Choosing Character Names

A recurring problem for fiction writers is unintentionally creating characters or places with similar names. For example, in one novel I read recently, there were both a Millworth Manor and a Murray Hill Hotel. In another, a Sophie and a Sylvie. In yet another, two girls in main character families had the names Charlotte and Cerelin.

In a spate of reading Regency romance, I found maids of main characters, Lily and Lucy, an unfaithful fiancé to the main character and his best friend: Emmeline and Ellingsworth, an antagonist/protagonist Dare and Darien, and key supporting characters Mara and Maria.

In each case, I had to keep checking back to remember who these people were, which cast an unfavorable taste over the story in general. Like most readers of escape literature, I wanted to immerse in the story without any tangles. Similar names are a tangle.

I’m by no means the first to notice this problem. Many blog posts and articles can be found in a quick internet search. K. M. Weiland noted this anomaly in a 2011 blog post:

At first glance, this isn’t obviously a problem. But because most people read by sight, rather than sounding out words, and because most people read so quickly that their eyes take in multiple words per second, it’s easy for readers to take a look at nothing more than the first letter in a name and make an assumption about which character is on stage.[1]

Another blogger noted additional similarities to avoid:

Similar beginnings:  Readers might be confused by a “Cathy” and a “Cynthia,” or a “Richard” and a “Roger” in the same story.

Similar endings: Avoid giving your characters names that end the same way, like “Madison” and “Jason,” or worse yet, names that rhyme, like “Shelley” and “Kelly.”

Repeated vowel sounds: “Janeen,” “Lee,” and “Edith” all share a long ‘e’ sound. This can be tiring for the ear.

Similar length: You’d be confused too if you had to read a book about “Bob,” “Ted,” and “Joe.” How would you keep them all straight in your mind?[2]

The Alliance of Independent Authors offers a list of 15 guidelines to use in selecting character names, starting the article with the questions:

Would Scrooge have become such a symbol of parsimony if Dickens had name him Smith?

Would Paddington Bear sound as adorable if named after Waterloo Station?

Would the Wizard of Oz be as awesome if he lived in any lesser-named land?

Most of us don’t slow down enough in reading such works to establish a firm identification of a character by more than the first letter of the name. To that fleeting identity, we add appearance, personality, and intent as we fly through the pages. With more than one character with similar name elements, the story bogs down in lost identities.

It’s a strange psychological quirk that authors fall into this trap. It’s not that we don’t have access to an enormous repertoire of names. But in the moment, when the overall story is looming in our forebrain and the characters are pieces on that chessboard, we may accidentally use similar names without realizing it.

To avoid this often-invisible trap, make a list of character names in your story and sort them alphabetically to ensure none of them have the same first letter. Then read them out loud to see if there are matching phonetic elements. These are easy editing steps that will greatly improve your readers’ enjoyment of your work.

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[1] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/dont-confuse-readers-with-similar/#

[2] https://writeitsideways.com/what-not-to-name-your-characters/

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