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Call Me Ishmael: Common naming issues in fiction

Call me Ishmael. Well, actually, call me Erica. Because, you know, that’s my name, and as Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” You probably spent quite some time deciding what to name the protagonist of your novel, coming up with the perfect moniker to describe the amazing character you created. But thinking about names in your book goes beyond just naming your main character. I see several common issues with names in the books I edit. These issues can lead to confusion and any time a reader gets confused, you run the risk of them putting the book down. Luckily, these naming issues are easy to avoid and fix. So, let’s take a look!

Too many named characters: Your book is going to have a variety of main characters and side characters, important people that your readers will need to remember and keep straight. These characters will encounter many other people in the course of your book—the clerk at the grocery store, the teller at the bank, the jerk who cuts in front of them in line at the movie theater—who flit in and out of the story. They serve a purpose but don’t play a major role in the book. When you name these minor characters, readers automatically assume they are someone to keep track of, someone that will matter as the story goes forward. If this is not the case, consider leaving them nameless. This gives your readers a clue that the character is not a major player and eases the burden on their name-remembering capabilities.

Too many variations on a name for a single character: It’s okay to have a character named Margaret whose husband calls her Maggie, but if your character is sometimes referred to as Margaret, sometimes Maggie, sometimes Mrs. Richards, and other times as Peggy, Meg, and Madge, things have gotten out of hand. You don’t want readers wondering if you’re still talking about the same person. A few names to show a character’s different relationships are fine, but don’t get carried away. It’s hard enough to remember all of the characters in a book when they don’t each go by five different nicknames.

Introducing too many characters at once: There is no specific number of characters your novel should have. That depends on the genre, the complexity of the story, the length of the story, and many other factors. As long as all of the characters are important to the story, they are welcome to be there. But just because all of the characters are important doesn’t mean that your readers need to know about all of them at the same time. If you introduce ten separate characters in the first chapter, your readers will have a hard time keeping track of who’s who and who is most important. Only introduce characters as they become vital to the story, whether that’s in chapter one or chapter ten.

Names that are too similar: I once read a book that had an Annalise and an Annabelle, and I had a heck of a time keeping them straight. I was constantly flipping back in the book to remind myself who was who. This pulled me out of the story, the last thing you want to do with your readers. With all the names available out there, there is no need to give your characters names that could be confusing. Try not to have more than one character name starting with the same letter and avoid names that sound too similar (Jim and Tim).

Names that are hard to pronounce: We’ve all come across a character in a book with a name that we have no idea how to pronounce: Tylwyth, Achan, Mnementh. While this tends to be a bigger problem with fantasy and sci-fi than other genres, even a YA author can confuse her readers by spelling Emily as Emileigh (is it pronounced Emi-lee or Emi-lay?). When readers aren’t sure how to pronounce a name, they often glide over it, thinking of the character as “that guy with the ‘T’ name” instead of Tylwyth. This creates distance between the reader and your character and once again pulls them out of the story. Instead of focusing on what Tylwyth is doing, they’re wondering how to say his name. Not all of your characters have to have boring names like Bob or Mary, but choosing a name that readers can easily sound out will eliminate an unnecessary distraction.

What’s in a name? Quite a bit! You can tell a lot about a character by the name they go by. Just be careful to choose names that won’t confuse your readers and try not to overload readers with names that don’t really matter. By following these few simple suggestions, you’ll keep readers firmly planted in your story, getting to know every Tom, Dick, and Harry you’ve so lovingly created.

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