#amwriting: naming people and places

When I was laying down the first draft of my current work in progress, I somehow managed to give every walk-on a name, right down to the dog. That was immediately corrected, although the dog is an important side-kick and still has a name.

Because a reader can only keep so many character names straight in their mind, I was forced to whittle down my cast of thousands. An author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story, but should also use common sense.

In a scifi or fantasy tale, naming can get out of hand, sometimes with every single object or utensil, down to the  most common of tools being given a weird name. A hammer should just be be a hammer, please.

I consider that too much detail, and unnecessary. Think of all the names the reader must try to keep straight in a simple tale as if they were people you had just met at a party–that is what the reader faces in the opening chapters of a story.

  1. Character names, pet names, etc.
  2. Town names: Includes shops and restaurants.
  3. Country names, if part of the story .
  4. Myriad other named people, places, and things.

When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Even if he or she offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named. Some throw-away characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest, or show us something about the protagonist, give us a clue into their personality or past.

The same follows for places—if the village of Maldon has no bearing on the story, don’t mention it.

You must decide how important a character’s role is. If it’s a walk-on, a person who will only have a brief paragraph in the tale, consider not naming them. Ask yourself if the person will return later in the story or are they acting as part of the setting, part of the scenery in a coffee shop, or perhaps a store. If they are just part of the scenery, they don’t need a name.

Only give names to characters who advance the plot.

In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:

In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:

  1. Advances the plot,
  2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
  3. Provides crucial background, and/or
  4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.

If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.

While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story. A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Sometimes a character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know and will they return? If not, don’t give them a name.

One of my works in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my protagonists. Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in this scene for only one purpose: to be overheard mentioning the Cardinal and don’t appear again. For this reason, only my protagonist and his party are named, while all you need to know about the merchant and his sons is shown by their conversation and brief descriptions as speech tags: The portly merchant spoke softly. “You never listen to me. Now here you are, on the run from the Cardinal. Getting you out of the country will be costly. If I beggar myself to bail you out of this mess, how will I support myself in my old age?”

Novelists can learn a great deal about how to write a good, concise scene from screenwriters. An excellent book I have gained a lot of knowledge from is Story by Robert McKee. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The second draft is where we make every effort to find the distractions we may have inadvertently introduced in our rough draft, and extraneous named characters is an easy one to fix. Simply remove their name, and identify them in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them.

The tendency to make every character a memorable person is one we can’t indulge. The reader will become confused if too many characters are named.

In one of my early books, I learned a difficult lesson the hard way about naming characters. In the Tower of Bones Series, I have a main character named Marya. She is central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name, but my mind must have been in a rut when I thought that one up: for some stupid reason I named her Marta.

You can probably see where this is going—the two names are nearly identical.

What is even worse, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly became a protagonist with a major storyline. She becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

My rule now is to NEVER name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same. To avoid that circumstance, I try to never have two that even begin with the same letter.

One last thing to consider: will you want to publish your book as an audiobook? If so, how will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling so that the narrator can easily read that name aloud. You may not think this is important, but it is. I only have one book that is an audiobook, but during the recording of that book, my narrator had trouble pronouncing the names of two characters, because I had written the names so they would look good on paper, not realizing they were unpronounceable as they were written. We ironed that out, but the experience taught me to spell names simply.

Because of my early “good ideas gone awry” when it comes to names, my rules for names are simple:

  1. Don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names.
  2. Never name two characters names that are nearly identical or that begin and end with the same letter.
  3. Consider making the spellings of names and places pronounceable in case you decide to have your book made into an audiobook.

Credits and attributions: 

Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated, accessed Mar. 11, 2017.


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13 responses to “#amwriting: naming people and places

  1. At last another author who realizes that having lots of characters with names all beginning with the same letter gives the reader a headache!!


  2. Jen

    I have people around me that want me to name my characters Mary or Jim, something pronounceable. I just blew it off because these people 1) don’t read (they read my book because they know me) 2) they are interested in westerns or sitcoms.
    This article is awesome.
    Also, by making names pronounceable, new people to the genre won’t feel so alienated!


  3. Great blog! Another tip is to not introduce to many characters at one time, especially at the beginning of the novel. Spread them out and limit introductions as much as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Saving this to give to my critique group!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is an interesting and helpful post. Connie. Thank you. 🙂 — Suzanne

    Liked by 1 person