As writers, we often choose character names based on how those names resonate with us personally, such as who or what the names reminds us of or how they make us feel.
That can be helpful as we create our characters.
But before we publish (or submit our manuscripts to an editor or agent), we need to think about whether those names distract from our story or might confuse readers.
Here are four things to look at before you call your novel finished:
Using too many names that start with the same letter makes it harder for readers to remember who is whom. The more characters your story includes, the more important this is, but it matters even if you have only a few.
Two main characters named Mike and Mordant or, worse, Mike and Mark can cause a lot of confusion. Don’t make your reader work hard to enjoy your story.
If you're writing a series, you also need to watch this with minor characters. They may play small roles now, but could become important later.
In The Awakening, Book 1, without thinking much about it I named one of my protagonist Tara’s sisters Kelly. I didn't expect Kelly to be more than a walk on part, and she was only mentioned once or twice.
The second book began with a scene between Tara and another fairly major character, Kali.
When I realized Tara's sister Kelly also would be an important part of Book 2, I could have kicked myself. That I had two “K” names hadn’t hit me when writing Book 1 because Kelly played such a small part, but now I was stuck with them.
I worked very hard to differentiate Kelly and Kali, including cues to the reader about who was whom, in Books 2, 3, and 4. I've never gotten complaints about confusion, so it must have worked, but it took lot of extra time and energy.
Names That Otherwise Sound Alike
You also want to avoid too many names that sound alike for reasons other than, or in addition to, the first letter.
First, Meg, Peg, Tig, and Tag may tend to blur in the readers' minds, as might the last names Martini, Gaddini, and Houdini. OK, maybe not the last since it calls to mind the famous magician, but you get the idea.
As I'm sure you noticed (but are too polite to say, right?), my Kelly/Kali problem suffers from the soundalike issue as well as the same first letter problem.
Second, it's boring. If all the names are Jane or John or Bob or Phil or Sue, it makes for a very dull book.
Third, it may be unrealistic, depending upon where your story takes place.
If your characters live in a small town where many families are related and names tend to be used or reused over generations, a lot of similar names might be realistic. But if your story takes place somewhere like London that draws people from all over the world, it's likely there will be many names that sound different and are spelled differently from one another.
Race, Ethnicity, Geography
Names may signify to some readers ethnicity or race despite that in life names don't necessarily correlate with either. Many people have ancestors and family members of various ethnicities and/or marry into families from countries of origin other than their own.
Also, in reality the concept of race may signify nothing biological or genetic about a person.
All the same, if your character is named Brigid O'Brien, a picture of a white Irish woman will pop into many readers' mind. If you want to name your black Nigerian character that, feel free to do so, but you may need to add more description or narrative to convey how your character looks.
You may also need a “why” for those readers who have a set idea regarding names, race, and ethnicity.
In other words, they'll want to know why your black Nigerian character has a very Irish-sounding name. Unless it's key to the plot, you'll need to find a quick way to do this without slowing your plot or boring those readers who don't care one way or the other.
All that being said, if one of your goals as a writer is to subvert and expand people’s views on race, you may want to name your characters contrary to what most readers would expect.
It’s your story, so it’s up to you to decide.
Also take a look at those names you chose that were symbolic. Consider how many of these types of names you’ve used, and whether as a whole they’ll be distracting.
This is particularly important if you’re writing genre or commercial fiction. For those types of stories, your audience is not a class of college literature students searching for hidden meaning so they can add word count to their papers, and it’s not the professors who teach them.
Your readers are ones who want to be absorbed in the story first and only later, perhaps, think about symbolism.
So if every character has a symbolic name, that will distract the reader rather than enhance the experience.
Even in Lost, where names of philosophers abound, many main characters have first names that are fairly common in Middle America like Kate, Jack, Ben, and Claire.
This doesn’t mean you can’t keep a symbolic name. But as a general rule, it’s best to go for subtlety and be sparing rather than loading every character name with symbolic meaning.
Have you ever named a character something you later regretted? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments.
P.S. The above is an excerpt the above from Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out. I was a little worn out from the Thanksgiving weekend, so I borrowed from my book rather than writing on a brand new topic. For those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you had a wonderful one!