Hello, My Name Is…

…not Inigo Montoya.

As a reader of fantasy and science fiction, I often run across character names I cannot figure out how to pronounce. As a writer of these genres, I am also guilty of occasionally liking the way a name looks without considering how it should sound. Take, for example, ‘Chavali’. This is the main character in The Greatest Sin, and it’s based on the patterns used for Basque names. Is it ‘CHA-vah-lee’, ‘cha-VAH-lie’, ‘SHA-vay-lie’, ‘shay-VAH-lee’, or something else? (For the record, it’s ‘cha-VAH-lee’ with a soft ‘ch’.)

For more famous names, how about Drizzt Do’Urden? An’desha shena Jor’ethan, F’lar, Piter De Vries, S’chn T’gai Spock, Cthulhu, and on and on and on.

For some reason, when things are alien from the writer’s perspective, they need weird names. Some time ago, I began purposely using ordinary names when I play RPGs. Betsy. Marie. Braiden. Mouse. John. Jason. Anna. Molly. It’s easier to say “Matt uses his sword to eviscerate the orc” than “S’shisse’a casts Bless on the party”.

When I turned to writing as a serious endeavor instead of a hobby, I used some alien names for elves (count your lucky stars that you will never, ever see that first novel). Then I stepped back and thought about it. The first time I encounter these names, I have to stop, think about it, and assign some kind of sound to it in my head, whether it matches all the letters or not. It seems reasonable to suspect that others do the same thing.

Although this is generally a bad thing (the reader losing immersion is undesirable), for some reason, nonhuman or foreign characters demand unusual, brain-stopping names. When the elf is named ‘Bob’ or the Klingon is named ‘Barbara’, it feels like a betrayal. The alien must be alien, or it risks becoming too familiar to resonate as alien.


Lee French has published several fantasy and science fiction novels, and is a member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff

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Author: Lee French

Lee French lives in Olympia, WA with two kids, two bicycles, and too much stuff. She is an avid gamer and active member of the Myth-Weavers online RPG community, where she is known for her fondness for Angry Ninja Squirrels of Doom. In addition to spending much time there, she also trains year-round for the one-week of glorious madness that is RAGBRAI, has a nice flower garden with one dragon and absolutely no lawn gnomes, and tries in vain every year to grow vegetables that don't get devoured by neighborhood wildlife.

2 thoughts on “Hello, My Name Is…”

  1. Aliens need alien sounding names, but they should be easily pronounced or at least easily converted to a nickname in the readers mind. Frodo and Bilbo are great examples of pronounceable alien sounding names. Konta Pa’Dar from Deep Space 9 is easily truncated to Konta.

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