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My characters' names are always easy-to-read and easy-to-remember because they are common western names (like John or Oscar).

However, I am writing a story that has a cultural favour.

A western name sounds funny in this context.

If I give local names to the characters, they sound good to me (more so because I know the cultural context).

I am wondering whether it is easy, or how to make it easier, for my readers to be able to connect with a character that has a 'non-western' sounding name.

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

Western names are not a common because they don't really exist. The names you gave -- John or Oscar -- are English names so belong to a subculture of the western world. You just assumed they are common because it's your culture. I bet you might find strange to see a João in a book, but it's western also (indeed the Portuguese version of the name).

A book set in Miami, for example, could have a lot of Juans and Joões in it but, even so, maybe somebody from other part of USA could think the names do not fit right since they are not used to such a proximity with Latin cultures.

That's to say sometimes you just can't attach too much with local context just because of that context. Local context, in a book, is not the real city's local context but the book's social context and, most important, your target readers social context. You can't expect somebody to know the context just because in the real world it's that way.

Basically, before to start a book, you need to know who are you writing for.

They first thing you need to have in mind is that, if you want to use local names in your book you need to contextualize the names if your target audience is not used to them. Context will make the users to leave the sound of the name behind and start feel like like they know the name.

A good example is Robin Hobb, who uses Adjectives for names. Fitz Farseer is son of Prince Chivalry Farseer who is married to Lady Patience.

Those names, at first, seem really strange but among the book you start to like then because you understand that they defines the characters, and because Robin contextualizes the why the six duchies favors adjectives as names instead real names.

In my current manuscript, I have two characters with foreign name: Dexter and Elton. I didn't chose by rolling dices. There's a why and I tried to make it real clear in the book how the characters end up with foreign names in a Brazilian context.

If you contextualize your book's background and names, you can use them as much as you want.

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+1 for Robin Hobb example. – Jonathan Aug 16 '13 at 13:07

I don't think there's necessarily a connection issue. (I connect just fine with Anakin Skywalker, or Gimli son of Gloin, or any of the Hunger Games characters (who all had odd names)). There's no correlation between connection and name pronunciation, because it's all in the description of the character.

That said, reading A Game of Thrones lately, I found that an absolute influx of weird and difficult-to-pronounce names made me completely gloss over a dozen or so characters that I probably should have been paying more attention to.

So I find that names I find difficult to read/pronounce in my own mind can throw the ease-of-reading. Depending on your mode of writing, depends on how you could approach the challenge.

For instance, if it was a first-person Western character who had gone to a cultural country, he might create 'western' nicknames for the characters he encounters, using their proper names only when he is speaking to them, or when it seems neccessary.

If it's third-person all the way through, using alliteration might get more mileage. So, referring to some of the characters by description might go down well (eg, referring to them by profession, gender, or some other non-name based descriptor)

That's just my thoughts, though. I guess it depends largely on your target audience and how much 'cultural experience' they have, if they're comfortable with the names you'd be using, or if it will be completely foreign to them (and thus require a learning curve on the reader's behalf)

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So it's not so much as 'unfamiliar/uncommon names are bad/hard to keep up with', but rather about the ease of pronunciation of the name (the phonemes used, length, name-chain structure, etc). So, would you recommend anglicizing foreign/weird sounding names? – Mussri Aug 16 '13 at 3:54
@Mussri Some names in English have directly translations. Jacques/Jack, Matthieu/Matthew etc, are already built into the English language. As for anglicizing names, I guess it becomes a question of authenticity in the story vs knowing your target audience. Again, nicknames/shortened names would be a way around it, as it's not just western cultures that tend to shorten names that are long. Alex/Alexander, Bob/Robert, Liz/Elizabeth; Western culture can't be bothered to say the full name (which is often considered 'formal') – Singular1ty Aug 16 '13 at 4:39
(cont.) Again thinking of Game of Thrones, G.R.R Martin gets around re-using names, by creating these nicknames. For instance, Lord Petyr Baelish is 'Littlefinger' and Tyrion Lannister is often referred to as 'dwarf' or 'imp' (because of his height). Back to the Hunger Games and we see Katniss Everdeen referred to as Kat most of the time. And on it goes. There's a tradition, even in fantasy work, or recognizing that names can be difficult, and providing alternate names to lessen the burden on the reader. – Singular1ty Aug 16 '13 at 4:44

I really think that basically anything goes when it comes to names. I've seen names used to help make a world feel less realistic (two examples I can think of: Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 in which the female lead is named something like 'Soybeans', and Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, which is full of people with goofy names because... well, I can't say because that would be a spoiler), I've seen names used to make a non-Western story feel more exotic, I've seen Old English names used to make a story feel medieval, you name it, if it's something weird you can do with a name, it's probably been done before.

My only semi-admonition is don't use stupid puns as names for people, but that's more because I don't like stupid puns than anything else (and, well, even there the main character in the aforementioned Chronic City is named Chase Insteadman, which is punny, so I guess even I have my exceptions there).

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Names are strange things. One important thing is that the readers are able to distinguish between the characters easily (unless you are deliberately trying to confuse them).

You can't connect to someone if you're not sure exactly who they are, so I always try to use names which are as different as possible, and never use the same name for someone else.

i.e. Eowynne vs Eowyhne is a very subtle difference. 
More clear is Eowynne vs Elaine, 
and clearer still: Eowynne vs Abigail.
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I've had people complain about the names I used (traditional Scottish names, since it was set in Medieval Scotland).

It does depend on the audience to an extent, a Middle Grade book probably should have simpler names then a regular novel, but just try not to make the names of various too similar to each other.

I have a friend that named his children alphabetically, I think that is a good way to go with your characters, just so they don't get mixed up in the reader's mind too easily.

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We gave our four kids all names that started with "A". That's because we didn't have to go any further than that in the baby name book before finding one that we liked. After giving the first child an "A" name, we considered a "B" name for the second child, but then we realized that by doing that we were committing to have 24 more children. – Jay Aug 20 '13 at 13:55
One thing that I had problems with the first time I read LOTR was Arwen and Eowyn. I got them confused and they basically rhyme. I had a reader become annoyed because I use Aibhlinn and Aideen, but it is set in Scotland and those are traditional Scottish names. – Balun Stormhands Aug 21 '13 at 18:34
Those don't seem all that similar to me, but in any case, just because they are "real names" doesn't mean they're both good to use. If I was writing a story set in the US, I don't think I'd have two characters named Sally and Sully, e.g. – Jay Aug 23 '13 at 12:39
@BalunStormhands I think Psicofrenia's answer applies to your situation, too. Historical accuracy is all well and good, but you need to think about who you want to read your book. If you write for history nerds or especially for people familiar with the Gaelic (or is that Scottish?) language, you can and probably should use names that are as real as possible. But if you aim to entertain a general audience, you might want to select those names that are not too confusing and hard to remember. If you want to be read, don't write for yourself. – what Nov 3 '13 at 23:48

While unfamiliar names can make reading a little more difficult, I think it would be disconcerting if a story set in another culture used American names. I would definitely find it odd if all the Arabs are named Bob and Mary and the alien from Aldebaran IV is named Harold Smith.

On the other hand, I'd avoid names that are difficult for your readers to pronounce, or at least to guess at a pronunciation. If you are inventing a make-believe culture, don't give the characters names like Brzdwdlza and Qv'Lc#*x. You can make them strange enough without making them unpronounceable, like Barzdalza and Quivlax. If you're setting the story in a real culture, you might try to pick names that at least look pronounceable to English readers. And as Jonathan said, avoid picking names that look similar. When you're dealing with common English names, calling one character Jack and another Jake might be a minor source of confusion. This would be many times so with unfamiliar names, like Jagwan and Jugwen.

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