Thursday, September 2, 2010

What's in a name?

Reading a book and liking it, but I can't remember which person is which. Is Hillary the waitress who is winning the cooking competition? Or is that Hailey? Or maybe Holly-- no, she's the one who was on the police force but quit to go to culinary school.


Take heed. It's a whole lot easier to get into a character when you can associate the name with the situation. And when two or more characters have similar names, well, some of us have trouble remembering. Look at those:

They all start with H, have an L in the middle, and end in Y. As I read fast through the story, they all look alike. And while I can sort out the names finally, I simply haven't been able (halfway through) to associate each name with the right person. This isn't usually a problem for me, and the writer is adept at characterization and character voice, so I really think the confusion is all about those three very similar names.

How do you choose character names? Do you have any rules you enforce on yourself as you choose (like two names can't start with the same letter, say)? As a reader, how do you respond to names? Can you think of any times the name got in the way of your bonding with a character?



Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

I'm sort of a name geek, so I tend to think a lot about my character's names. I have to admit, though, that similarity in sound never struck me as a major problem until my current WIP, in which my MC spends a lot of time with a cousin with a similar sounding name. They both start and end with A, have three syllables, and involve an m. I can easily imagine that confusing a reader. One's got to change.

Jami Gold said...

As you mentioned, using character names that start with different letters is one way to keep them unique. I did change one of my minor character names for this very reason. I still do have some names that start with the same letter, but one is female and the other is male, so I don't worry about those.

Another way to keep them unique is to mix "American" names with "ethnic" names (I don't do this just willy-nilly, however, as the characters with ethnic names are not American.). I have another two characters that start with the same letter but one is a very common American name and one is definitely not.

And yes, I do think I would have problems bonding to a character named...say, Poindexter - unless the name was a big part of his characterization. :)

Edittorrent said...

My problem is that names tend to stick. So Hillary and Holly just ARE their names, and if I try to change them mid-draft, I often get blocked because I don't know them anymore.

Pretty sad!

Phyllis said...

In "White Jazz" by James Elroy (not really romance, I know), the lead characters are named Blanchard and Bleichart. It made me crazy. Blanche is French and means white, bleich is German and means pale. To me, the names were too close.

I try to use names that don't sound similar, at least for the main characters. And I do know that feeling that you can't rename them. But that's what edits are for.

Phyllis said...

Brilliant, I mixed up "White Jazz and "Black Dahlia". So read: In "The Black Dahlia" by James...

Edittorrent said...

Phyllis, it's funny how opposites can be so associative like that.
"Blanche" and "noir." :)

Denny S. Bryce said...

A thought...Don't change the names until later. As long as it's still in the drafting, writing, WIP phase - don't worry about it unless your critique partners are screaming (lol). Make the change during polishing - unless it's the main character(s). The investment in that name is too high to play around with, I think.

In my story, I've changed character names any number of times. I do invest a lot of time into getting just the right name for a main character. In my current WIP, my heroine has a very common name - deliberately. That goes for many of the 'younger' characters in the book. The other character names I've researched to ensure that their name existed during the time when they would have been born, and in the country where they were born. So yes, I agree, naming a character is a critical part of the entire novel writing process but it's also a way to distinguish (separate) your cast of characters. Just look at the names of characters in a TV series or a movie. 'Hearing" the names spoken is important to the film/tv producer/director. They can't afford to have Buffy confused with Willow.

Finally, think 'Gone with the Wind' - Scarlett O'Hara versus Melanie Wilkes - a fire-eater as your heroine or melba toast? Rhett (Rogue) Butler or Ashley Wilkes (ash? a walking ghost from a dying culture)...

Lisa Miles said...

I try not to use names with the same first letter, but I'm not anal about it. I would never use Dan and Don, or Katherine and Kathleen.

Julie Harrington said...

I hate changing character names mid-stream. When I name them (which often takes forever), it feels so unnatural to just up and change the name to something else in the middle of writing - or even plotting - the story. They ARE that person. Changing the name would be like changing my own (which is probably why I have such a hard time imagining pen names).

But I do have methods for selecting my character names. I never choose the same letters (no Jack and Jill in my story) and I also don't allow the names to have the same Last Name letter either. So let's say my hero is Rudolph Milestone. My heroine then cannot have a first OR last name that begins with R or M. I'll also try the extreme opposites in terms of sound. If the hero has a hard sounding name, I'll start looking for a heroine's name that's soft. I do this for the other characters in the story too and eliminate letters I've already used for the first and last names, also town names, business names, etc.

One funny thing with character names... I was working on selecting names for the characters in two different stories, finally picked them (based on the image and association I wanted in my head) and when I started researching the names, my "mermaid"esque character's name ended up being very historically and mythologically accurate. My other heroine's name (and occupation) winded up actually *meaning* that exact thing, which tied into a symbol I was going to also use in the story, which tied into the form I'd chosen for my shape shifting villain. Freaky strange.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

My professors at the undergraduate level always said to never give characters names that start with the same letter. Since then, I can't tell you how many books I've read where authors do just that. Sometimes, I get confused. Sometimes, I don't.

I was speaking with a really cool author the other day who wrote a fantastic historical fiction in which there were two characters in history who had the same exact name. Full name.

Needless to say, for the novel, he changed the minor character's name.

Lisa Eckstein said...

When I start working on a novel, I create a document that lists all the character names so I can easily scan for repetition of first initials. I also read the list aloud several times to see if I'm overlooking, for example, that I have characters named Larry, Sherry, and Gary.

I hate having to change character names once I've begun writing, but it's something I've had to do several times for various reasons, including that I realized too late that I was using similar names.

divy said...

I almost never use the same first letter for any two names in the same project. unless there's a very good reason, and then the names must be otherwise extremely different (number of syllables, ethnicity, etc).
I have been trying to avoid using the names of people I know in my stories, but the more I write, and the more people I meet, the harder it gets.
The only time I've had issues with a character's name in a book is if the lead (particularly a romantic lead) has the same name as one of my kids. eek.

C.L. Gray said...

I have it easy. My characters are historical figures, so they were already named. And I have great names and nicknames: Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, U.S. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan... great names that evoke images and memories in my readers. Half the work was already done for me.

C.L. Gray said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C.L. Gray said...

BTW, Scarlett O'Hara started out as Pansy O'Hara and Melanie was the main character. Mitchell says that as she wrote, Pansy was just more compelling. And if memory serves me, the only name of Mitchell's four main characters that remained was Rhett Butler. He was Rhett from the beginning.

Jordan said...

I agree with Denny—it's so much easier just to find and replace at the end! I've done that before when my hero (Charlie) and my villain (Christopher) used the same letter. Not sure it would have been uber confusing the first way (though I'm still rather attached to the original name, naming a villain after one of my close relatives isn't generally a good idea).

I'm a name geek, too, so I spend a long time picking the right name for major characters, less time for minor, but still, significant time. Just the other day, I made a passing reference to a character's wife and spent probably ten minutes picking an age-appropriate and short name.

Oddly enough, I'm not all that picky about names in books I read. I've read a number of books set in other countries recently, and I've seen a bunch of reviews saying they had a hard time with the names. To which I think, "Why? Do you have to move your lips when you read?" ;)

Edittorrent said...

Lisa, yeah, I think rhyming names are going to confuse too. This is complex!

Unknown said...

When I was picking names for my WIP I skimmed through and looked based on birth years and nationalities, but didn't get too attached to anything and started working. After a while they basically named themselves. I realized one by one that Rocky, Alex, Lilly, and Pablo could only be a Rocky, an Alex, a Lilly, and a Pablo. Though, Rocky (short for Roxanne) is a special case, I love her name because it is a perfect description of her personality.

Author Guy said...

My own most recent blog post is on this very topic. I write fantasy, though, so naming issues are a little different.

Marc Vun Kannon

Terry Odell said...

Definitely an issue for me. Author Jeremiah Healy recommended that the initials of your protagonist's name should be 'dead' for any other characters.

I keep a simple Excel spreadsheet to avoid names that start with the same letter or might be confusing.

It can be troublesome when you write a series, though. Sometimes you're stuck.

(BTW -- The title of this post drew me in. Could it be because it's the title of one of my books?)

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Melissa said...

I actually wrote about this same topic over the weekend (for the Thursday blog post I'll be adding at In the post, I will talk about a recent book with an excellent character name and other ways of coming up with character names. I agree, though, and I personally avoid having characters with names that even start with the same letter. Even number of syllables need to be considered (short names like Joe, Tom, Bob... people can get them confused)....