What’s in a Name?

nametagsNames can be a tough gig. One of the toughest things about writing a story or a novel is getting the names of characters right. And of course, the age old question, should you even name your characters at all? I’m hoping I can give you a few recommendations that will help you avoid some pitfalls I’ve seen writers (including myself) fall into.

NO NAMES IS CONFUSING, NOT COOL: Wrong-o. This is a trap. Yes, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemmingway often wrote stories with unnamed characters. Hooray for them. The fact is, we’re not Carver, and we’re not Hemmingway. I know, I know, Cormac McCarthy did an entire novel and never named his characters (see The Road). Here’s what all of those examples have in common. They each feature (for the most part) two characters. Each character is easily distinguished by some attribute, most notably, gender. It’s pretty easy to keep characters straight when you have a man and a woman. Simple pronouns keep us posted as to who is speaking and who isn’t. In The Road, McCarthy’s two primary leads were separated by age. One was a boy, the other a man. However, if your story (or novel) is rocking three or more protagonists, give us names, please. Not only do they help us keep characters straight (and help you avoid redundantly saying “the man walked, the man talked, the man ran, etc.), they help us relate to the characters. It humanizes them.

TOO MANY NAMES: I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan. This may be a subset of a larger problem—namely too many characters—but whatever the case, too many names confuse us. In The Wheel of Time series, Jordan introduces a cast of six main characters and about a million auxiliary characters. Then, he has the bad guys. Here’s the thing with his bad guys—they die, and come back, and take new names. And they take new names for themselves when they go to different parts of the world. So, it isn’t uncommon for one character to have about three different names.

Oh. My. Gosh.

My head hurts just thinking about it. I’ve got to have Wikipedia open when I read the book just to keep his characters straight. That’s a problem.

Remember, no one will ever say, “Gee, he had too few characters in this book.” But they will say “Gee, she had way too many characters in here.” And please, for the love of all things good, unless you’re writing some spy novel, one name per character. Please.

NAMES TOO SIMILAR: This is a trap I’ve fallen into many times myself. Most notably in the Hand of Adonai series. Little known fact: Lauren used to be named Kara. One of my alpha readers, however, told me that he had trouble keeping Erica and Kara straight because their names sounded so familiar. Hence, Lauren was born. I kept the name Kara in the book, though, kind of. You’ll see, later in the series, references to Eukara island. That’s my little shout out to Lauren’s original name. You know, in case you’re ever on Jeopardy and need to know that.

I notice this problem quite a bit when I’m reading a book or story that has several characters that have names that begin with the same letter. I get that some parents, to be cute, like to find names for their kids that all start with, oh I don’t know, N. But when I’m trying to keep Nancy and Nora and Natalie and Nathan and Noel and Nolan straight in my head, I get brain cramps.

Hope these tips are helpful. Glad to be back blogging with you. I really enjoyed Diane’s insights, and hope you did too. Until next week, amigos.

Good writing.

1 Comment on What’s in a Name?

  1. The only way for one to really get away with not naming characters is when said characters exist only shortly. For example, if your protagonist is named Bob and he buys breakfast on his way to work, you don’t really need to name the girl who takes his order at the fast food restaurant unless she is important later.
    I’ve seen some works with far too many characters to keep straight. If you find yourself doing this and don’t have a way to go back and cut down on some of the less important characters, then get rid of them as you write. Maybe you need to get rid of a character named Sally, but she was already in a story or novel that preceded the one you’re working on, so she can’t just be erased. No problem. Get rid of her some other way. Maybe she moved to China.
    I’ve seen a lot of works that were confusing at first because of names that sounded alike. If there’s a character named Sharon who is polite and helpful to your protagonist, but there is another named Karen who is not related to Sharon at all and tries to make your protagonist miserable, then that’s a problem. I know sometimes you feel like the name is a character’s essence, but sacrifices must be made. Don’t be discouraged, just make a commitment. You are a writer. And writers fix their writing. Look at those characters. Look harder. As their creator, you have the ability to see into your characters’ souls. Find the names that are right.
    Write well, write often.

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