Disclosure: This is a craft-oriented post and might seem a bit “inside baseball,” but I believe it’s important for multiple reasons. (Just one of which: If an agent or editor gets confused about your characters within the first ten or twenty pages, it’s unlikely they’ll read further. Which should be motivation enough to get this squared away.)
The subject of character names has been on my mind lately as I’ve recently read a few books which had issues with it. This is one of those areas where we can have a blind spot because after living with them for a while we tend to think of our characters as the specific names we’ve originally chosen for them and we’re naturally resistant to changing things. (Yet another example of the “too close” syndrome which can plague us as writers.) The following are a few things to keep in mind regarding the naming of characters in our work, with the goal always being clarity for the reader (that person who paid for the privilege of reading our words).
*NOTE: These aren’t rules (because there really are no rules when it comes to fiction) and I’m not into telling anyone how they must do things. So before each of these, add “please consider the following…” or “you might want to think long and hard before you…” And please don’t send an angry message about some famous character having three different names or whatever. Again: no rules. These are just concepts to be aware of, because whatever wild thing you do with your art, you should do intentionally, not accidentally. With that said…
1. Don’t introduce all your characters to us at once.
I recently read a book with an early passage basically saying “… and my brother so-and-so and my little sister such-and-such and my older sister what’s-her-name, and of course my best friend next door…” I ended up bookmarking that page because I’d read a name on page 50 and think, now who was that again…? and have to flip back and refresh. Spread them out if possible—let us see them each in context, doing whatever it is that makes them unique, instead of just another name in a list of names. Closely related to this is:
2. Don’t define a character to us only once.
This is common due to the fact that we (as writers) usually have them firmly in mind, and separate from each other. So we intro them and move on, always certain (in our minds) of who they are. The reader doesn’t have the weeks or months of forethought (and likely written notes) that we do regarding the characters, so they need a little help. More than once—in more than one manuscript—I’ve seen an editor comment “remind us” in the margin next to me blithely referring to a character. So if you mention “My best friend Jeri” early on and then we don’t see her for another thirty or forty pages, don’t just casually refer to her again without context. You know who she is, but the reader could likely benefit from: “Of course Jeri would understand—we’ve been best friends since sixth grade, and…”
3. Don’t give characters multiple names.
I was again reminded of this last week as I was reading a novel where both main characters had pseudonyms. Within the book, the characters’ real names were used constantly (i.e. on virtually every page) and their stage names were used infrequently (like maybe a dozen times in the entire book). Yet the book was titled using the pseudonyms. I found myself frequently flipping back to either the book cover or the flaps, trying to remember who was who. Yes, there are exceptions to this. And characters working undercover, etc., could—and probably should—have an alias. But referring to a character on a day-to-day basis by multiple names should only be done when there’s a story-enhancing reason for it… and only when it’ll be absolutely clear to the reader who’s who.
4. Don’t have a massive number of named characters.
The obvious exception here would be A Song of Fire and Ice, but keep in mind GRRM has a full-time dude just to keep track of the couple thousand named characters in the series (which tells us this isn’t necessarily a goal to aspire to). For us muggles a better goal may be to have enough named characters to keep things interesting and three dimensional, but not so many that neither you nor your readers can follow the story without constantly referring to a lengthy list of cast members (which of course will tend to kick the reader out of the story—definitely something to be avoided). Toward that end, keep in mind not every character needs to be named (that quirky Uber driver we only see once, for example). And sometimes one character can do the work of two. (If you want your MC’s boyfriend to have a mom and you need an oral surgeon in the book, consider consolidating them. Besides saving on names, it can give more depth to the mom.) When introducing a new character and deciding whether or not to give them a proper name, the type of questions to ask ourselves are: Are we going to see them again? Are we—either via narrative voice or through other characters—going to refer to them again? Are we going to attribute dialog to them frequently? If no, then perhaps we don’t need to add them to the roster. Maybe an impromptu nickname instead (“geeky Uber guy”) is enough to get through the scene without adding yet another name to the reader’s mental cast list.
5. Don’t let your characters have names starting with the same letter (or otherwise similar).
You see this a lot. Because, like most things mentioned in this post, in the writer’s mind there’s a clear difference between the hero, Jim, and his nemesis, Joe. But—again—probably not to the reader. If you submit a manuscript with a Bill & Bob or a Jill & Joan and it makes it past your agent to an editor who acquires it, you’ll likely be changing that, regardless. Because editors know that when confronted with multiple characters, readers sometimes use mental shortcuts like, Oh yeah, that woman with the ‘V’ name… So either Valerie or Victoria is going to bite the digital dust before the story makes it through line edits. (And authors and editors aren’t immune to the potential confusion, either. I read a passage in a novel where the author was clearly talking about “Jim” [good guy] but called the character “Joe” [bad guy] and the error made it through all the edits and copy edits.) Better to avoid it altogether.
6. Don’t let your characters have long, unpronounceable names.
This is particularly common with science fiction and fantasy works. I get why you might not want your book which is set on another world to be populated with people named Brad & Janet or Dick & Jane. But are you sure you really want characters with 7-syllable names that sound like a rare genetic disorder? There’s a balance between the too-familiar and the incomprehensible. Think of some of the more popular characters in seminal SF/F works: Leia, Cersei, Bilbo, Xena, Deckard, Mal, Hagrid, Gandalf, Aeryn, Han, Kara, etc… These are unique enough that they don’t seem like a random group of people right off the streets of West Covina, yet are fairly easy to both pronounce and remember.
That’s probably enough Don’ts. Here’s a Do or two: Do give your characters names that seem to fit them, give them their own identity, and resonate with you. But also, do take a minute to look at their names from the reader's point of view.
And, of course, you do you.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.