Names

Just the other day, a dissatisfied reader charged me with using “hard-to-say” names, and there have been a few comments about the names I’ve used over the years, as if I had committed a horrible sin by not using plain Anglo-Saxon-English names. But… if I’m depicting other cultures, why would they necessarily have plain English names?

That said, are my choices of names that outrageous? Let’s see about protagonists’ names from recent books: Lerial, Quaeryt [more about this one later], Vaelora, and Paulo. Protagonists’ names from older books: Lerris, Creslin, Dorrin, Justen, Nylan, Cerryl, Lorn, Kharl, Saryn, Anna, Secca, Alucius, Mykel, Dainyl, Rhennthyl, Van, Tyndal, Trystin, Jonat, Johan, Llysette, Ecktor, and Keir. Perhaps not always usual names, but hardly tongue-twisters, and almost all of either one or two syllables.

Now, there are a few names that are a little harder to pronounce, such as Quaeryt, Megaera, Seliora, Luara, Kiedron, or Emerya, but “Quaeryt” is derived from the Latin “quaero,” meaning to search or question, and isn’t that much different in spelling from “query.” “Megaera” is a direct crib from mythology; she was one of the Greek/Roman furies. “Luara” is actually a Russian name, and apparently is also the name of an up-and-coming young pop singer [although I used the name in print when she was only five]. And while I thought I made up the names Kiedron and Emerya, it turns out that Kiedron is a Polish name, and Emerya is Turkish, which suggest that quite a few don’t think those names are so out of line.

What the complaints about the names reveal, unhappily, is a form of cultural chauvinism on the part of the complainers, a form of “if it’s not immediately recognizable, I feel uncomfortable.” The complaints also reveal something about the way people were taught to read. While I can’t prove it, I strongly suspect that readers who have trouble with the names tend to be those who weren’t taught reading on a phonetic basis and who are thrown by even slightly unfamiliar spellings. I will also freely admit that since I borrow, if not outright steal, from classical sources [as well as others], readers with either open minds or wider educations are less likely to be put off by the references.

But while the Bard said,

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”

I’d have to disagree. Names do have connotations, and sometimes even denotations, that convey differences, and I believe an author should choose or create names that do so… whether or not they’re plain English or not.

13 thoughts on “Names”

  1. John Prigent says:

    I can’t say that I’ve ever had the slightest difficulty with your characters’ names, Mr Modesitt. Neither in recognising them or sounding them out to myself. You are depicting differing societies so I expect their naming conventions to differ – if all the names were Anglo-Saxon, Italian, French or German I’d be jarred by the differences between those societies and the ones you have in your stories. Mind you, I do chuckle to myself at some of the recognisable derivations (including Megaera) and the way you use some obviously French or German words for places.

  2. Robert Vowell says:

    I’m just curious who in their right mind would say something along the lines of it was a great book but the names were unpronounceable to me. I’ve read about a thousand fiction books in my lifetime so far and I can’t think of one instance where my complaint about a book was unpronounceable names. Like John said its kind of a fun game to me as I read your books to figure out where names and places derived from.

    1. Ryan Jackson says:

      Eh, the same individual also gave the “All your books are the same” statement, so I don’t know that it’s a strong basis of critique anyway.

      As for the names. I have occasionally found out I was pronouncing a name wrong. (For example, I learned at PCC that I have been pronouncing Mr. Modesitt’s name with stresses on the wrong syllable) but I’ve never had trouble with any name in any series I’ve read.

      It might help that I have some grounding in welsh and so am used to things like W or Y being full vowels. But I don’t think I had any trouble with names even prior to those studies.

      1. I wouldn’t have bothered with the issue of names if it had been just that one individual, but it is a criticism that has come up over the years, and it seemed relevant to the discussion, and besides, it’s an issue that’s applicable not just to my work, but to all writers trying to create worlds different from ours or our history.

  3. Jim S says:

    Whenever a topic like this pops up, I’m reminded of an introduction by Isaac Asimov (I believe it was in the novel version of Nightfall) where he basically told readers that if they wanted weird, unpronounceable names, beings with extra arms or other non-human attributes, and made-up measurements and the like, they were free to substitute them as they read… but he was going to stay with things that worked and could be written easily for him without needing to constantly refer back to references rather than get in the way of telling the story.

    To me, your name selections and the like (“weeks” of 10 days, for example) are enough to set the tone or place, whether by reflecting an appropriate heritage like the Dutch and Germanic names in your Ghost books, for example, but not so outlandish or hard that I can’t figure out how they sound well enough for reading. They’re enough to help build the world or suspend my disbelief — but not so far that I’m disrupted by every name.

    By the way — as to “repetitious”… I find that you often revisit the same themes or ideas (like ecology, responsibility, economies…) but each time, it’s offering a different take or point of view. Some of them make me think anew each time I read them… but the stories themselves are no more repetitious than history commonly is.

  4. JakeB says:

    I myself, FWIW, find the names quite reasonable — straightforward and usually an obvious pronunciation suggests itself. I mean, this is fantasy, where dwell things like the god A’a’a’thrax and his minion Kerik’kikkikkilar (okay, I made those up, but you know apostrophes are like a disease).

    Also, with that run of SF books including the Elysium Commission, Mr. Modesitt provides more entertaining riffs on names than any other writer I can recall doing for a long time.

  5. Thom says:

    Having so far only experienced Mr. Modesitt’s books in the audiobook format, I can honestly say I’ve had no trouble at all with pronunciations. 😉

    I think where this may be coming from, however, is one of two places. 1) They may have to stop in their reading to sound out the name, in which case it does throw them out of the story briefly. But, as suggested, this may be more a indicator of either their reading level or a compulsion to ‘get it right’. 2) They may have formed their own idea of how the name is pronounced, either from reading over the names too quickly and missing some letters or from the inherent difficulty of communicating a variety of sounds with so few letters and usually no syllabic emphasis guides. When they talk with other readers they may find themselves embarrassed to pronounce a name differently from everyone else and pin that embarrassment on the author.

    I have on several occasions formed one idea of how a name is pronounced only to hear the author pronounce it at a later date and have no idea who they’re talking about. It’s not a big deal to me, however. I chalk it up to the vagaries of language and move on.

    1. Ryan Jackson says:

      I think that’s most of us. It comes from the reasons you say or maybe just how we grew up speaking or from a desire to have a name sound somewhat more exotic than it turns out to be.

      Fun example there is Nylan. Recently heard Mr. Modesitt pronounce it “N eye lawn” like the fabric. Which seems kind of obvious but for whatever reason that never once occurred to me and I had always said “N oo ill awn” (that Welsh thing bit me that time.)

  6. Nick says:

    Sigh…another example of why focusing on Names is a bad thing… 😉

  7. alecia says:

    I have all of your ScFi books, and many of your fantasy efforts, and I love how you do your names. In “The One-Eyed Man” for example, you gave characters the modified and conflated names of real people and fictional characters (Ripley Weaver and Holly Peppard e.g.) and paid tribute to people you may admire (Tedor Roosan). Anyone who complains about this just lacks a sense of humor – which, for me, is a requirement for enjoying your books.
    (And I really, really like “The One-Eyed Man”)

  8. Bob Walters says:

    It would be easy to fix for ebooks. All one would need to do is highlight the name and have it search the net for the pronunciation then play the sound. Of course, those who are stuck in the 1900s and use print would be out of luck.

    1. alecia says:

      For those of us who love the feel of a real book, or those for whom reading on a screen just makes one’s eyes tired, the ‘adventure’ of inventing our own pronunciations whilst reading any book is part of the fun. And, as a person who worked for a major tech firm for over 25 years, I do not inhabit the 1900’s. I prefer to be among those people who still listen to vinyl for the clarity.

  9. Frank Hamsher says:

    As a long time reader in my 60’s with a reasonable professional tertiary qualification, I do sometimes stumble over some of the names that you have used. Also find that use of different ways to count time can be confusing.

    I don’t let that stop me from enjoying what you write and the reflections of how society functions engendered by the books.

    That being said, a page or two early in the book (in the same way that maps are provided) giving pronunciations of names and places with time & distance conversions where appropriate would be a help.

    (Perhaps you have provided these in early volumes of each series, but those of us who are dependent upon the fraught services of memory without access to hard copies would appreciate it.)

    As to the person who was critical of your use of names, I am reminded of the difference between being critical and the idea of “critique” – a lost art these days.

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