WhoThing and WhatHer

The story takes place in an imagined world, so it doesn’t have real-world placenames. The place is inhabited by indigenous flora and fauna that are unknown on Earth, so they have their own, local names. And the folks that live there have, to coin a phrase, never heard of Birmingham.

So of course, the names of all these things: the people, the plants and animals, the places, have to be different than anything you could encounter on Earth, right?

You’ve had the experience – because, like me, you love your science fiction and you love your fantasy – and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the classic, the retro, the crossover, the social, the literary, the romantic, epic or erotic: the names have to be exotic, so at least half of them are impossible to pronounce, and half of the rest you can’t be sure what pronunciation is intended.

The remaining 25% are either words of 1 syllable or they follow the rules.

Where the Concept Breaks

As an author you should be worried about immersion. Immersion is the reader’s sensation of experiencing the story without being aware of the narrative mechanism, or to put it another way, the reader is enjoying the story without having to think about how the story is being told.

Anything you do that makes the reader stop to think forces the reader to think about the narration itself. There are plenty of ways to do this, but the Rules of Names are the simplest way to avoid doing it with names.

You see, in an unreal world, there’s another thing that they don’t have:

English (or insert Tellurian language of your choice).

And if you draw attention to names by making the names so difficult to pronounce that an English Speaking Reader has to stop to think, you risk the English Speaking Reader wondering why everyone in your non-Earth world is speaking English. This is the concept breaker of all non-Earth stories.

Even if it doesn’t get this bad, the reader is still going to have a hard time remembering who is who if she can’t say their names every time.

That is what the rules are for.

The Rules of Names

  1. The reader must be able to pronounce any name of any thing first time, with no doubt.
  2. All the names in the book, whether people, places or things, must differ from each other by at least two syllables unless there is an intended connexion:
    • Abteba and Binteba are brothers
    • Connomakovan and Connotekana are men from the city of Conno
  3. Spelling must be simplified:
    • Letters that serve no purpose in English must be missing:
      Jon not John, Fin not Finn, therefore Tan not Tahnn
    • If there is more than one way to write the name, use the one that uses the least letters:
      Fin not Phin, Teen not Teene, Jon not Gion (or Gyon)
  4. Names must follow typical English patterns and avoid English irregularities.In general, vowels and consonants should alternate. Where consonants are grouped, they must be limited to the most common two and three letter groupings, and the ones that are easy to say:
    • ‘hard’ consonants preceded or followed by ‘r’
    • ‘pt’ but not ‘tp;’ ‘kt’ (or ‘ct’) but not ‘tk’
    • ‘nk’ and ‘nt’ but not ‘kn’ or ‘tn’ (generally, rules that apply to k also apply to g; those applying to n also apply to s and l, however ‘f’ may only be conbined with t, not k)
    • ‘mp’ but not ‘np,’ ‘pm’ or ‘pn’
    • ‘sh’ and ‘th’ are fine, but prefer ‘ch’ to ‘tsh’ (and ‘ph’ is banned)
    • ‘gh’ and ‘ght’ are banned.
    • no soft ‘c’ or soft ‘g’, use s and j unless it looks really silly
    • ‘z’ always buzzes. If you need a ‘ts’ use ‘ts’
    • avoid ‘h’ where possible
    • prefer ‘kw’ to ‘qu’ unless it looks too exotic or fussy, never use q on its own
    • avoid w between vowels
    • avoid diphthongs that use vowels other than w and y (it is a convention in English to call w and y consonants. They are not.)
    • No double vowels other than ‘ee’ and ‘oo.’ Be aware that ‘nook’ is not pronounced like ‘noon.’
  5. It is better that your reader pronounce the name ‘wrong’ than be unable to pronounce it.
  6. If you can’t find a way of spelling the name that ensures that the reader can pronounce it correctly, change the name, rather than just using the spelling you’ve always used.
    The ‘long a’ sound is a common problem in English. In British English it’s the sound in the word ‘barn.’ In US English (with quite a lot of regional variation) it’s the sound in the word ‘gone’ (or ‘barn’ if you’re from Rhode Island). There is no adequate way of ensuring that any English speaking reader will pronounce a long ‘a’ as you intend it. So change the name.
  7. No English names have punctuation in the middle of them.
    An apostrophe at the start of the name is acceptable if there is a cultural reason for it, as are many other abuses of the rules – if you break the rules in a way that adds meaning, it will enrich the experience for the reader, as long as rule 1 is not violated.

    • C’Makovan and C’Tekana are abbreviations of Connomakovan and Connotekana.
  8. Paradoxically, the rules can be relaxed if the characters are originally from Earth.