Beware the Blank Factor

Writing is a series of tiny choices. Do I use this word or that? What characteristic is most important to display? What description best sets the scene and the mood?

Some choices help the reader immerse themselves in your stories. Other choices do the opposite.

I’ve noticed that, in particular, those authors who love world building tend to make decisions based on creativity and a “coolness” factor instead of on what works best for the reader. For example, a scifi author decides that authenticity of character names is much more important than readability, so he names his characters Aajto;tjhiy and Xxtjioatati&@hio.

Some readers are going to look in the back of the book in the glossary to determine the correct pronunciation of these names (Ahhh, a semicolon is pronounced like a hard “k.”) Some — most in my way of thinking — aren’t going to bother. The best the author can hope for in that case is that the reader will invent their own pronunciation for the names. A lot of readers aren’t even going to go that far; they’re just going to skip the words.

That’s the Blank Factor.

The author is thinking, “Those names aren’t anywhere close to similar. They contain very few of the same letters, start with different letters, contain different symbols, etc. There’s no way that any reader can confuse the two characters.”

That author is wrong.

You see, to some readers, those two character name are the same. In my mind, I read the first one as “Blank” and the second one as “Blank.” So, when the writer pens, “A Aajto;tjhiy told Xxtjioatati&@hio to recharge the raygun,” I read, “Blank told Blank to…”

See the potential for confusion?

So, am I saying that it’s never okay to go with what you want? Am I trying to stifle your creativity?

Absolutely not. I’m simply advising you to be aware of the problem so that you can take steps to minimize any problems.

Case Study 1:

An amateur author requested feedback on a fantasy forum. The story took place, if memory serves, in medieval Iceland (or some such place), and all the character names were authentic to the language and the period. The author introduced at least five characters in the short piece that I read. My first comment was, “I have no idea how to pronounce the names, so I got really confused.”

The response? I have to be authentic to the period.

My next question, “Is it more important to be authentic or to have someone, somewhere actually want to read what you wrote?”

Case Study 2:

A guy in my writing group is a world builder who tends to make a lot of decisions that increase his level of difficulty to the nth degree. One of those choices is to sprinkle words from his made-up language throughout his work, including hard-to-pronounce places, creatures, and elements of his magic system.

In a recent two-paragraph short segment, I counted seven of these words that I read, essentially, as “blank.” I felt like I was watching an episode of The Smurfs. “You smurfity smurf smurfing smurf-a-lot! What the smurf do you think you’re smurfing?” (Of course, it was worse than that, ‘cause I actually got the sentiment of what those last couple of sentences were trying to express.)

Suggestions on how to mitigate such choices:

1. Feel free to be authentic with your eighteen-syllable name but understand that real people use nicknames. Introduce the character with their full name if you have to, but shorten it to just a couple of syllables for the majority of the time.
2. Try to create words that are easy for a reader to pronounce. Calling something a Glapflubakner, a word that is easy to break down in to recognizable syllables, is better than calling it a Gxlypbabpa. How do you pronounce Gxl? Where are the syllables broken up? A “p” followed by a “b” is a hard transition. Etc.
3. Don’t introduce, or use, too many made up words at once.
4. Make the usage stand out. If you’re going to make up a word, that word needs to be important to your story. You need to constantly reinforce the usage, so the reader doesn’t forget. If there’s a concept that appears just a couple of times in a five book series and is then important at the end, it’s probably a bad idea to make up a word for it. The reader will have forgotten what the crap it is by the time it becomes important.


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