February 5, 2014

Character Naming Pitfalls

On Monday, I talked about the difficulty of choosing character names. As if it weren't tricky enough to find a name for each character that feels right and fits with their personal background, you also have to watch out for situations that could make the otherwise perfect name problematic.

I've run into all manner of poor name choices in both my own early drafts and in other people's published books. Here are some ideas on how not to go wrong when picking names:

Avoid names that could be confused with each other. This is the big one. It's crucial to examine all your name selections as a group so that you don't give awesome names to your three most important characters without noticing, for example, that they all start with S.

It's a peeve of mine when multiple major characters have names beginning with the same initial, and I've spoken to a lot of other readers who feel the same way. I've even spoken to people who explained that while reading, they never fully process the character names and just take in the first letter and a general sense of the length. Sure, you might feel that readers ought to pay closer attention, especially to those great names you've chosen, but this is the reality of how some people read, and it's better to recognize that and plan your naming scheme accordingly.

In real life, I've hosted gatherings where half the attendees had names starting with L, but in fiction, I like to keep the initials more evenly distributed so that newcomers to my novel won't be as perplexed as newcomers to my house. Of course in a novel with dozens of characters, there are some repeats, but with the major characters -- or any characters who frequently appear in scenes together, or might otherwise be confused -- I avoid duplication. (As a bonus, when everyone has a different initial, I can refer to them by single letters in my notes.)

Avoiding name conflicts is a little more complicated than just the first letter, though that's the most obvious. I was preparing for one of my NaNoWriMo novels when I realized I had characters named Larry, Gary, and Terry. In most cases, you probably want to steer away from rhyming names (unless you're writing a picture book). Other similarities are harder to detect. You wouldn't necessarily guess that the names Walt and Hank could be easily mixed up, but I've rarely heard a conversation about the TV show Breaking Bad that didn't include someone accidentally calling one of these characters by the wrong name, and that must be due to a resemblance in the shapes of the sounds.

My strategy for spotting potential sources of name confusion is to keep a document that lists all the character names for a story. Whenever I add a new name, I go through the list, both looking at the letters and saying the names aloud, and if anything strikes me as too close, I choose a different name and try again.

Avoid names that could be confusing, period. Sometimes a name is fine on its own and fine in relation to all the other names, but something about its context in the story makes it problematic. Early in my novel, I have a character thinking about the long-distance girlfriend he recently broke up with, and the trips he would make to see her. For a while, the name of the ex was Charlotte, and then one day I reread "the last time I visited Charlotte", and I realized it wasn't clear if that was the woman or the city. (And then I started singing a line from the musical Avenue Q, "Her name is Alberta, she lives in Vancouver.") The character got a new name that didn't sound like a destination.

Only name characters who must be referred to by name. Stories can have a lot of people in them, and you don't want your reader to store any more names than are absolutely necessary. If a character's role is minor enough, they may not need a name. That character from the last paragraph finds a new love, and her parents come to the wedding, and then there are multiple visits. Her mom has a name, and her dad doesn't. I never even gave the poor guy a name inside my head, and I feel a little guilty about it, but he doesn't have a speaking part, and there's never a need to call him anything outside of "her dad", so I don't bother making readers learn his name.

Names can be hard to remember, in fiction as well as in real life, so make things as simple as possible for your readers. In the final installment of this series, I'll talk about issues specific to last names.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Scott Westerfeld explains at the NaNoWriMo blog how rewriting is like growing up: "Sadly, when looking at old pictures, you can't go back and give yourself advice, or change those unfortunate clothing choices. But with first drafts you can. In that moment before revising begins, you're no longer embedded in the hurly burly of what-happens-next and what's-this-character's-motivation. You have perspective."


Henri Picciotto said...

As a reader, I'm awful: I often skip over names altogether. On some level, I feel it's boring to build a catalog of names, and I hope the writing is so good that skipping names will not be a problem. Apologies to all the authors out there.

Joshua Kosman said...

OK, but here's an interesting wrinkle on this. I once read a novel in which the second large section of the book began completely afresh, in a different time and place and with a whole new set of characters. And then a woman named Dorothy appeared, and I immediately knew with absolute certainty that it had to be the same Dorothy who had played a prominent role in section 1.

Clearly this was intended to be something of a mystery — there was a long, drawn-out explanation over 50 pages or so about how Dorothy had gotten from point A to point B — and I felt a little bad that the author's surprise had been completely spoiled. But I just knew that there was no way she'd put two different characters with the same name in her book.

And then I thought, well but why not? Would it be a terrible tragedy if a novel had that one thing in common with real life, namely, that you might encounter two different Dorothys in two different settings? I'm still not sure.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Henri: Wow, I can't even imagine how that works in your head! Don't you get confused about what's happening, even if the characters are well-written and differentiated? The reading habits of other people are fascinating.

Joshua: The expectation that there won't be multiple characters with the same name, unless it's for a particular reason that's called out, is one of those artificial but generally agreed-upon conventions of fiction. Yeah, it's unrealistic, but so is making sure all the important people have different first initials. You could have two characters with the same name, but if there wasn't a point to it, it would probably just be confusing with no payoff.

In the book you're talking about, I have to imagine the author was very conscious that readers would expect this was the same Dorothy, and that would create suspense and intrigue as they kept reading to find out how she got there. If the author had been going for a different effect, Dorothy could have shown up under an assumed name or something like that.

Henri Picciotto said...

Yes, sometimes I get confused and have to look back through the book to figure out what's going on. Less often than you might think!

I often say to myself "this time I'm going to pay attention", and then I hit a name and I can't fight the feeling that reading it would slow things down, and let's face it, it would be totally boring — and I notice myself skipping again.

I am not proud of this quirk.

laurenhat said...

I wonder how much the Walt/Hank confusion also has to do with things like frequency and associated time period/geographical area/social class...
thanks for spelling this out! Hadn't thought about most of this explicitly.

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