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 flavor.

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.

7 Answers 7


Western names are not "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 João in it but even so, somebody from another part of the USA might think the names do not fit as they are not used in such proximity with Latin cultures.

Sometimes you just can't attach too much local context 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 is that way.

Basically, before starting 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 allow the users to leave the sound of the name behind and feel like like they know it.

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 within the book you start to like them because you understand that they define the characters, and because Robin contextualizes why the Six Duchies favor adjectives as names instead of 'real' names.

In my current manuscript I have two characters with 'foreign' names: Dexter and Elton. I didn't choose by rolling dice. There's a why and I tried to make it really 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.


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)

  • 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
    Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 3:54
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    @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') Commented Aug 16, 2013 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. Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 4:44

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.

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.

  • 2
    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
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 13:55
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    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. Commented Aug 21, 2013 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
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 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.
    – user5645
    Commented Nov 3, 2013 at 23:48
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    @what I'm coming in late for the party but... some historical novels are based off real people, with difficult names or, worse, with the same name being used for parents, children, grandchildren... I find that using a different spelling for the same name helps a bit. For example: John, Johnne, Johan. And as for difficult names, I often keep the person's title around to help identify the character a bit more easily (instead of thinking 'Prethnayt' you can think Earl of Place). Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 14:20

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.


KISS is always best. Think simple short names.

In any culture there are names which are kind off international sounding and others which require proper pronunciation, use of silent letters, un-western letters, consonant clusters, over 3 syllables…

For instance I would easily relate to Saad, Saami, Sabik, Sachin, Saje, Samouet, Sanjay, or Sahir… from http://nameberry.com/search/boys_names/S

But not much to made up names like shad'rakhadhoui, Sim'bariwi'jini, Swahm-Kajinwea, Sabint’alhahalaouia, Skrreepharkchirthas, or Smneingamniangtay...

Though I have to admit to a certain loving penchant for Cherryh’s Alliance-Universe alien names like the mysterious Knnn, the Chi from Chchchoh, the Tc’a from Oh’a’o’o’o, Ismehanan-min the Mahendo'sat, or the Kif “akkikt” Akkukkak. It takes quite some skill to pull these off, another good author, McCaffrey wasn’t able to do so in her early Pern novels.

  • Cherryh's names are usually visually distinct even if difficult to pronounce. Mind you, growing up with the surname "Cherryh" probably helped her to appreciate that issue! Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 8:19
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    Her publisher made her add the H to her surname to sound more science-fictiony and hid her female ID by using the C.J. initials. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 18:43

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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