Naming Characters #amwriting

I have mentioned (several times) one of my mistakes in 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. My mind was in a rut when I thought that one up because I named her Marta.

You can see why this is bad—the two names are nearly identical.

To really confuse things, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly was a protagonist with a major storyline. She actually 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.

In my family, “Robert” is a name with a great deal of repetition. My father was named Robert, my two brothers are both named Robert (with different middle names), and my mother’s younger brother is named Robert. My younger brother’s son is named Robert, as is his son. We have a Bob, a Little Bob, a Rob, a Bobby, a Robby, and a Quatro.

I took this absurdity to an extreme in Billy Ninefingers. In Waldeyn, every third boy is named William, which is why Billy MacNess embraces the name his mercenaries give him after the injury. In that novel, “Williams” generally go by their last names.

Other than Billy Ninefingers where it was intentional and integral to the story, my personal rule 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.

But who should go and who should stay? What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but should also use common sense.

A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does the person return later in the story or does he or she act as part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store? Is it someone the reader should remember? Even if this character 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. Their comments could offer us a clue into the protagonist’s personality or past. Other random people are in the scene purely for the ambiance, part of the world-building. A woman smoking in an alley outside the back door to an office needs no name, but she serves as a visible clue about the world the main character is walking in.

Even if they do speak a few lines, if they are just part of the scenery, they don’t need a name.

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.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The desire to make every character a memorable person must be ignored. When we begin revising second draft of our manuscript, we must find and resolve the distractions we inadvertently introduced in our first draft.

My current work in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my two protagonists and their sidekicks. Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in that scene for only one purpose. They are to be overheard and don’t appear again. For this reason, only my main characters are named in the full transcript of this scene.

Finding that we have too many named characters is an easy one to fix, once we decide how important that character is to the story. If they don’t appear again, the reader will move on and forget about them. The information they imparted will remain.

I have found that a great use for my extra walk-on characters is the short story. The world is already built, and they have a story, albeit a short one. Use them to your advantage.

I now keep in mind simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation when I name my characters. 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.

My advice is to keep it simple. Don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names. Be vigilant when choosing names—don’t give two characters names that are nearly identical.

Do make your spellings of names and places easily pronounceable. You may decide to have your book made into an audio book, and the process will go more smoothly if you’ve considered this in advance. I only have one book that is an Audio book and the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply.


Credits and Attributions:

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

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Naming Characters #amwriting

  1. Great advice, Connie. I’ve read books, usually Sci-Fi or Fantasy, that used unpronounceable names. I ignore the screwy names and use substitutes in my mind. Tharakaia might be Thar or Thara in my mind depending on the character’s gender. Which brings up another point; be careful of using gender-neutral names.

    Your point about look-alike names is on point, too. In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien used Sauron and Saruman for names of evil wizards. I struggled to keep them straight when I read the book in high school. Quick: which one wore a white robe?

    Good post.

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  2. I made a lot of these naming mistakes in the beginning… To my horror I realized that most of the names in my first book started with either A, C or S, so now I pick a letter to use before I start brainstorming names, so the rest of the alphabet doesn’t get left behind!

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  3. I tend to use names that I like the sounds of but I mix up the number of syllables with one, two, three and four syllable names. I also change up the beginning of their names, for example, Noelle Harrison and Clark Johnson.

    Great post.

    Like

  4. Naming things is HARD. I don’t think those who aren’t writing can understand the agony of picking the right names. With the right connotations/mouth feel/lack of connotations…

    For one of my rough drafts, I was drafting quickly and decided to use placeholder names: Alice, Bob, Carol — intending to edit and replace those with real names later. Well… two years later, I’m still stalling. And it doesn’t help that I went through the entire alphabet, and THEN some.

    Did I mention this was a sequel and those were all secondary or lesser characters?

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  5. When I write historical fiction, I compile a list of common names for that time and place. That way I don’t have to stop to search for an appropriate name every time I need one.

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