Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
We’ve already looked at considerations for naming characters, so we’re going to focus on something different regarding character names in this article. As a matter of fact, we’re going to look at four issues concerning character names.
#1—Use Character Names Once They’re Known
Once a character is named, use that name or a pronoun to refer to the character most of the time, especially within the viewpoint character’s references.
So once you’ve revealed that the man standing in the shadows is Keith, the protagonist’s brother, and not a hit man, you would never again need to refer to him as the man, the stranger, the creep, or the stalker as you might have before he was named. Certainly not in the protagonist’s head.
You also wouldn’t need to refer to him as her or my brother (depending on the POV). So rather than this—
My brother passed the milk, after drinking out of it, just as he always had when we were young. Then my big brother stuck out his tongue and displayed his half-chewed food. That too was familiar.
Keith passed the milk, after drinking out of it, just as he always had when we were young. Then he stuck out his tongue and displayed his half-chewed food. That too was familiar.
The use of my brother again and again gets annoying. As does the doctor, my boss, the hit man, the monster, the dinosaur, the vampire, or any reference other than the name.
It’s not that you couldn’t use these other kinds of words occasionally, especially to be funny or make a point, but the use of names is much more intimate. And more likely to be an accurate reflection of a character’s thoughts.
We even name characters/beings that don’t have given names in order to have something to call them. So the unnamed vampire becomes Vladivostok, the dinosaur becomes Godzilla Junior, and the terrorizing monster becomes Major Ugly.
Use names to decrease the annoyance factor.
Excessive Variety Isn’t Needed
Don’t think that for variety you need to say my sister, my friend, my boss, the captain, and so forth. Especially not for first-person or deep POV third-person narration.
In these POVs we hear the characters’ real—uncensored—thoughts. And most of the time, we don’t think of others close to us by their titles or by the relationship that connects us. If my brother’s name is Paul, I think of him as Paul. I don’t think little brother or lieutenant. It’s true that I may call him my little brother or a jerk or refer to him by his title when I’m speaking about him and maybe—just maybe—when I’m speaking to him, perhaps to get a rise out of him. But I’m typically going to call him Paul in my thoughts and references. That is, I don’t think my brother is a jerk. It’s more likely I’d be thinking Paul is a jerk.
I don’t have to remind myself of my relationships to others or refer to those relationships again and again in my mind. And characters don’t need to do this either. Sandra knows that Bill is her husband; there’s no reason to bring that point up again and again in her thoughts.
It’s extremely artificial to refer to characters by anything other than their name or a pronoun in a thought. We don’t think about them as the relationship—friend, brother, husband—but as Sally, Paul, and Richard. We also don’t think of them as a title—the lieutenant, the secretary, my boss.
If a character hasn’t been named, that’s different and you do need ways to refer to him or her. But once the character gets a name, use it.
There are allowances, especially in dialogue, for when a character, such as a sibling, is trying to annoy another character and uses the family connection rather than a name. So a character could refer to another as brother or sister or jokingly call them something such as little sis or bro.
And such a practice isn’t restricted to siblings.
I knew a woman, some years back, who teasingly referred to her husband by his military rank when speaking to him. Yet at the same time, in her thoughts he wasn’t a rank, but a name.
I don’t find this a problem in every manuscript I edit, but when a writer has the viewpoint character thinking of one character by relationship or title, he tends to have a lot of characters referenced in the same manner. The simple fix, so you don’t annoy readers by overusing titles and family relationships, is to use names and pronouns almost all the time.
And when your characters make up names for characters or beings that don’t yet have them, keep to a single name per character/being (at least from the point of view of the viewpoint characters). So until the stalker is named, call him the stalker, not the spooky guy, the creep, and Mr. Nightstalker.
#2—Multiple Names for One Character
While it’s likely that some characters will be known by multiple names, consider keeping multiple names for characters to a minimum. Not all of your characters need to be referred to as their first names, their last names, both first and last names, and a nickname.
Now, if almost everyone calls your private investigator by her last name, that doesn’t mean her husband can’t call her baby and her mother doesn’t call her by her first name. But you don’t have to give every character three or four names. Once multiple names for multiple characters start flying around, the reader is required to perform a juggling act. Sometimes this is fairly easy, but too many names can be confusing. Especially if the names are used willy-nilly and not in a planned manner.
If a character’s husband calls her Twinky as a term of affection, don’t accidentally allow co-workers to also call her that. Co-workers wouldn’t use the husband’s pet name for his wife. (Exceptions if they know that the husband uses the name and the co-workers use it purposely to annoy her.)
Consider giving multiple names to only those who really need them. And then be consistent in your use of those names. If you can logically restrict most characters to a single name when they’re being referred to by others, do so. This doesn’t mean that we don’t know the character’s full name. It simply means that most other characters refer to her by either her first or last name most of the time.
If Celeste Crusher thinks Celeste is too soft a name for a private eye, let her go by Crusher. And let her mother keep her humble by calling her Celeste. But she doesn’t also need to be C. C. or Cel. And she definitely doesn’t need multiple names if she’s also a mom, referred to as mom or Mrs. Crusher.
If you find you’ve called a character some cute nickname but only once or twice, change the reference. Adding a cute name that’s used only twice isn’t worth the possible confusion.
This issue is on my mind because I came across the practice of multiple names used to an extreme degree in a book I admit I couldn’t get into because I was so distracted by all the names in the first two chapters. I ended up taking notes on the names in those chapters—and you know you’ve lost your reader when she’s not reading but counting the different names in your early scenes. Not only did the opening scenes not hook me, they pushed me away.
The first-person narrator was called by five names (four variations of her full name plus one title) in the first chapter, all within the first four pages. In the second chapter, readers were introduced to four more names for her. So this one character, the viewpoint character, was referred to by others nine different ways within two chapters.
Admittedly, many of the names were variations of her legal name, but nine? Couldn’t those around her settle on one name? Couldn’t she settle on one name to be? Yes, some characters, as we’ve already seen, may be known by different names to their family, to subordinates and bosses, but nine names goes beyond any need. Especially when they all pop up in the first two chapters and in a single event/scene. Who knows how many other names she went by in the course of the story? I didn’t get far enough to discover a total.
The names included these combinations:
Ms. last name
abbreviated last name
abbreviated first name
first and last name
full last name
full first name
two nicknames unrelated to her given name
I don’t want to call out the writer or the editor of the book by pointing out the real names, so I’ll use a fake name to give you an idea of how this looks.
girlie and honey
Until the reader figures out that these all refer to the same person, he has to do a double take to understand who is being addressed when another character uses each of these names. I certainly did. Ms. Jefferson was also George and was also doc and so on. Confusion is deepened by the fact that the shortened names, both first and last, could refer to a man or a woman—great if you want to confuse readers, but not so great if that isn’t the intent.
One additional point of confusion arose because the first reference to the character didn’t include her full name. While there are still too many names used for one character, if another character had called out, “Hey, if it isn’t Dr. Georgina Jefferson,” some of the confusion would have been mitigated.
Yes, that example is poor writing in itself. But something similar would have made it clear that the same person was being addressed when a few lines later others called her Georgina and Jefferson.
While each of these names may be legitimate, I argue that they probably aren’t and that there’s no reason to introduce them all at this stage in the story. As a reader, I don’t know this character; I’m just learning who she is. Don’t confuse me with something as simple as names when I’m trying to figure out what’s happening in the scene and this character’s place in it.
The confusion was made even worse by the fact that multiple characters, not just the viewpoint character, were called by multiple names. A handful of other characters were given two, three, or four names. One was referred to six different ways. And the viewpoint character herself called characters multiple names, using one name in her thoughts and another in her dialogue. Even she couldn’t decide how she referred to her buddies.
Added to this already confusing mix was the naming of characters who didn’t show up in the scene, but were only talked about. These characters also had multiple names and titles.
~ One simple fix for using so many names is to reduce the number of names that refer to any one character. Most characters can get by with one or two names.
~ A second solution would be to reserve some of the names for another scene. The use of the great variety of names for each character in a single scene smacks of an info dump. An info dump for names only, true, but an info dump all the same.
~ And certainly don’t give multiple characters multiple names in the same scene. That’s just overkill or poor planning.
The use of so many names for the viewpoint character should have been caught and corrected by either the writer or the editor. The use of multiple names for multiple characters in so few pages should have never made it past an early draft.
A related issue that should have been addressed was the mention, by name, of a great number of different characters. Not only did many characters have several names, but there were a whole lot of characters dumped into the mix.
#3—Naming Everyone in the First Pages
You don’t want to overburden readers with any issue at the opening of a story. You certainly don’t want to throw more characters at them than is necessary to get the story started.
There would be very few reasons to introduce every major character and a whole lot of minor ones, by name, in the first few pages. Unless, of course, the total number of characters was fairly low.
The characters who are named in the early pages should have something to do in those early pages. You’re not creating a playbill for your story, listing the characters by name and by their relationships to all the characters. And you’re not calling them onto the stage before the story starts so readers can see who they are and what parts they’ll play. Those details should come out as each character takes part in the action. Characters don’t all have to show up on page one for a cameo before they can join the adventure.
And there’s little reason to name even more characters, those not even in the scene, simply because they’re related to another character.
In this same book, several offstage characters are mentioned in the course of events of the first two chapters. And not only are some of those what look to be major characters, but some are additional characters who are related to those characters. But they aren’t just mentioned—they too are given names.
The reader has no way to create associations to these characters who are once and twice removed from characters who are actually walking through the scene. What’s the point of including the names of even more characters? If there weren’t already so many named characters present in the scene, it might be easy to remember the name of a character’s girlfriend’s sister, but why would a reader even try? There are too many flesh and blood people walking through the scene that need attention. Readers aren’t going to recall the mention of a character three relationships removed from a character they can see. They shouldn’t have to.
Introduce names when the character is on the scene so readers can create links to those characters in a way that will help readers remember them. Readers create links through what happens on the page, through action and events. A character who is linked to another character will not be easy to remember if neither actually shows up in the scene. Especially if so many other characters are actually present for the scene.
Exception: Naming an offstage character can work if a great many onstage characters don’t get in the way.
Don’t expect your readers to learn the names of a couple dozen characters off the bat, especially if the readers are just being introduced to your story. Additionally, if you add multiple names for a handful of those characters and throw in titles and then offstage characters as well, you’ve introduced reader frustration. If you do this on the first pages, it’s likely you’ll lose your readers before they engage.
How can a reader possibly decide who to focus on when you throw multiple named and unnamed characters at her within just a few pages, many of them with a variety of names of their own?
The solution is to not throw too many characters at the reader and definitely not to do it in your story’s opening.
The number of characters you can name in the early pages will depend on the story and the way the characters are named and how they’re introduced. But if you expect readers to understand family or friend relationships and social or business hierarchies, and expect them to remember names, nicknames, and titles, you’ve got to restrict some of the information.
In the book I’m using as an example, there are at least 17 named characters in the first two chapters. And the 17 are referred to by almost 50 different names or titles. Two chapters, 24 pages, and 50 different names and titles for 17 people. And that doesn’t include the unnamed characters who were referred to by description or occupation (prostitute) or title (officer) or by their relationship (girlfriend, sister) to one of the named characters.
Was it any wonder I was confused?
That’s the same as naming 50 characters in the first two chapters. But worse than that, it’s giving multiple characters multiple names in the same setting, where the nicknames and alternate names have little meaning. It’s including nicknames out of context.
My advice is that you
refrain from putting every major character into your first scene or chapter
refrain from naming every character right away
refrain from giving multiple characters multiple names, at least not all at the same time
refrain from calling most characters by name and then by title in the early pages unless there’s a need to include titles—consider pairing names and titles rather than using them individually
give named characters a link to the scene’s events so that the name is connected to something a reader will remember the character doing
omit names in the early pages for characters who are not featured in the scene—exceptions if you’re trying to hide in plain sight the mention of someone or their relationship to another character, if you’re naming offstage characters for a purpose that will be clear later in the story
Be careful to not simply list characters who are present in a scene, especially in the early scenes when readers are unfamiliar with the characters. Name them if they have something to do with the scene, otherwise allow them to be part of the background, even if they prove to be major characters later.
#4—Names in Dialogue
This one’s a reminder, a suggestion I hope you’ve heard before: refrain from repeatedly calling people by name in dialogue.
We don’t do it, call people by name with every sentence spoken to others, and our characters shouldn’t do it either. We actually often don’t call people by name at all.
Repeating names in speech gets annoying quickly. Use names in dialogue for specific purposes—
Use names to help readers keep track of who is speaking to whom.
Use names to indicate that a character is speaking to someone new or to only one member of a group after he’s been speaking to someone else or the entire group
Repeat a name if one character intends to bother another character with the repetition.
Use a name if the sentence rhythm requires it.
Keep in mind, however, that readers get annoyed just as easily as character do, and so use name repetition purposely, not accidentally.
In our real lives we use names to help us keep people straight, as a means of identifying them and differentiating them. Writers should seek to do the same with character names. The use of names shouldn’t confuse. Names should instead allow readers to flow easily with the story, knowing who is doing what to whom.
Readers shouldn’t have to reread the text to determine which character is speaking or which is being spoken to.
Use character names productively and let them be a help, not a problem or a weakness, of your fiction.