Is it a bad idea to use un-linguistic-ly sound names in fantasy.

Lots of authors still do it, assuming you mean stuff like random use of punctuation in names.

Random made-up example:


Basically most of the time it comes from authors trying to recapture the spirit of Tolkien, but doing it without the linguistic background which made his work so convincing.

For example, Treebeard has an exotic sounding name that just means “Treebeard”, so even in a world populated by characters with strange-sounding names Tolkien just uses “Treebeard” most of the time.

And for that matter, all of Tolkien’s names were linguistically sound even when they sounded foreign. Everything included was there for good reason.

This isn’t necessarily the standard for all fantasy fiction, but as a reader I feel like most authors can communicate better by not putting artificial complexity to names.
It depends how you want to go with these things. Tolkien created not only lands and histories, but also languages for the inhabitants of Middle-earth; yet 99% of the text was written in plain English. Obviously he could have written it using the native tongues of his characters, but when writing commercially you have to know where to draw the line.

From a personal perspective, in fantasy I prefer names that are easily pronouncable. It makes it easier for me as a reader to visualise and remember them, and helps with the flow of the story. Again, Tolkien could have used Treebeard's real name (and perhaps covered several pages of his book doing so) but the reader must be considered when making these decisions.
I'm asking about names that you make up. Like they're not even derived from a real language

If there was an alien called Dave, that would probably take me out of the story. But I'd be happier with a name like Triax than Himbarthik-iklong. Douglas Adams just about got away with Slartibatfast, but (perhaps) was taking a sly dig at authors who used such names for their characters.
I think in some cases a made-up name might seem more authentic to the made-up setting, than something too mundane and familiar (as, for instance, paranoid marvin's example of an alien named Dave).

Some readers let that sort of thing pass, or even prefer familiar names despite how they might clash with the setting. They'll be fine with characters named John, Bob, and Spike in a world that otherwise has distinctly Japanese or Welsh or Spanish vibes.

Others get incensed when the names don't match their idea of what characters in a quasi-medieval setting ought to be named (even, as with the case of one critiquer I encountered long ago, when the setting is not intended to be quasi-medieval, and their ideas of what medieval names were like is distinctly off anyway). Still others hate names that appear to be challenging to pronounce or otherwise too exotic for their tastes.

My experience, after writing 11 books is that you will never, ever be able to please everyone with the names you choose, so better to a) please yourself, and b) concentrate your efforts on writing a compelling story in an intriguing setting*—because if the book is good enough (but it better be good enough!) you can get away with practically anything when it comes to the names.


*Although keep in mind that names can be one of the elements that make your setting seem authentic or suit the tone and atmosphere.
Personally I find it risible when characters spend ages saying pretendy, overblown, 'olde-worlde' talking things like:

"Greetings, G'nagh Herreinsdottir, How fares the, son of Ghrumpibastid of the Golden Ax?"

When real medieval people would have probably said things like:

"Hello, Bob, how's it going?"
So, what JunkMonkey is saying, no language that sounds like it came from a Shakspearian Norse Saga! ;)

But in addition to what everyone else has said, just be consistent and don't overdo it. Just like salt and pepper, a little goes a long way.

On the book that I am currently working on in my trilogy, I have three made up language in it. BUT, I am only using them as needed, when needed and in small amounts just to convey that culture's identity. And one of the languages is mentioned throughout the trilogy, so I need to be consistent in the small bit I use and how I use it: keeping definitions and meanings the same. Names, items and what-nots.
Just my view!
Speaking as a reader and not an author, I find using un-linguistic names to be fine. For me it makes the character more real-to-life. Our names are our names, (I live in a Dutch immigrant enclave, and we have names like Van Der Meulen, which we use. We don't say Joe "from the windmill." But if we are talking about a windmill it is not a Meulen) but I do not care if an author puts much more than that in the alien language. Even if the story arose from an alien telling, for me to be able to read it, the story has to be translated/written in English.
I think the simpler to pronounce the better for many readers.
Myself as a reader if the name is too long or confusing to me I just insert something that I can use to get me past it all quickly.
For instance Slartibatfast might become Slart through the rest of the story.
Which brings up a thought; you could make the name as convoluted as you want and the just have the other characters give him a nickname.
and as a consequence the name of your alien Xrgrabtolshibokest can become Dave though more likely to be Zar.
I'm a native English speaker. I'm going to blame this upbringing for my next sentence.
I had a lot of trouble reading an English translation of the Bhagavad Gita specifically because the names were so exotic (and so long) I had trouble keeping track of the characters.

When creating something for someone to enjoy reading, you will benefit from avoiding any barriers to enjoying the story. [unlike the Bhagavad Gita which was written for other reasons]

You can offer a letter/punctuation salad for names -- but to what end?
If the character has a name that is written using a different set of symbols with sounds not used in "The common language" then (in world) how does this person introduce themselves to people that only speak the common language?

Is he just a dick? I've seen that in my travels on Earth. Someone who is so aggressive about their weird name pronunciation that everybody simply avoids using their name.

Good Luck with you book.
My experience, after writing 11 books is that you will never, ever be able to please everyone with the names you choose, so better to a) please yourself, and b) concentrate your efforts on writing a compelling story in an intriguing setting*—because if the book is good enough (but it better be good enough!) you can get away with practically anything when it comes to the names.

This deserves emphasizing and re-emphasizing as the best answer, and also the best answer to all such questions.

You will never produce a story where choices like this satisfy everyone. But you can produce a compelling story that gets people to suspend their normal preferences. It doesn't even have to be an intriguing setting, a compelling story will do it. Focus on compelling stories and making yourself happy with the small choices like these, and you are focusing on what matters.

The only thing I'd add to it is consistency. You can call them all Erik and William and Rupert, or you can call them Aldric and Dewar and Kyhol, or you can call them all Amalzain and Tirouv and Knygathin, and while I've got a preference there I'll adapt if I like the story, but if an author starts abandoning consistency in their naming structures they are taking a hammer to the foundations of their story. Obviously you can have a story where Dave and Kevin from Earth can meet Levon and Shalhassan and Loren from not-Earth, but if all of those people are from the same culture it risks the integrity of the story. Although even there, I know there's cases where I've spotted authors lacking consistency and given them a pass because I enjoy the story.

edit: Actually, just to emphasize how difficult it is to please everyone and how little it matters, here's a thread from elsewhere I found on names people dislike in fantasy - most of them are names from wildly popular series, and in many cases, someone else in the thread will defend them.
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The title almost never says it all.

What is un-linguistic-y? Do you mean where five names all feel German and a sixth sounds Egyptian? Do you mean names with a torrent of random punctuation? Do you mean a name that is "hard to pronounce"? I put that last in quotes because what is hard for one person to pronounce can be easy for another. Much depends on the native language of the reader. So, can you provide some examples of what you regard as bad practice?

What do you mean by is it a bad idea? It is nearly possible for an author to make names so difficult for me that I give up reading. But usually, in such cases, they are otherwise also a poor writer and the story is weak and the characters flat, so the names are merely another reason to stop. I'd turn it around and ask if you can imagine a situation where the use of un-linguistic-y names is a *good* idea?
"No, my lord Pigmot, I did not vanquish the Nibble Pibblies, because you just made them up."
My only stipulation is that I want names that are easy to pronounce. I don't want to have to take a degree in phonetics to figure out how to pronounce a name consisting mainly of consonants with a few apostrophe's thrown in for appearance. I know speed readers only look at the words on a page rather than actually 'reading' them. I don't do this; to get the full enjoyment from well written prose I like to take my time and, whilst I don't read books out aloud, I do read them 'aloud' in my head, I truly believe you will only get the full atmosphere of the writing by doing this rather than just getting the bones of the narrative alone. And difficult to pronounce names just make that harder. I typically end up recognising the incomprehensible mash of consonants and just substituting something pronounceable that might be spelt similarly.

Bottom line: pretentious unpronounceable names annoy the hell out of me and, in extreme case, might stop me from returning to that author.

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