It doesn’t have to be “real” (on naming characters)

I don’t know about anyone else, but even in my first drafts my characters have names.  I think names matter – they affect who a person is.  (Perhaps that’s because my parents saw fit to give me one of those overly unique names that prompt people to say things like “Is that your real name?  Really?  Huh.”  To which I smile politely while privately wishing them all sorts of evil outcomes.)

But, this is fiction we’re talking about.  So, it doesn’t matter if you really did have three girls named Sarah and two boys named Mike in your class (or whatever today’s name du jour is – Bella and Aidan?), you don’t want to do that in your book.  Any time a reader has to flip back ten pages to try to figure out if this is the same character that was referenced before or a new one, you’ve got a problem.

Ironically, as a reader I don’t pay too much attention to names.  I kind of memorize what the name looks like and skim it each time.  (Perhaps that’s a product of reading SFF.  I don’t know.)  So, having two Sarahs in a story would kill me because I’m not that close a reader when it comes to names.  It would probably take me three or four chapters before it really sunk in that I was dealing with two different characters, especially if they were similar.

A few years ago I read a trilogy by an author I enjoy, but the books had one major flaw that kept pulling me out of the story.  (Interestingly, I got past the cannibalism aspect of the books – my mom did not – but found this to be an issue.)  The issue: one character was named Kirin Felt and another character was named Kilt Faris.  And they were in different story lines, too, which I think exacerbated the issue.

If you don’t see the issue, think that most people put more emphasis on beginning sounds.  So you have Ki-Fe and Ki-Fa.  Worse yet, you have Kir-Fel and Kil-Far.  So, even when you go to that next beginning sound, which is different, it’s still either r or l.  In one character it’s r-l in the other it’s l-r.  Way too similar.

I’m sure to the author it was incredibly clear who the characters were and why they were different.  But as a reader who’s just dipping a toe into their lives, I was repeatedly having to remember who Kilt was and who Kirin was.  I think as a writer it’s very important to try to keep the beginning sound of names as distinct as possible.  If nothing else, then at least for your major characters.

So, you wouldn’t want a Carrie and a Karen as your character’s love interests.  Or a Bob and a Bowden.  Sure, in your mind that may be those character’s names, but when it comes time to tell a story to someone else, I’d recommend changing one of them.

You also need to watch out for associations outside of your immediate story.  There was an author who went on a bit of a rant today about some reviews he’d received and how stupid readers can be.  (I was already skeptical about him, I’m now less than appreciative, but that’s another post for another day and probably one I will never write.  Something about conflicts of interest and self-promotion.  Anyway, back to the point.)  He questioned the use of certain words if they create associations for his readers.  He was doing it in a very sarcastic way and taking it to an extreme (and not voicing it as a serious concern), but I think there is a point to be made there.

In my draft novel I currently have a character named Marion.  Seems good enough.  Until you realize that she’s often referred to by her title which is Medic Marion.  It didn’t really hit me during the first draft, but I expanded her role in the second draft and suddenly I couldn’t help but think Maid Marion (a la Robin Hood) every time I wrote her name.

To me she’s named Marion, but chances are when I finally send the book out to agents and editors, she won’t be.  At that point it’s not about the character I see in my head, but about telling a good story to someone else and I don’t want them to stop every time she’s in a chapter because they have to suppress that little “Maid Marion” association.

I guess I think of it similar to the “um” rule in speaking.  You can get away with a few “ums.”  No one even notices them.  But at some point you cross this magic threshold and then every single “um” you say after that point is annoyingly obvious to your audience.  So, the best approach is to try to avoid “um” as much as possible.

Or, to bring this back to writing, try to minimize the number of times you throw your audience out of the story with bad or confusing character names.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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