One of the cliches of science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing is the tradition of unpronounceable character names. You know the kind I mean: a string of consonants and, instead of vowels, various punctuation marks. Examples are Lord K’lghn, Gy-v’nly from the planet Y’jhtrg, and the awful Q’vintg from beyond the black depths (okay, I made all those up, but you get the idea).
History of Unpronounceable Character Names in Fantasy and Science Fiction
I think this trope goes back to the great HP Lovecraft, who used phrases like “Cthulhu fhtagn” in his classic story “The Call of Cthulhu.” What most of his imitators fail to recall is that Lovecraft referred to this as “an almost unpronounceable jumble of letters.” In context, he was making the point that the sounds simply couldn’t be realistically reproduced by either human language or speech, a sign of their unearthly origin. What was taken away, though, was the idea that it’s okay to have characters with names no one can say aloud. Unless it’s a plot point, it’s not.
Besides Lovecraft, the greatest influence on naming fantasy characters was undoubtedly J.R.R. Tolkien. As a professional linguist, he had more than a passing interest in the way words were developed and implemented, and he applied this to his fiction. Thus the kingdom of Rohan, a nation of expert horsemen, was inhabited by people whose names were variations of “eo,” for “horse”: Eorl, Eomyn, Eomir, etc. This is all well and good if you’re a) a linguist, b) inventing a way of naming based on something new, and c) J.R.R. Tolkien. If you’re not all three of those things, it’s best to use this approach sparingly.
Another Cliche in Character Names in Fantasy and Science Fiction
A final cliche is giving a character only one name, i.e., Logan, Cornelius, or Conan. This is a simplification to the point of diminishing returns; after all, the point of names is to identify an individual, and it often takes both names to do that. Think about how many people you know with the same first name, and imagine trying to discuss them without their last names to make them distinct. I vividly remember how surprised I was when the original Star Wars came out and the characters had both first and last names. It added a level of realism that, for its time, was revolutionary.
In my own writing, I’ve given almost all my characters first and last names, and I try to ensure that they both look unique on the page, and sound unique when spoken aloud. I would recommend that approach for the sake of clarity if nothing else. Anything that makes your reader pause runs the risk of taking him or her out of the story, and that’s never a good thing. So if you are considering using unpronounceable character names in your fantasy or science fiction novel… maybe reconsider.