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[Analysis] Unique Character Names - Good or Bad?

A look at whether authors crafting unique character names is a net positive for their story.

By Meg IlsleyPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
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Recently, someone posed a question in a group I am a part of: is it a good thing or a bad thing when authors craft unique names for their characters? Should authors stick to pronounceable names (e.g., John, James, Margaret) or is it okay for them to craft their own that suit their world (e.g., Legolas, Rhaenyra, Feyre)? This question seems, at its core, to be a simple one. Is the answer not simply 'whatever the author feels is right for their story'? In my opinion, yes and no. When writing a story, and naming characters in that story (assuming said story is for commercial release), one should consider four primary things when naming characters to ensure the reader is engaged in the narrative:

How distinct is the name from other characters? How memorable is it?

Is it possible for the reader to pronounce the name?

Does the name make sense for the setting (time period, location) and tone?

Was the name chosen for a deliberate reason or just to be 'unique'?

Character names are, in short, a means for the reader to distinguish between characters when there are no visual cues (e.g., an actor); if this were not necessary, it would be common practice for all characters in a story to be nameless. To this end, names should be memorable, distinct, and chosen deliberately to suit the character and their setting. Characters should have their own identity, and the reader should be able to identify the character being spoken to/about just by hearing their name. Having too many characters in a story with the same or similar names (I'm looking at you, George R. R. Martin), or whose names start with the same first letter, is a recipe for confusion that can risk the reader being taken from the scene as they are uncertain who is involved.

And there is nothing worse than being confused about an event because you are not sure how it makes sense in a character's arc.

Similarly, however, names should be easy to pronounce (or, failing that, include a guide to help the reader understand how a name should be pronounced).

J.K. Rowling quite famously included the pronunciation of Hermione Granger's name in the fourth book of her Harry Potter series, The Goblet of Fire (released July 2000). Readers were having issues pronouncing the name, and the introduction of foreign students made it so that there was an opening in the plot to include a pronunciation guide in the text itself. While I did not have this issue - as my familiarity with Greek Mythology at the time meant I was familiar with the name Hermione (the daughter of King Menelaus of Sparta and Helen of Troy), it is not all that difficult to believe people did struggle with pronouncing the name, especially when the majority of the fanbase were preteens at the time and likely didn't have that same exposure as I did.

This highlights why pronunciation is a key to character names: to encourage discourse with respect to a story, readers should be able to pronounce the names of characters in their favourite stories; making names difficult makes it difficult to talk about those characters with other people (except through written text). That being said, an author must consider what 'easy to pronounce' means based on their audience. What is easy for a reader in Japan might be difficult for a reader in England, and vice versa. How language works, a reader's culture, and exposure to other cultures heavily influences this aspect of stories. For this reason, it is not uncommon for some authors to create names or to alter their characters' names when publishing in different countries.

It is difficult to consider the backstory of every individual reader, however, and that is where our final two points come in: deliberate choices and setting. While an author needs to consider their main market and ensure whoever is going to bring them the most money is the one who finds reading the story easiest, these factors are still important to consider when naming a character. Why was that name chosen? Did it belong to a parent or other important person (e.g., Harry Potter receiving his father's name as his middle name)? Is it the name of a god or mythological figure one wants to bless the character? Does the family have naming conventions that came into play? What time period is the name from compared to the time period of the story?

If a story is set in Imperial Japan, a western name is going to stand out like a sore thumb. The story should include names appropriate to that setting.

In answer to the question: is it a good thing or a bad thing when authors craft unique names for their characters? I would say it is both and its neither. As long as authors consider these things when naming a character, I think it doesn't matter. Especially in a fantasy world that is completely different from earth (e.g., Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings or Narnia in The Chronicles of Narnia). At the end of the day, the question is simply: do you want your readers keyboard mashing in their brain every time they try to read your characters' names and do they make sense for the setting/tone/world? If an author can hit those basic notes, they've done what needs to be done.

Analysis
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About the Creator

Meg Ilsley

Born in Australia, I moved to Canada in 2013 where I live with my four cats and two snakes. I have a Certificate in Creative Writing, am pursuing a Diploma of Graphic Design, and am an amateur author. Find me on Goodreads or Instagram.

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