Our Lives in Words
Writing, editing, critiquing, publishing, marketing
Do fantasy authors have a problem? I’ve encountered readers of my novel Justi the Gifted who can’t deal with character names of any oddity. My sister read the book, an epic fantasy, liked it, but complained about the character names. She couldn’t pronounce them and couldn’t distinguish so many. Another person who received the novel as a gift said he couldn’t handle all the strange names. A third reader echoed this concern. None of these readers had ever read a fantasy book, which may have contributed to the problem. I now have a pronouncing list of characters I give to buyers. Even slipped them into the bookstore copies on consignment. I wish I had included it in the book and will do so in the next book.
To be fair I should mention that other readers, including my twelve-year-old granddaughter, did not mention names as a problem, but I wonder if the fantasy genre is prone to the character-name barrier. This seems true when the setting is an imagined world. Mark Lacy’s The Dreamtunnel Sequence uses names like Enkinor, Visylon, and Banshaer, which are tough (the author does have a glossary of names, but it is hidden in the back of the book). Renee Scattergood’s Shadow Stalker has characters named Cathnor, Cali, Kado, and Auren, different but short. Tolkien, the grand master of the epic fantasy tale, hits us with Frodo, Meriadoc, Gondalf, Legolas and dozens more in the Lord of the Rings. Yet readers embrace Tolkien even without having three movies with these characters.
Fantasy novels with imagined worlds entered from this world do get by with common names. Phillip Pullman uses Lyra and Will in His Dark Materials where is takes a subtle knife to cut into the imagined word.. J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy uses ordinary names, but Neverland is entered from this world. Just close your eyes, imagine happy, and fly.
Justi the Gifted is entirely a story about the Kingdom of the Zell, an imagined place where names are not the same as in this world. Epic fantasy by definition involves different groups and different locales, which contribute to the number of strange names. Name confusion is not confined to fantasy books, of course. Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, a delightful British mystery, has two characters named Brydon and Bryony who I did not glean were different persons of different genders until well into the book.
I continue to wonder if the veteran fantasy reader has trained him/herself to deal with strange names. Regardless, part of the solution to removing this barrier is to choose different names, maybe shorter and quite distinct and starting with different letters and sounds. The real solution is to so establish the character by description, action, dialog, and quirks that only a stone would fail to know who they are. Scrooge and Marley have strange names, but who could confuse them? What’s your thought?