What’s in a name

I was intrigued to see a recent social network thread in which readers and some writers indicated that they won’t read a book where a character has an apostrophe in their given name.

Surely you jest, Twitter? Apparently not. It had something to do with not being able to pronounce the name of the character in their heads as they were reading. It was particularly a problem in speculative fiction (where Qu’gongs and Lila’nas abound, presumably) but in theory, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles would be equally out of the question. Or maybe it would be if she was T’ess.

It got me thinking about character names (in truth, it also got me thinking that xenophobia is alive and well in the twenty-first century…)

Years ago, a good friend and I travelled to Indonesia together and about halfway through the holiday, we swapped books we’d both finished and enjoyed. My friend later discussed my holiday read with me and referred to the heroine as Fobe. The character’s name was Phoebe. But my friend had never encountered the name in written form and, though she had heard the name fee-beebefore she didn’t realise it was one and the same. A Fobe heroine had barely detracted from her enjoyment of the story nor affected her ability to immerse in the fiction. I recall it being an issue for about a page-and-a-half while she grew accustomed to an unusual character name but then it didn’t arise again as an issue until my good-natured ribbing which she took like the man she wasn’t. In fact, thinking of her as a Fee-beewas impossible for my friend after she’d spent 300 pages bonding with Fobe.

I realised that, in my own writing, I have tended towards fairly ‘real world’ names and possibly fairly Aussie names for my characters: Simon, Daniel, Reilly, Clint, Marcus, Todd, Rob, Nathan, Grant. My heroines have only-slightly more exotic names: Clare, Ava, Lea, Jayne, Honour, Romy, Tori, Kate. This hasn’t been conscious and I’m working on stories with more unusual names (Shanti, Trabis) but there are entire baby-name books full of wonderful names that I’m now cautious about considering.

Am I worrying unnecessarily? Would you put down a book because the heroine was a Siobhan or aXian or a Myfannwy, and why? Have you ever read a name that was so distracting it pulled you repeatedly out of the story? Just like in the playground, can try-hard names in a book prevent you from immersing? Or do you have an unusual name that you spend forever explaining or spelling to people?

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