Unpronounceables, Apostrophes and Foreign Accents are neck tattoos.

All of my blog entries are written from my own experience and perspective, and your own experience may vary. This blog assumes that its readers are fantasy writers at the beginning of their fantasy writing career, looking for advice on how to get published.

A blog about writing for publication.

Tkl’ept-íkãr reached for the Dać’summ Æth Vlkdrrn with trembling hands…

Ah, the mid-name apostrophe. That special little flick over the letter “A” that tells you that this is not just an ordinary A. This is a fantasy A. It tells us sure, I’ve used an A but you can’t pronounce it like an A.

Ok, so maybe it’s not always that bad, but it can get pretty bad. One of the first lessons that I recommend all prospective fantasy authors learn is this:

You are writing for readers. Make life easy for them.

I recently read an author on Facebook say that he had a character with a seven letter name, all seven letters of which were consonants. In fairness, one of them was a Y, which helps a little, but it was still a major problem. The main thrust has to be this:

Whatever crazy, maverick, funky stuff you are trying to do with names? Stop it. Stop it right now and think about your readers!

“BUT, BUT, BUT!” they cry.

  • “But my book is based on understanding the ancient language!”
  • “But there’s this other popular author who does it!”
  • “But my character names are based around this thing I made up!”
  • “But my character names are based around this real world thing!”

Yadda yadda yadda.

Here’s the important bit to understand. That stuff doesn’t matter. It’s all just stuff in your head. You think that it’s important but it’s not. If your book’s plot relies on these names, then change the plot. What’s important is that you give the reader an excellent experience. If you are writing in English, then that means English punctuation.

Good experiences do not involves being unable to pronounce a name. Good experiences do not involve having to pause and think through a name because its spelling is so outlandish that you can’t hear it in your head as you read. Good experiences do not involve feeling belittled because you, as an English speaker, have no idea what the difference is between ù, û and ü. Because those things simply don’t exist in standard modern English. Every time a writer starts dropping umlauts onto their vowels I have no idea what I’m meant to do with them (and I teach academic writing at a London university).

When choosing any element of your writing, whether it’s the plot, the character names, the location – you need to be thinking about reader experience. It’s something that’s almost never spoken about on forums, but it’s the crux of what you ought to be thinking about. Writing’s not about getting in cool details from the world you created (no matter how awesome you think that they are). Your goal is not to please yourself, ultimately. If you want to write for yourself only then this is meaningless advice, but then, so is all advice and you’d have no cause to read this blog. What you’re trying to do (presumably) is craft excellent books that readers, and ultimately agents and publishers, are going to love.

One agent told me the following, and I quote:

“The moment I see apostrophes in names, I stop reading. I know the author isn’t going to take care of the reader through the rest of the story.”

Now, it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t address the elephant in the room.

But Author X is very popular and his names are impossible to read.”

This is true. So why shouldn’t you do it? Because odd names are neck tattoos.

There are some people in the world who can get away with a neck tattoo like the beautiful people in the pictures below:

flower-tattoo2 neck-tatoo

A writer is like a singleton, looking for love. When you’ve found your THE ONE, by all means, ink yourself up and the relationship trundles along. But if these beauties are single, whilst they may look immediately dazzling, by having such a thing tattooed onto their necks they have cut out the possibility of millions or billions of people who might have fallen in love with them. Some people just hate neck tattoos. Not because they are small minded, just because they’ve grown up in cultures where they aren’t common. In fact, they hate them so much that there is no chance that they would ever date someone who had a neck tattoo. Now, if they got to know them, if they spent time around the tattoo maybe they could get past it. But you don’t have that long to slowly coax your prospective agent or publisher into seeing past it. Submitting to an agent isn’t a date on Match.com, it’s Speed Dating. You made the choice to tattoo your neck and have to hope that at first glance it’s a winner.

  • No agent dismisses a submission because you called your main character Dylan.
  • If even one agent dismisses your submission because you named your character Dy’lan then you’ve done yourself a disservice. And for what?

I once stopped reading a book because it featured a character whose name I didn’t like. The book wasn’t exactly gripping me anyway, but I’d have kept going provided I didn’t have to stop and try to think through how to pronounce the name. It was just one more layer for me to have to deal with.

Reader first.

Names come second.

That is all.

Published by EdMcDonald

Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven's Mark trilogy and the forthcoming Redwinter series. He currently lives in the UK. Find me at www.edmcdonaldwriting.com

3 thoughts on “Unpronounceables, Apostrophes and Foreign Accents are neck tattoos.

    1. A gentleman never reads and tells! Well, sometimes. But only about the good and happy things we like. I wouldn’t want to unduly influence anyone not to read another writer’s work 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve read a few books where I loathed character names (made me cringe when I heard/read them), but none so bad as to make me stop reading!


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