Tropes from Hell: When Character Names Distract

tropes from hellWelcome to our feature where we discuss common and overused themes (a.k.a tropes) that are making the rounds in the book world these days. Today, we discuss character names that distract the reader from the story.

Have you ever refused to read a book just because of a name? I know I have. It may sound petty but sadly, we readers also judge a book by the names of their characters (recently, AH read a book description where the main character’s name made her think of a cow…do you think she’ll be picking that one up?)

We know that names are very personal things. They depend on culture, region, trends and even time, specially for female names (the top 10 male names in the US haven’t changed all that much in the last 100 years but female ones have varied widely.) Readers have their preferences and there’s no way authors could please everybody – and as we’ve seen, a truly bad name has the potential to decrease sales. No wonder a lot of authors play it safe and use the same names over and over – there must be at least hundreds of heroes named Sebastian in RomanceLand.

But still, there are some doozies of names out there in the book world. Here are some trends in character names that makes us look askance at the page:

1. Unpronounceable names: This is very popular in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Para1 The Kingnormal Romance and we know it will never go away. But isn’t it the most distracting thing when you keep tripping over a name without having a clue as to how to pronounce it? See: Laoghaire from Outlander – I’ve heard friends pronounce it as “log hairy”, “lore”, “lahair” and many more. Yes, we know that writers can be very successful with a rash of unpronounceable names in their series but if you are going to name your characters Xhex or Xcor, can you at least put a pronunciation guide at the end? (AH thinks that very soon, the WardWorld will have a character called Or’gasm.)

2. Bond Girl Names: Unless you are writing a satire, don’t use silly female names that make the women sound like sex objects and makes it impossible to take them seriously. As Christal said, “when a character’s name makes me think Bond Girl more than literary lead, we have a problem.”

3. Inappropriate names for the time period: Please! Do some research! It’s so easy with something called ‘Google’ these days. Names like Jayden, Kaylee, etc. have become popular fairly recently (in fact, Ashley used to be a male name until the 20th century) so if I see them in a historical, I immediately think it’s a modern novel in disguise. Something ABout You

4. Unisex names: AH hates when characters have unisex names and she can’t identify the character’s gender until halfway through the book. I love Julie James’ books but this is a tendency of hers that bothers me. Almost ALL her heroines have unisex names: Payton, Taylor, Jordan, etc. which also couldn’t have very common 30+ years ago (see #2) when theoretically, these heroines were born.  I know Ms. James probably thinks of it as her trademark, but it gives the impression that women with more traditional names are not heroine material in her world. Maybe I’m just over analyzing it but that’s the impression I’ve gotten.

5. Similar sounding names for main characters in the same series: I’m looking at you, Lorelei James. There must be at least 15 characters in her Rough Riders series with names June 28th, 2011starting with either C or K, including either the hero or the heroine (sometimes both) for the first 9 books in the series. I stopped reading the series because I couldn’t keep people straight anymore.

6. Main Character has the same name of a popular character in the same genre: If your book is Urban Fantasy, don’t name your main character Kate, Mercy, Harry, Cat, Mac, etc. It tells me that you are lacking in imagination, which is the last thing I need to think if you want me to read your book.

7. Everybody has a nickname: If your main characters are called Jake ‘the Snake’ Claymore and Mandy ‘Sassy’ Willard, then something is wrong with Devil's Brideyour book. Don’t give nicknames willy nilly, only when they make sense. Stephanie Laurens got away with giving a lot of her male characters “evil” nicknames (Devil, Vane, Scandal, Demon, Lucifer, etc.) in historicals no less! probably because she was among the first to do it…DO NOT EVEN ATTEMPT TODAY.

8. Always cool names for “good” characters: All “good” characters have cool names, “bad” characters have ugly names *rolls eyes*. Like it’s that easy in life! If you are called Herbert, I can tell right away that you are a weasily, coward, embezzling accountant! It’s so easy to spot the hero of the next book – just look for guys with sexy names! I know authors don’t want to jeopardize their book sales by giving their character old fashioned/ugly names but some of those names are still popular – see below two very sexy men named Rupert. (I give kudos to Ruthie Knox for naming her hero Neville in About Last Night although she did the right thing and called him in ‘Nev’ in the description!) sexy ruperts

It’s amazing how I always seem to end these posts with pictures of cute men. 😉

Now, it’s your turn. What are your character names pet peeves? Share with us in the comments!

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Comments 9

  • I refused to read a book because the main female had the name Gus. It was short for something else. Either way, when I think Gus, I don’t imagine any female at all. The first thing that comes to mind is the mouse from the animated Disney movie Cinderella. Next picture in my mind is some old auto mechanic guy with a big gut. The reviews on the book were good but I can’t get past that name at all.

  • I agree 100% and I’m just as guilty as you are of refusing to buy a book when I can’t pronounce the names. I’m so bad that all I have to do is see an unpronounceable name in the synopsis, and chances are I’ll put the book right back down. It’s one of the reasons I’ve pretty much stopped reading straight fantasy. I hear the words in my head as I’m reading so something I can’t pronounce throws me right out of the story and ruins my reading buzz.

  • LOL, just J.R.Ward that can make a weird name and while people complain, they still read it anyway. If there is any character named Or’gasm, wonder if she will make a twin characters that rivaled V and Payne, called Phenis and Phagina 😐

    I once read a book by Kendra Leigh Castle and almost all the male names are weird. Like Phenex (rhyme with Kleenex), Gadreel (maybe from Gabriel, or Galadriel), Murmur (what kind of name is that??), Caum, Menesin. Funny thing is, the villain name is cool! I wonder, is it because of the genres (fantasy, PNR) so author take liberties with names? If yes, maybe they can learn from Tolkien to how create names that have fantasy vibe yet easy to pronounce and do not make you rolling eyes.

    Also, heroes name in Gena Showalter’s LOTU. If you had read it, do you think that she pick weird name for her characters? Name like Maddox, Lucien, Sabin, Strider, Aeron, Torin, Gideon, etc (and Scarlet, Anya for her heroine) are not Greek name, yet they were from Greece. I know it’s Gena’s right to name her characters as she please, but at last she can do more research. Apparently just Galen and Paris that are Greek names.
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    • Phenis and Phagina!!! LMAO!!! (pun intended!!!!!) I almost spit my coffee all over my computer.

      If I can pronounce the name, I don’t mind if it’s weird. I understand it’s not easy to make up a cool name but at least make it easy to pronounce!

  • I lol’d 😉

    Gah. Unpronounceable names are definitely a pet peeve of mine. If you’re going to have weird names, you need to have a pronunciation guide in the FRONT of the book (in the age of ebooks, having them in the back serves no purpose, except to make you mad when you find it after stumbling over the name for the whole book). I hate copycat names too. The next time I come across a Mac/Mack, I’m throwing the book across the room. ALSO–names like Jayden and Kaylee get on my nerves regardless of the time period-appropriateness. Maybe in 15 years, but right now those kinds of names are still newly popular, so having a 20 something y.o. MC named something like that . . . MEH.

    My only peeve that wasn’t on your list is bizarre spellings of normal names. Or’gasm (*snickers*) and Zsadist don’t count b/c those aren’t real names. I’m talking Chaol instead of Kyle or Cydnee, etc. Ungh.
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    • LOL, we actually discussed weird spellings but they fell off the post somehow. I don’t hate them as much because it happens in real life – (people should just STOP doing that. It doesn’t make your child unique AT ALL.) Whenever I see them, I just roll my eyes!!!

      • Yes. Weird spellings drive me insane. Gennyfyr for Jennifer, Tifanee for Tiffany. It just makes me want to cringe. I did have a lot of fun with the BDB names and when S’Ex came up as a character name, I couldn’t stop laughing. Seriously?