I have a character in my book named Jiolluav (with the correct accent, Zholl-you-of or /ʒōl-'yoo-äv/), and I've written my entire "novel" (it's a work in progress) using this name. When I asked a friend to read it, he gave me a couple pointers with the addition that the name was hard for him to pronounce in his head, and he had to read it multiple times before giving up and using a bastardized version of the name (he said Jollav).

When I asked why he didn't use the actual name, he told me it's because it ruined his immersion in the book multiple times, and that using a more easily pronounced name helped to reimmerse himself. I have a very distinct culture in the book where all names follow an unusual pronunciation pattern, so I want to try to keep the names following an unusual pronunciation, but I don't want to ruin my reader's immersion just because of the name. I can't use too many pronouns because of the POV, so I can't just use "he" a lot as a result of a very dynamic story in terms of characterization. Since there's not an omniscient narrator, I'd like to avoid adding a pronunciation (prəˌnənsēˈāSH(ə)n) guide.

Does having a difficult name in a book really ruin immersion, and what are some ways I can convey to the reader how it is pronounced in my mind?

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    It looks like all the answers are pointing in the same direction, so I'm not about to make another, but I did want to give a specific case for me. In Tad Williams' Otherland series, there is a bushman named !Xabbu who is a main character. In the forward, Williams explains how to voice all of the clicks in their language, such as !X, but it never stuck for me. I had no trouble reading it, but I find myself unable to verbally discuss the book because I have no idea how to pronounce his name!
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 20:13
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    It doesn't break immersion, but it may make it harder for your readers to enthuse about your story to others, since they can't say any of the names. Something to consider.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 21:52
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    Without your explanation of the pronunciation, I thought the name would be pronounced "Jee-oh-loo-ahf". A more phonetical approach to spelling would be helpful in my opinion. Especially if we're coming from different cultures where phonetics could be drastically different with the same characters.
    – Bardicer
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 22:01
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    Just a side-point, since I've read books that did this: Since (potentially) most people will automatically replace the name with something that sounds better in their head, if you have multiple characters with similar such names, it can break immersion trying to tell them apart. For me at least, trying to keep 'ishinath', 'isjnuth', and 'irhlathe', straight can get old pretty quick. Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 22:35
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    Personal preference: I really like when authors use strange, un-English (or even un-earthly) names. They emphasize that this is not the world you (the reader) know. And on top of that, it pleases my inner linguist to see unusual or unfamiliar combinations of phonemes.
    – Hearth
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 0:24

16 Answers 16


Hard-to-pronounce names suggest a different culture. If War and Peace had its characters named not Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky and Pierre Kirillovich Bezukhov, but Andrew Bolk and Peter Bek; or if the characters of the Kalevala were named not Väinämöinen and Joukahainen, but Van and John, that would ruin my immersion. It would break my immersion because the names would not match the culture presented.

As a reader, if I encounter a name I don't know how to pronounce (e.g. certain Welsh names in the Mabinogion), I pronounce it the best I can, and move on. If I am informed of the "correct" way to pronounce the name, I amend what I thought the name should have been pronounced like, and stick to the correct pronunciation. I see no problem there. (And I've never heard of anyone claiming they can't read the Mabinogion because they don't know how to pronounce the names.)

If you care about the readers pronouncing the names correctly in their heads, you can provide a pronunciation guide. Tolkien did this with The Lord of the Rings, others did it too. A pronunciation guide doesn't assure, however, that readers would actually follow the pronunciation you have in mind. For one thing, it can be somewhat hard to explain in writing what sound you have in mind. For another, if you put the pronunciation guide in the beginning, it's not sufficiently interesting, the readers are not yet sufficiently immersed in the story to care, they might well just skip it. And if you put the pronunciation guide in the end, it's already too late - the readers already have the "wrong" name in their heads, and they've already finished the book anyway.

An alternative is to add some hint within the story. A name can be woven into a bit of verse, so the rhyme helps the reader understand how the name should be pronounced. That, however, requires work, it might not be natural to your story, and even if it is, you wouldn't do that for every single character.

In short, no, hard-to-pronounce names do not break immersion.

However, if the names you plan are particularly long, you might find this discussion of long names helpful.

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    Would it be crazy to put pronunciation in footnotes when names first appear? (I'm not a story writer, so this might be a bad idea). You know the reader is probably going to mentally step out-of-universe while they try to figure out a tricky name anyway. You'd also want to collect it up in an appendix at the end so readers don't have to find the right page for each character if they forget and want to check. Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 5:54
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    Maybe related: the question worries about having a pronunciation-guide appendix in a story without an omniscient narrator. I would have thought that was still fine if it's obviously separate from the main story, and from the author to the reader, out-of-universe. Maybe that's a good place to say something about the patterns of names. Or maybe use the same technique as Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive: its appendices are "written" by an in-universe character that researches the magic systems of various worlds. stormlightarchive.fandom.com/wiki/Ars_Arcanum Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 5:57
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    "And I've never heard of anyone claiming they can't read the Mabinogion because they don't know how to pronounce the names." - for me, the hard-to-pronounce names in the Mabinogion (and the fact that several had similar spellings) made it a lot slower going than it needed to be. I could read it, but it absolutely broke immersion for me. As soon as I saw the question title I thought "Yes, in the Mabinogion".
    – Guy G
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 13:24
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    It really depends on how alien the language is. Tolkien gave himself a great head start by using Finnish & Welsh orthography, neither of which are natural for English speakers, but near enough to be "solveable" without the pronunciation key. In other words readers should not have to depend on the key to read his books (hard C & G notwithstanding). If you're going to be exotic, then, you need to immerse the reader in the exotic language -- or not. Tolkien limited his use of the Black Speech; and yet purposefully used it in the Ring inscription in order to alienate the reader.
    – Rich
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 17:11
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    I find it disheartening how often an author comes here and says "my reader is having problem X with my book. Is this really a problem?" and the selected answer is "No, your reader is just wrong, no reasonable reader would have this problem. Carry on!"
    – 1006a
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 3:15

Like your reader, if I'm unable to pronounce a name, I replace it with something simpler so I don't have to try to pronounce it each time I see it. After the first few times of seeing it and trying to get it right, I'll just replace it (once I really get into a story, I barely even see the correct spelling). For instance, I pronounced "Hermione" as "Her-Me-own-ee" for the first handful of Harry Potter books (until I saw the films). That's not quite the same as your scenario, but it's along the same lines.

Because a reader is apt to use their own pronunciation, I don't think it necessarily breaks immersion. You can't expect all your readers to adhere to your desired pronunciations. It's just one of those things, if you choose to keep it, that's in the readers' hands after you send it out into the world.

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    Coincidentally, this was my immediate thought! My siblings and I were young when the first books came out, and my sister famously called her "Her-ma-meen" Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 20:25
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    I prounounced it "Her-me-own" as a kid, haha. I generally agree with this answer. The only caveat might be that "Jiolluav" looks quite un-English, and might just be outright difficult to read and come up with a pronunciation in the first place (for some readers). Unlike "Hermione", it can't be broken up into familiar bits. Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 20:31
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    Yeah, I said "Her-me-own" until I read Goblet of Fire, during which she explained the proper pronunciation to Viktor Krum. I'm fairly certain Rowling included that exchange in part because she realized so many readers were having trouble with Hermione's name. Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 22:56
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    I pronounced it "Her-me-own" while reading this answer. Now I know that's wrong, I know a few other wrong versions people came up with, but I have no clue what's correct. ;) Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 23:24
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    @JohannesPille - Her-my-oh-knee
    – AndyT
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 10:42

You can criticise me, but if I get a name like the one you have used (I can't easily see how you get to the pronunciation you give), I simplify or skip it. The consequence is that hard-to-say names get forgotten. Trying to work out who is who does break immersion. An alternative, assuming you don't want to change the names, is to spell them more phonetically.

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    Another alternative--if you really want to keep the name for formal situations--would be to have a foreign character have trouble pronouncing it. So Jiolluav would get a nickname, maybe "Jiollu" or even just "Jolu" or "Joel" when around the foreigner. That way, when Jiolluav's parents call him by his full name you'll still get the effect you're looking for without the reader supplying their own (possibly worse) internal nickname.
    – scohe001
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 21:26
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    This is similar to the American names taken on by people from China. They have names in their native tongue and they use them in China, but in dealing with Americans, they use their American names because it makes conversation easier. I've never asked them if this bothers them or not but I'm guessing it doesn't since they offer up their American name first and unless you ask, you never even hear their real name.
    – boatcoder
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 9:46
  • @boatcoder I've encountered that also, but the experience varies with the individual. I know a woman from China who uses an American name, but also a man from Korea who was assigned an American name by a parent when they came to the U.S., and in his twenties he went back to his Korean name (which is not particularly hard to say for Americans). Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 10:58
  • C J Cherryh has a good trick for her pussycats in the Chanur series. Their companions the ape-like characters have such long and involved names that people always shorten them.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 12:35

I don't care about pronunciation, because I rarely pronounce even semi-common names correctly. I have trouble with even some of my own characters' names. But then, for me, written language and spoken language are far more separate in my head than they are for most people (which is why I always spectacularly failed spelling tests in school).

I do care about remembering the name. If I confuse two characters because their written names are similar (even if they're pronounced completely differently), that's a problem for me. Even worse if I don't realize they're separate characters.

I would pronounce your example name GEE-oh-love. Completely wrong. But, as a reader, I don't care. I only need something in my head so I can remember her/him.

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    This. I thought it was so for everyone (but I realize from the votes it's not). I don't pronounce anything I read. Repeating words (like nouns) quickly just become a pattern I recognize and I also get confused if two names look similar. Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 11:44

I’m only going to give my view as a foreign English reader.

It doesn’t matter, I’ve found out I mispronounced Elminster, Hermione and half of the names on the Lord of the rings mythology. It didn’t break immersion cause I would just pronounce the names (in my mind) as it would fit me and hence it will always sound natural (to me).

An unknown reader will not know better so he’ll make up the pronunciation as he sees fit and carry on with it. The word itself will evoke the made up image of the character in the reader’s mind and they will become linked disregarding how you intended the name to be pronounced.

Your friend has troubles because you tried to force him into a given pronunciation when he had already decided on something else. That’s what breaks immersion.

Pronunciation guide, for me at least, is counterproductive, reader is interested on the story, not in a linguistic class.

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    He told me it broke immersion when he read it, not when I asked him about it.
    – Anoplexian
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 20:09
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    @Anoplexian my point was he did naturally what I described, modify the name to his liking. Now, I do this without even thinking cause after all I don’t know how it’s supposed to sound in English anyway. Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 20:13

Yes, I find it distracting. To me, the problem is not so much if a name is hard to pronounce, but if it's difficult to figure out how it's supposed to be pronounced.

Unless the spelling of a name is somehow important to your story, if you're going to use made up names, I'd say to spell them phonetically. If Jiolluav is supposed to be pronounced Zholl-you-of, then why not just write it "Zholl-you-of"?

This is especially true if you have multiple difficult to pronounce names that resemble each other. If there's a character named Jiolluav and another named Jaolvual, I think readers may well get them confused and find themselves constantly checking back.

Sure, in a fantasy or science fiction novel, I expect names to be unusual-sounding. If you're alien from the planet Rigel 7 is named "Roger Smith", that would be very distracting. But don't give me a name with a baffling pronunciation, like Wadlkjaece. Give me something phonetic, like Wa-juto-case or some such.

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    One argument is that using names that follow the conventions of another language can help convey a culture or a setting. If the OP just made up the spelling of Jiolluav, then I agree with you and that's distracting. But, if that character is supposed to be from a certain country, and other characters from there have similar, language correct spelling, it makes sense.
    – JPhi1618
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 20:53
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    @JPhi1618 Personally I think even if they're real names from a real culture, similar spelling might be wise to avoid. I read a story that had a Joe, a Jon, and a John, and it confused the heck out of me. I had trouble following this despite the fact that I am from a culture and locale where having Joe, Jon, and John all together in the same room isn't unusual at all. It's just more difficult for me when it's words on a page.
    – Deolater
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 21:45
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    @JPhi1618 Oh, yes, if it's a real culture, it would be distracting to use names that didn't fit that culture. I'd find it disconcerting if the French person in your story is named Hernando Gonzalez with no explanation. Real names are a more difficult problem than made-up names. One possibility is to try to select realistic names that are also fairly easy for the target audience to guess at a pronunciation.
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 22:11
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    'Why not just write it "Zholl-you-of"?' If I were reading a story & names were respelt like that, "phonetically", that would break immersion. Because it'd become clear that the author has stopped telling me their story, to sound out a name for me. Every time it occurs. I don't need telling more than once, or with the respelling instead of the name itself. Give me Nikolai, not Knee-ko-lye. Joukahainen, not You-ka-high-nen. Jiolluav, not Zholl-you-of. (Besides, if the author wants me to imagine a name ending in -av, spelling that as -of would mislead.)
    – Rosie F
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 8:37
  • @RosieF If it's relevant to the story that you imagine a name ending in "-av", then of course the writer has to spell it that way. Sure, it would be confusing as all get out if a story said, "Members of the noble houses all have names ending in -av.", and then the nobles in the story are Lord Zholl-you-of, Baron Karnovov, and Earl Dudabaw. My problem is not with a name like "Nikolai", which is common enough that most readers will probably be familiar with it and in any case is already reasonably phonetic.
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 16:16

I don't think strange names break immersion; I think names that cannot be sounded out (correctly or not) break immersion.

"Hermione" can be sounded out. "J'xyx'brtl" is too hard to sound out, and for me would be likely to break immersion every time I see it, because my reading system stumbles over it.

But whether readers get "HER-My-Own" or "HER-Me-Un" or "Her-MY-Oh-Nee" doesn't make a difference, their eyes can glide over "Hermione" without a stumble.

For "Jiolluav" I would probably read "JOLE-Uf", similar to "JO-seph". I wouldn't have a "Zh" sound. In my fiction, names are one, two or three syllables if common (like "Christina"), mostly two syllables. If they need to be longer, I may give them a nickname as well, for dialogue.

Making reading difficult; by using hard to read names or foreign or alien words, by twisting grammar, are ways the text itself can break immersion. Making a reader read a passage more than once just to understand it is (IMO) bad writing.

  • Don't forget Her-me-one (also written as Hermi-1). I agree with you, sounding out my way works, Not being able to sound out is a no go.
    – Willeke
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 19:04
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    I like Herm-own-ninny better Commented Jul 12, 2020 at 14:07

First of all to answer your question directly: Yes, to some readers – like your friend – it will break immersion. This doesn't mean it will break immersion for everyone, nor does it mean that it's necessarily a bad choice to use these types of names, but for some people it will just cause frustration that takes them out of the story.


  • Everyone will to various extents appreciate names that fit the world you build
  • Some will get distracted each time they encounter a name they can't pronounce

Approach A: Nicknames

Introduce a character who has trouble pronouncing the name and gives the character a simpler nickname.

"I am duchess Mrstttkya Sjshya, it's a pleasure to meat you" "Thank you, duchess Sj... Sje..." The Duchess sighed and interrupted "I understand it's hard to pronounce for your people, 'Duchess Sasha' will do just fine"

This works particularly well when you have a foreign main character or the main character encounters foreign characters.

Approach B: Hand holding

Accept that it will be distracting for some readers, but try to make it as easy as possible for them by extremely clearly explaining how it should be pronounced. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire you find a somewhat similar setup to Approach A, but instead of going with a nickname the character in question explains how the name should be pronounced:

Hermione was now teaching Krum to say her name properly; he kept calling her ‘Hermy-own’. ‘Her – my – oh – nee,’ she said, slowly and clearly. ‘Herm – own – ninny.’ ‘Close enough,’ she said, catching Harry’s eye and grinning.

In high fantasy especially this is sometimes skipped entirely and footnotes or other complementary text is used to explain the correct pronunciation.

Approach C: Minimize name use

Give each character a proper complex name, but whenever possible use different terms to refer to the characters. One book I read was written in first person where the main character was alone in a survival situation for two thirds of the book and his name (which was ridiculously long even for fantasy/sci-fi standards) only came up three or four times.

Approach D: Hide behind the translation

Typically when in a situation where foreign names come up we are talking about stories taking place in foreign cultures entirely (cases where approach A isn't an option). In those cases there is typically the assumption that those characters are not speaking English, yet the story you are reading is written in English.

The same can apply to names. Some authors will make this explicit such as Tolkien:

To their man-children they usually gave names that had no meaning at all in their daily language; and some of their women's names were similar. Of this kind are Bilbo, Bungo, Polo, Lotho, Tanta, Nina, and so on. There are many inevitable but accidental resemblances to names we now have or know: for instance Otho, Odo, Drogo, Dora, Cora, and the like. These names I have retained, though I have usually anglicized them by altering their endings, since in Hobbit-names a was a masculine ending, and o and e were feminine.

Whilst others will leave it implicitly. Anyway, the point is, according to Tolkien's mythos Bilbo Baggins was actually called Bilba Baggins, but that doesn't mean that it's necessarily the right decision to write that in your book. In the case of Bilba the problem was that it sounds feminine rather than pronunciation issues, but the approach can still stand.


What approach works the best of you depends a lot on your setting and genre. In high fantasy the expectations of the reader and the investments the reader is willing to make are very different from a young adult fiction novel. Still the most important advice I can give is to have people read your novel before publishing it and listening to their feedback.


While it's going to vary between readers whether it bothers them or not I have to say I'm firmly in the camp that it can ruin immersion.

I'm not too worried about whether I "pronounce" a name "correctly" or not - but if the way the name is written doesn't parse easily then I find it incredibly hard going to read.

That said with your example name "Jiolluav" I would probably not have had a problem when reading it - I would likely have just gone straight to the "Jollav" pronunciation your friend used.


Whenever you have something a bit weird and difficult to easily explain – where you have to educate the reader – do it through the presence of an Everyman Character who the audience better relates to and who themselves struggles with the concept.

In this case, have the character struggle with the name. "Jiolluav" as a string of letters is hard to remember, and doesn't follow normal rules for names in English (or existing foreign languages for that matter). Furthermore, the pronunciation "Zholl-you-of" is non-standard and doesn't follow from how people generally understand words to be pronounced. Therefore, the 'everyman' character needs to struggle with the name, and actively create some form of mnemonic to remember it and avoid insulting this Jiolluav person. This can be mentioned a couple of times more (and maybe even made fun of), before the everyman (and concurrently, much of the audience) get used to it.

This way, you can turn a frustrating and obtuse bit of worldbuilding into a memorable feature of the work.

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    Not necessarily "whenever", but it is one possible approach. Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 23:16
  • I'm struggling to think of a word that begins with "ji" where the j is pronounced zh
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 23:21
  • @Mazura this pronunciation reminds me of Brazilian Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 3:46
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    @takintoolong Or French, where "J" is almost always pronounced "zh" Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 16:32
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    Great example of using the everyman character for exactly this is Case in Gibson's Neuromancer when he meets Terzibashjian is Istanbul. Introducing him as "We got a Jersey Bastion coming up" and later referring to him just as "Jersey"
    – hsan
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 12:30

You could always make a note in prose of how it is said. For example, in Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow (and one other book for which this is arguably a spoiler), there is a character named Aloysius. At the very first appearance of this name, the prose notes that

he pronounced it allo-wishus

which immediately clues in the reader to how it is said. If not for that, a reader unfamiliar with the name might think of it as "a-loy-see-us" or such.


I generally like to write that names are "anglicized" if they are indeed made up for the convience of the reader. For example, I once wrote an alien main character named "Kyron" and even then, I have at various times changed pronunciation in my head and had it pronounced it "1st syllable rhymes with sky (Kai-ron)", "1st syllable sounds like key (key-ron)", "1st syllable rhymes with beer, second sounds exactly like on (Keir-on) or second syllable sounds like ron (Keir-ron).

I don't know and have thought maybe all four were valid and different characters said different versions of the name based on their own accents and how they heard it... since there are about 5 other characters, each one could have a personal preference and the fifth is like "Wait... who's pronouncing it right?" and the original conversation is sidetracked in debate over the matter.

Speaking as someone who has a real name that is essentially a varient pronunciation of another more common name people will constantly mispronounce my name by mistake, (Shane (sounds like... well if you find a rhyme I haven't heard, I'll give you a cookie... but Train is a good word that rhymes), which is the pronunciation of the name Sean in an Ulster Irish accent, where as in America, Sean is often pronounced Shawn (sounds like Brawn)). "It's Shane" is practically my catchphrase, due to how often it happens. In fact, I had a teacher in my elementary-middle school who legitatmently taught me in almost every grade and is a family friend and to this day occasionally calls me "Shawn" by mistake... though the real winner of "You should know better" award was the mother of one of my best friends. His name is Sean and I'm Shane and his poor mother would often swap our names when talking about both of us.

Suffice to say, if your character has any contact with anyone with less familiarity of her name, she will be well aware of the mispronunciation. Like me, it wouldn't be much to suggest that she's developed a quick habit of pronunciation correction every time she hears the mispronunciation... I would say write the line once a book so your readers get it but it doesn't become forced... and maybe at funny bits (like in the middle of a fight at the heart of a volcano that's about to erupt, have a bad guy the wrong pronunciation only for her to casually correct it, while tossing 4-5 ninja mooks to their magma deaths below... Sure the fight is difficult, but correcting someone's pronunciation of my name is pretty on par with thinking about breathing.


Foreign names don't break immersion..... in fact they enhance immersion.

If the CEO of a fictional mega Korea corporation were named Dan Smith that would break immersion.

However, a hard to pronounce foreign name does deter a lot of less sophisticated readers.

One of my friends calls ALL Asian leaders Ho Chi Minh.... He isn't a racist. He just can't process non-english names. So he just substitutes the only name known to him to every asian person.

So imagine him reading a novel with foreign names...


It can.

Anything that makes the reader stop and think is likely to slightly derail the readers train of thought. It's a risk their attention doesn't return to where it was before.

This is always the case. Indeed it is sort of necessary for storytelling; you need new thoughts to be conjured and old ones forgotten. The trick is for these to be consistent with where you want to take the reader. If the difference in culture of the character or the story is something you want to place emphasis on, great. If it's incongruent there is every risk it interrupts a train of thought you wanted and replaces it with one you don't.

I think of it as having very similar logic to that of Chekhov's gun.

Things to note:

  • It's likely not to be a big distraction and, like others have pointed out, if the reader really is immersed and wants to return: this is unlikely to prevent them.

  • It will come up a lot if it's a major character but after a few views, each will be even less distracting.

  • This is more of a question about the reader than the text. Pretty much anything could either jar or resonate with someone. There's no way to be certain, even if it's a cliche like calling your cow "Daisy", that won't set someone down a different path, like: "that's a bit cliched", and break immersion. The only thing you can do is be mindful of what's likely impact is for your audience.

EDIT below:

Upon reading my answer, I thought there might be a way to make my thoughts clearer: exaggerate them.

  • You can use a name that's impossible to pronounce: Say you want an, alien - everything is new and confusing - science fiction/fantasy, world. Want to show the protagonist out of their depth within it? Have them meet a character they have trouble referring to because their name is a particular shade of purple. This shouldn't damage the immersion. To the contrary: if that makes sense let alone would work, might be exactly the sort of thing you might want for your readers to pondering for the sake of immersion. Casually introducing this creature as "Peter" will ask questions that, if you don't have the answer to, will probably harm that feeling.

  • Or just need a rudimentary understanding of the classics to have a stab at: Say you want to play off the idea of an eccentric artistic type, it's not wrong to have them had their name changed to the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for "axe-in-a-block-of-wood".

However: if there is no reason to do this, and the reader is not expecting it and you deviate from the Latin alphabet: it's going to linger with them until you explain why.

I also thought it may be worth noting, as has been mentioned, that there is a slightly separate issue that may come up in tandem: Names that are difficult to parse.

Say I tried to write this using html colour codes to get a shade of purple or used some academic representation of the hieroglyph. Even with the context of the question, that might trip someone up. Not something to lose sleep over, but it wouldn't add anything to the narrative. The finer points of representing hieroglyphs and why I have syntax highlighting aren't relevant to the narrative. Don't force your readers to tackle them and they will stay focused on what you want to tell them. If it's necessary to avoid calling your alien "Bob" though...


Yes, it always does,

but that isn't what matters. Difficult names break immersion in real life just as easily, and you should try to be authentic in your writing. What breaks immersion worse is breaking suspension of disbelief.

Find yourself as an English-speaking person at a gathering with Russian or Chinese or Finnish people and greetings will naturally get jumbled. There are conversations you just won't have because you are embarrassed to butcher their names. You will lean over to your friend and whisper, "What was her name again?" That is real life, so that is how your story should handle it.

Everything moves the plot forward

Why did you choose a difficult to pronounce name? If they had a simple name, would the plot break? When you decide on an unusual name, you really should think about why you are making the reader do this hard work. A couple good reasons to have a difficult name are:

  • Authenticity: In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov I could not pronounce one of the brothers' names, even today. But those are authentic Russian names, and they needed to be in that story to be believable.

  • Effect: One of the most powerful characters in the DC Comic universe is Mister Mxyzptlk, which is supposed to be impossible to pronounce in any human language. That means, not one reader can talk about this character properly, because you can't say his name. Literally, everyone who talks about him will be automatically wrong. But in the plotline, his name is the key to defeating him. If you trick Mister Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards, he vanishes into his 5th dimension for 90 days. This character has succeeded in the DC universe for over 80 years. Using a difficult name in writing will always bring your reader's attention to that character. So this attention may be exactly what you want.

Do not use a difficult name for these reasons:

  • To sound foreign: If you want a character to sound foreign or alien, then of course you don't want to call them "Bob" or "Jill" if your audience is English speaking. This will break immersion, as many have pointed out, by making the reader try to figure out how they possibly had a name like this on the planet Zen-La. So, the character from Zen-La in the Marvel universe is named Norrin Radd, AKA, The Silver Surfer. Norrin is a very easy name to pronounce, but also not "earthly." Certainly, the Zen-Lavian language would likely be very difficult for humans to speak. They could have picked a very alien name. But why put the reader through it?

  • ** To make the reader feel stupid:** I know, we don't do this on purpose, but it's easy to do. You have a dialogue between five alien characters with difficult names. In dialogue, they just breeze through them as if it were their own name. The reader is left thinking either these characters have superpowers or are super intelligent, or the author is way over my head. Try to be kind enough to recognize in dialogue that the name is difficult.

What matters is if the story is authentic.

If you do have a difficult name, and use it for a good reason, then treat it as a difficult name. Make people stumble over it a few times as they would do in real life. If you just ignore a difficult name, you can come across as elitist. The reader may feel small. Respect that they are human, and give your protagonist the same challenges your reader is going to have. That's how you avoid breaking immersion.


Depends on the person. We are all different kinds of readers. For some, complicated names don't matter. For others they do. For me, difficult to pronounce names of cities, people, processes, etc., definitely breaks my immersion. In my work life, I read procedures and regulations for a living. So, I read every word slowly for understanding. So, in fiction, the unusual names derail me and sometimes even irritate me to the point of not wanting to read further. I can't help but think, "Why the heck did the author do this to the reader? Don't they know that these difficult to pronounce names are a distraction?!"

If an author is going to use complicated names, they need to provide the pronunciations up front.

Ironically, in the sci-fi/fantasy book I'm currently reading, I paused at Chapter 9 to listen to a YouTube review of this very popular book by a reader. Guess what, while doing her review she kept saying, I'm not sure how to pronounce the name of the second main character and the name of the city. It became a terrible review quickly because the reviewer was distracted by her inability to pronounce the names correctly.

I'm going to go way out on a limb and say that, to me, an author who litters their book with complicated names, without clearly defining them or providing a nick-name, is taking a risk of losing some readers. If it turns me away, I'm sure there are a million other people who experience the same thing. That is why there is even this forum on the subject. It's a real thing.

If you're an author and you want your book talked about, help your fans by providing them the correct pronunciation!

BTW -- I'm surprised in 2023 that book readers like Kindle don't have a pop-up for every character not only explaining the correct pronunciation of the name, but also reminding the reader of the character's place/role in the story. There should also be pop-ups for difficult concepts/processes as well, so the reader truly understands the concept/process. I've been using Kindle for years and, to me, it is a blaring example of not using technology to its fullest. It's remains the boring equivalent of reading a plain text document.

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