are familiar (there has been a Civil War fought, in part, over slavery); some are not (the Mammoth River is the western edge of civilization and is warded with a Great Barrier spell). There are mundane animals and magical ones and the human population practices regional forms of very practical magic. I love the books. They’re detailed, intimate paintings of this quirkily and wonderfully alternate reality. BUT there is one very tiny thing that Pat does that jars every time I read it: she decided to refer to children as “childings”.

Trinity Hall Pub in Dallas, Texas

Because there are a lot of, er, kids in the book (the story is told by one of them), the word arises frequently. It is the only common word that she’s chosen to alter in this way, and it stops me for a second every time I see it.

Good names can be a bonus for both reader and writer because they can make stories memorable in a good way. Back to J. R. R. Tolkien’s work—how delicious are the names Orthanc, Osgiliath, and Minas Morgul? Though easily pronounced in the reader’s imagination, these are yummy, rolling around on the tongue words that make readers want to say them again and again. (Well, at least they make me want to say them again and again.)

Names—character names, place names, the names of things— are like spices that can make a story savory or sweet. It can take some experimentation with the recipe, but writers who master the spice blend will bring hungry readers back for more.



The Name of the Prose, Part 4: A Ghoti by Any Other Name is Still a Fish — 6 Comments

  1. I disagree with the assertion that simplification is always the better choice. In the case of Mereddyd I would have opted for the much-more-common and pronounced-like-English Meredydd, but Foneiel/Foniel and Taruu/Taru are both considerably different names.

    I assume that you don’t spell your second name ‘Catherine’ because ‘Catherine’ isn’t your name, even though it’s familiar to everybody and much easier to pronounce than ‘Kaathryn’. What’s good enough for speakers of English living in an English-speaking country is good enough for characters in other worlds.

      • One problem in this world is that some people assume that everybody fits into a small, neat box, and one problem people who don’t fit that stereotype is that they keep having to jump up and down saying ‘my [x] doesn’t fit your preconceptions, YET I EXIST’. Making fantasy names fit a very narrow subset of ‘names easily pronounceable by speakers of American English’ is, in my opinion, a step in the wrong direction: I want more variety in present-day narration, not less in second/future worlds, and I feel that it’s up to the people who can’t pronounce a name to step up, not for authors to seek the lowest common denominator. (This is not a call to throw half a pound of apostrophes into the ring and telling readers to deal with five-consonant-clusters.) But one of my childhood reads was partly set on Krk, and if I coped age eight, then I feel a grown-up reader can cope with Foneiel or Taruu.

        My personal policy is that when a book not set in the current day has Tom, Dick, and Harry – or any other short, easily pronouncable, ultra-anglo name – I will put it down again, since I’ve observed a strong correlation between writers who do not bother to come up with even remotely unique names and writers who do not bother to come up with even remotely unique _anythings_.

        • Yes. This.

          Thank you—you have articulated my own visceral response perfectly.

  2. Names are so important. (One of the great things about WIZARD OF EARTHSEA was that it was about the importance of naming things correctly.)
    I will add that you should never put a difficult-to-spell word into a title! Never mind one of those names with an apostrophe in it. Remember that webstores and book catalogs are solely dependent upon the correct spelling of author and title.

  3. Tolkien got around the problem to some extent with nicknames — Merry, Pippin, Strider and the like. At times though they can sound sappy.