Monday, 7 April 2014

The Craft of Naming 2

By Anne Hamilton


I cdn'uolt blveiee I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. Arpetpanly, it deosn't mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. And you awlyas thguoht slpeling was ipmorantt.

If you can read the text above, and most people can, it’s because of typoglycemia. When my niece was learning to read, her school was going through one of those fads – word recognition rather than phonics. As a result, she couldn’t tell the difference between ‘my’ and ‘mummy’. After all, they both started and ended with the same letter and that was how she was taught to recognise words. It makes a certain sort of sense to teach this way (though I don’t recommend it) because this is the way the brain operates.

It might seem like a small thing but, as someone who has had to simply toss some books aside, I assure you naming needs to take typoglycemia into account. I threw in the towel on Tolkien’s classic fantasy, The Lord of The Rings because I’d become thoroughly confused by Sauron and Saruman. I thought they were the same character, under a relatively transparent disguise: c’mon, Black Hand and White Hand; orcs and superorcs; dark tower and iron tower – and so on.

I didn’t come back for decades to The Lord of The Rings. In the majority of cases, I’ve never gone back.

So, let’s have a practical look at what not to do. Here are some don’ts when it comes to character combinations:

Annie and Alice.
Andrea and Anastasia.
Catherina and Cordelia.
Darren and Davin.
Dotti and Dannii.
Elaine and Elle.
Garthe and George.
Joanne and Janice.
Jamie and Jesse.
Kay and Kerry.
Marie and Madeline.
Narelle and Nancye.
Paul and Percival.
Terry and Tommy.
Ian and Neil.

The last one probably wasn’t obvious but you’d be surprised how many people mix up those two names in their heads. Ask any Neil how often people call them by the wrong name! There’s even been a psychological study done.

It may seem a small thing—almost too small to worry about—but it’s small things that make or break our novels. As Zechariah says: ‘Do not despise… small things.’

As writers, we need to pay attention to detail and consider not just our characters’ names but whether or not we’re making our book more readable through the choices we make.

Anne Hamilton learnt a lot from Tolkien’s mistake. She decided in her own fantasy writing the reader should be able to tell the difference between the elves and goblins just by looking at their names. (Though she wonders, in retrospect, whether prepositions for goblin names in Many-Coloured Realm was really such a good idea.) In her upcoming fantasy Daystar, all the major characters have names starting with a different letter in the alphabet.

You can find out more about Anne at her website, Fire of Roses.

Canstock Photo by ra2studio

23 comments:

  1. I could read the mixed-up paragraph easily. I noticed that while many of the words were mixed up, the punctuation is perfect. I wonder to what degree that helped?

    Names ... this explains why I mix up Zechariah and Zephaniah. :)

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    1. I never thought of that, Iola! So right. You've just nailed why I can never remember where The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing comes from, even though I can remember it's chapter 3 and verse 17!

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  2. Blitzed it again, Anne! Maybe this name thing is the very reason I have never been able to get into reading fantasy (particularly, Tolkien!). Certainly going to check the names in my own work more closely. Thanks, Rhonda.

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    1. The names in Tolkien are special cases because he "invented" the languages they came from (though based them on, mainly, Welsh and Finnish) can assigned meaning to them. However, if you ignore the assigned meaning and look just at the name itself, it fits the mythic character generally better than Tolkien himself achieved. For instance, Sauron is particularly close in sound to Samhain (pronounced so'wen - yeah, Gaelic has weird spelling), the old Celtic name for Halloween. And does that fit Sauron to a T! (Or should that be an S?)

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  3. The first paragraph was easy to read which makes sense. I get numbers muddled up.
    Didn't know about Ian and Neil, I have a few people I know called Neil.

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    1. I didn't realise it until I was at a course when someone greeted a Neil by the wrong name and he said not to worry, it happens all the time. Then my mum mentioned the research on the problem. Apparently people don't get Ians confused for Neils but heaps of people confuse Neils for Ians.

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  4. That was so revealing, Annie. I, too, once started reading the book and have never completed it. Thank you for the tip. Shall remember it when naming characters in my novel.
    Hazel

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    1. I think it's even wise to avoid having two major characters whose names start with the same letter. Unless, of course, they are different genders.

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  5. It amazes me how many well published authors do this. One book I started to read had at least five characters all starting with the same letter. I gave up in disgust, because I could never remember who was who. And it was a well published author. She lost me.

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    1. It's such a simple thing, Dale, that it does surprise me how often well-established writers fall for this trap.

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  6. Yep. Hit the nail on the head, Annie. I had a Hugh and a Humphrey in the same book neither very nice. But Iola suggested I change, and now Sir Humphrey is Sir Godfrey and I'm happier. Also Iola didn't like my Olympia's familiar name 'Olly' because she had a nephew Ollie.(Hilarious.) So now it's Olivia shortened to Livvie and everyone's happy! Have you also noticed movie makers do a similar thing by having too many look alike main characters?

    Thankfully we don't have to read a whole book like the above mangled words. I'd understand, but not enjoy the experience.

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    1. I meant to 'reply', Rita, but must have hit the wrong button. Reply is below.

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  7. My favourite shortening of a name was Oaf for Ophelia in one of Marianne Musgrove's book. She was truly one of the funniest characters I've ever read and Oaf fitted her perfectly.

    Just to prove it can be done in real life there is the famous family consisting of William Franklin Graham I, William Franklin Graham II, William Franklin Graham III, William Franklin Graham IV and William Franklin Graham V. The second is Billy, the third goes by the name Franklin, the fourth by Will and the baby by... of course, what else but Quin?

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  8. Very interesting and informative, thanks Anne. I shall share it with my family.

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  9. Thanks for dropping by, Marion.

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  10. Annie, fascinating post! You've just explained why I'm looking twice at the names of two characters in my current ms. My hero is Sean, and a minor character is Simon. Both characters are in 'Her Tycoon Hero', so I can't change their names. But, I can think about the name placement in the few scenes they share, and try to minimise any confusion.

    I like my hero and heroine's names to sound different to each other, and I always start their names with different letters. In 'Her Tycoon Hero' I had a minor character, Laura, and a walk-on character, Lara. I changed Lara to Sara.

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  11. So, "Her Tycoon Hero" is already at the publisher and can't be changed? Otherwise you could think of some really interesting alternatives for Simon - like Maori, Haimona, or Besque, Ximun, or Dutch Siem.

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    1. Ooops! That would be BASQUE, not BESQUE.

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    2. Her Tycoon Hero is with my publisher. I don't think it's an accident that the names are similar. The minor character, Simon, is the anchor character in the series and the spiritual mentor/role model for my hero, Sean, in the story. This may explain why there's a sub-conscious synchronicity between the two names.

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  12. Great post, Annie. I love the science behind choosing the 'right character name.'

    I needed a brother for a minor character called Jimmy in one of my books. I remembered the boys across the road are James and Simon. So Jimmy's brother became Simon. Their mum is keen to read my story for many reasons, but high on her list is the two brothers I've named after her sons. :)

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  13. Hi Anne
    Great post. I had no trouble reading the top paragraph though I think to having the word in the context of a sentence/paragraph helps with working out the meaning. Still a good point to remember. I've tried with my books not to have main characters starting with the same letter which meant a few changes along the way. As I write secondary word fantasy my names are mostly made up (no English speakers in Nardva) it's fun but I know it can also make it harder for the reader.

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  14. I could read it too, but then I've had to learn to read Middle English. I have not read LOTR, however it seems there may have been more in the naming then meets the eye. Tolkien was a linguist it seems, and some of the characters names had meanings which seemed to correspond to their attributes or characteristics in some way.

    I have to say that I am starting to find names which do not seem consistent with the period or setting of some books annoying , don't know if I would stop reading on such a basis, but a 16th century Duke called 'Bracken' just isn't right......

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