We authors have to work hard to make our stories transcend the words on the page and become tangible entities in the reader’s mind. There are, frankly, a lot of ways to screw this up.
Today we’ll talk about one of them. Namely, naming characters.
There are a few character naming mistakes I see over and over again. Fortunately, they’re easy to correct.
Pitfalls to Avoid
1. Characters with nearly identical names
One guy is named Tom and the other is named Tim. And I’m supposed to keep the two straight. Or Don and Dan. Or Sophie and Sophia.
Don’t do this. Just, don’t. It’s too easy for readers to get confused and frustrated. Those two emotions are guaranteed to break the storytelling spell.
2. Too many names that start with the same letter
This mistake is closely related to the first.
I’ve noticed some authors tend to favor a certain style of name, or names that begin with certain letters. This tendency is usually subconscious. Without meaning to, or realizing it’s a problem, authors will have Lucy, Lilian, Layla, Leah, and Lauren all in the same book.
This is highly likely to confuse your readers. Please don’t do this.
3. Too many name variations and/or nicknames for minor characters
Dr. Thomas Markson makes his cameo appearance at the cocktail party in chapter two. As he joins a group of three or four other characters, a dialogue ensues. Some characters don’t know him well, so they address him in the manner he was introduced (“Dr. Markson.”). One character is more casual, and calls him Thomas. Someone else calls him Tom. One character is a childhood friend and calls him “Slim.”
This all happens within half a page. Dr. Thomas (Tom) (Slim) Markson exits stage right and we never see him again.
Why are we being asked to sort through all these names for such a minor character?
Keep it simple.
And save nicknames for characters who count.
How to do it Right
Remember, all you’re doing is trying to make it easy for your readers to remember who these characters are. To reduce the possibility of confusion.
Now, if you’re writing a novel (or worse, a series) with several characters, you’re obviously going to have some names that start with the same letter. Here’s how to make it easier on your readers.
1. Use opposing genders.
If you have a male character named Corey and a female character named Cora, readers are less likely to mix them up.
Though, I’d argue that they’re still too similar. Which brings me to tip #2.
2. Make names visually and auditorily different
Corey and Cora have the same first three letters. Visually, they look almost the same. They sound similar too.
Someone reading quickly (either because they skim by default or because they’re so enraptured with your story they can’t devour it fast enough) might accidentally read (and think) Corey when you wrote Cora.
So. Make them even more different.
Alter the beginning (and perhaps ending) letters. Give one name a few more syllables than the other.
I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt anyone has ever confused Harry with Hermione.
3. Use context to your advantage.
Let’s say your protagonist is named Justin and we’re about half way through the book. We know Justin. We love Justin. We’re desperately hoping Justin succeeds in doing…. well, whatever it is he’s hoping to succeed in doing. Let’s say he’s trying to win back his true love, Katrina.
Enter a character who’s clearly a minor consideration. Perhaps it’s the FedEx man who delivers Justin’s surprise package to Katrina’s apartment. Perhaps it’s the IT guy fixing her computer at work. Perhaps it’s her best friend’s five-year old son who makes an appearance in the story just long enough for us to go, “Aww, isn’t he cute?”
Whatever. The point is, this character’s name is Jack.
Justin. Jack. Two characters that start with J.
No. Because one is the protagonist and one is a very minor character. Also, the roles of that minor character are such that we’re unlikely to get confused. Our hero isn’t a FedEx man, he’s a career surfer. He’s not an IT guy. He barely knows how to use his Smart phone.
And he’s definitely not five.
Plus, our protagonist doesn’t share the scene with our “J”-named minor character, so there’s even less chance of confusion.
What if the character is minor and DOES share the scene with the protagonist?
He’s the doorman who lets Justin into his ex-girlfriend’s building. The bartender who tells him he’s had enough to drink. The old man at the bus stop who’s on his way to see his dying wife in the hospital and prompts Justin to think about what really matters in life.
If we name any of these dudes Jack, could a reader in a hurry accidentally get confused? Maybe, maybe not. But why risk it for a minor character whose name doesn’t really matter all that much?
Call him Toby and be done with it.
4. Make names distinctive
Let’s say you have two characters with names that begin with the same letter, and they do share scenes. They’re both secondary characters, so we see them more than once. Neither has the memory-enhancing distinction of being the protagonist, nor the glossed-over feel of a very minor character.
Make the names distinctive from one another.
Fish vs. Fernando
While you’re at it, make your characters distinctive.
A scrawny boy nicknamed Fish who tromps around in cutoffs and has a mop of dirty blonde hair is not likely to be confused with the elderly Spanish-speaking neighbor named Fernando.
Do you see how this is different from your tall, dark and handsome protagonist named Ned and his tall, dark and handsome friend and co-worker named Nathan?
Help a reader out.
Avoid these character naming pitfalls and we’ll thank you for it.