The Name Game: When Good Names Go Bad
by John Robert Marlow
Names are a source of much unnecessary confusion. Even perfectly good names can be poor choices when they mix with the wrong sort—which, oddly enough, can themselves be perfectly respectable in different company.
ONE CHARACTER, MANY NAMES
This situation arises when a single character is referred to by multiple names. One of the manuscripts I edited featured a detective as the main character. We’ll call him Robert Boone. Sometimes he was Robert, other times Bob. He was also referred to as Boone, the detective, Detective Boone, the officer, Officer Boone, the heavyset detective, the burly officer, and so on. Boone’s boss—call him Lieutenant Enrique Gonzales—was referred to as Enrique, Lieutenant Gonzales, Gonzales, and the lieutenant. All of which made it virtually impossible—in a story filled with cops—to figure out who was doing what. In another work of ten volumes, the lead character was consistently referred to as Ann, Annette, Annette Brand, Andy, Captain Brand, and the captain—the last three of which could easily be mistaken for male names.
As authors, we know exactly who we’re talking about, and so we might read the story a hundred times and never see a problem. The reader, on the other hand, tends to associate the character with the name used when that character was introduced. When the same character appears with a different moniker—particularly after a multi-page absence—the result is often confusion.
Whatever a character’s full name or title may be, pick one name for general use, and stick to it for the duration of your story. It’s okay if (for example) his children call him dad, his wife honey, and his employees boss. He can even have a nickname (but only one!) used by a close friend, let’s say—but in those instances where you as the author refer to him by name, you should always refer to him by the same name. As should, with very few exceptions, the characters in your story.
One notable exception to this rule occurs when you’re deliberately concealing someone’s identity from the reader, or from another character. In that case, you might refer to him as Evil Burt in some scenes, and “the thin man” in others—until you choose to reveal that “the thin man” is none other than Evil Burt himself.
In fact, if Evil Burt is using an assumed identity—again for purposes of deliberate deception—you might also refer to him as Richard Thoroughgood in scenes where he’s using this identity. Other exceptions tot his rule are and should remain incredibly rare—as when a character suffers amnesia and then regains his former identity, or one twin is masquerading as the other.
MANY CHARACTERS, SIMILAR NAMES
A somewhat less common occurrence, this one still crops up often enough to deserve mention. Though the potential for confusion should be obvious, a number of authors give the same name to two or more characters in the same story. In fact, the ten-volume epic mentioned above included four if not five sets of brothers (including a pair of twins), two Harrys, two Johns (one a child, one not), and four Claudes. There was also a dog with its own name, but whose nickname was Claude. It’s enough to make the reader’s head spin. Again, this is a case of the author—a good author at that, with an interesting tale to tell—being perfectly clear on everything, yet failing to realize that things do not appear so clear-cut to those approaching the story for the first time.
Similar names can also be an issue. You wouldn’t, for example, want characters named John, Don, Ron, Lon, Juan, Jake, Jack, James, Dick, Rick, Liz, Lisa, Bree, Dee, Lee, Jim, Tim, and Kim in the same story. And yet I worked a manuscript with characters named Chan, Chang, Cheng, Chin, Lee, Li, Liu, Zheng, and Zhou. Often, several of these folks were referred to in a single paragraph. Occasionally, they were in the same room together. The story’s concept was very good; the execution, confusing.
You even have to watch out for dissimilar names that are different forms of the same name: Dick and Richard, John and Jack, Bill and William, Bob and Robert, Elizabeth and Liz or Beth, for example.
Take care to give your characters names that are not only different, but distinct from one another. If possible, have the different names start with different letters as well. (This is particularly important when writing screenplays, perhaps because so many more people read them before they’re finalized—upping the odds in favor of confusion.)
This rule can occasionally be bent. Fathers and sons with the same name, for example, or siblings with similar names. The trick is to refer to them by different names in most instances. If father and son are both named John Mulholland, one can go by the nickname Jack, or the younger one can be John Jr. or Johnny—or the older one Mr. Mulholland, and so on. Still, this is usually best avoided, unless confusion or uncertainty is part of the plot—as when (to borrow an example from William Morris Executive Story Editor Chris Lockhart) a handkerchief with a monogrammed W is found, and the plot revolves around figuring out which of three women with that initial is the owner.
THE MAN (OR WOMAN) WITH NO NAME
For reasons I find mystifying, some authors simply refuse to name particular characters—or choose to delay the naming interminably. This doesn’t mean every character has to have a name, or even that significant characters need to have proper names. But (for example) the main character’s secretary cannot be repeatedly referred to as “his secretary.” Nor can an important character be referred to only as “the man.”
Such phrasing is both awkward and distracting, and very quickly crosses the line to annoying. Once your readers start wondering why the heck you don’t just give this guy (or gal) a name and so make their lives easier, you’ve lost them; instead of being carried along by your writing, they’ve turned against it.
Any character who is significant or who appears with some frequency must have a name, or something approximating a name. If there’s a good reason to avoid giving him a conventional name—and keep in mind that, most of the time, there is no such reason—then at least use something descriptive and memorable. Who, for instance, can forget The Fugitive’s “one-armed man?”
Relatively insignificant characters are another story. When dealing with these—a waiter, a cabbie, a wino on the corner we’ll never see again—it’s perfectly acceptable (and preferred in Hollywood) to use generically descriptive terms such as, well, waiter, cabbie, and wino. This lets the reader know that these are minor characters who won’t be demanding a large amount of attention. (In Hollywood, it lets professional “readers” know that they needn’t write up character descriptions on all of these people and track them through the script—which gets very, very annoying when you realize it was a complete waste of time.)
FAMILIAR CHARACTERS, FAMILIAR NAMES
When you’re in a room with your best friend Lisa, and she’s the only one you’re talking to—do you start each sentence with “Lisa…?” Of course not—and neither should your characters. Nevertheless, many authors will write scenes like this:
“Lisa, what you think I should do about Ferdinand?”
“Are you sure the child is his, Margaret?”
“Of course I’m sure, Lisa.”
“Do you want to have his baby, Margaret?”
“I don’t know, Lisa.”
There’s no one else in the conversation. Often, there’s no one else in the room—yet the characters continue to address each other by name. This makes no sense because a) each character knows who she’s talking to; b) each character knows when she’s being spoken to; and c) real people just don’t speak like this.
You and I might have an hour-long discussion without either of us ever saying the other’s name, except perhaps in greeting. Happens all the time. Dialogue like the example above doesn’t happen at all in real life, comes across as amateurish and artificial, and should be avoided at all costs.
Having said that, there are a few exceptions. Situations where one character is mocking another, for instance, or being deliberately patronizing or excessively formal. In cases of extreme formality, it’s likely that last rather than first names would be used. Another exception might occur when one character is mad at another, and uses the other character’s first name as a way of maintaining emotional distance.
This covers character and place names that are hard to pronounce, or for which the correct pronunciation is not immediately obvious. This is most often encountered in works of fantasy and science fiction. There’s really no reason to subject readers to difficult or awkward names; it slows the read, breaks the flow, and swiftly becomes annoying. This is doubly true for works with two difficult names, and probably four times as true for those with three such names.
Yes, those Welsh names may sound magnificent when spoken by a native—but few of your readers will be Welsh, and rest of them won’t have a clue as to how they should pronounce or read “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.” Even the locals call this town “Llanfair” to avoid wearing out their tongues and pencils.
The solution is simple: avoid character and place names that are awkward to read or pronounce. If you absolutely must use one, give it a “short” version or a nickname, introduce the shorter name right away—and use it most if not all of the time.
Exceptions: Names that cannot be avoided because you’re using them in historical context, and scenes set in one-of-a-kind locations that are vital to the story but happen to have clunky names (in which case you can employ the short/nick gambit mentioned above).
HE SAID, SHE SAID?
Names of uncertain gender (Robin/Robyn, Jay, Jackie, Terry, Terri, and Sam—sometimes short for Samantha—come to mind), or names which are uncommon enough to cause the reader to wonder whether the character is a man or woman should be avoided. Generally speaking. If no other name will do, make it immediately clear that the character is male or female.
Don’t go on for pages without settling the issue. Don’t go on for a paragraph. In fact, don’t go three sentences without nailing this down. Any initial misperception on the reader’s part means that reader will later have to reorient himself to the character. The more important the character—and the longer his or her gender remains uncertain—the more radical the reorientation. Wooing the reader is a courtship of sorts, and you don’t want to wind up playing The Crying Game.
Exceptions would be those rare situations in which you want to conceal (or render uncertain) the sex of a particular character, or present them as androgynous. More often, but still uncommonly, you’d want to actively mislead/deceive by having the character in question introduce him/herself with a name strongly associated with the opposite sex.
It is nearly always a mistake to name a character after a well-known person (real or fictional). There are several reasons for this: it’s distracting, it makes the reader think about the famous person instead of your character, and it might just get you sued. (The practice is, however, extremely common in Indian cinema; not sure that’s relevant but thought I’d mention it just the same.)
And then there are names that have become so strongly associated with particular individuals that it’s difficult for most to read even the first name without immediately thinking of some real or fictional person: Adolf, Napoleon, Neo. Unless you (or your character) want such an association, it’s best to steer clear of it.
The best course is to give your characters names you’ve not seen elsewhere. This will help ensure that they are free of outside associations in the minds of your readers. (After all, not all famous people are well-liked.) Ideally, you want to establish strong and memorable characters that are associated with your work, and not with someone else or someone else’s works. What comes to mind when you see the names Frodo, Cinderella, Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa and Harry Potter? That is what you want to happen with the names of your characters.
Exceptions include situations where the character is a fictionalization of an actual historical person. Also those where the fact that the character is named after someone famous is a central issue for that character—a burden, a point of pride, a supposed reincarnation, a deception, a reputation that’s seemingly impossible to live up to, and so on.
CENTRAL CHARACTER NAMED AFTER AUTHOR
I see this one a lot, and have done it myself. For a while there, almost all of my manuscripts and screenplays had heroes named John. We think others won’t notice, but they do—even when only one story has a hero named after the author.
Why is this bad? It’s not, necessarily, but some view it as indulgent or narcissistic, and others as amateurish. Most if not all of our characters contain a bit of their creator, but making the connection this obvious is bound to raise a few eyebrows. My take is this: If you gotta, you gotta—so do it once and get it out of your system.
Legitimate exceptions to this rule include historical characters with the same first or full name as your own—in which case you might want to consider using a pseudonym to avoid mistaken impressions, particularly if the full name is identical to yours.
Also keep in mind that much of the above applies to place names as well. There are places where streets named (for example) Victory Boulevard, Victory Road, and Victory Place all come together, but unless you’re looking to mislead the reader or—more likely—one of your characters, keep such places out of your fiction.
When it comes to naming your characters, avoid confusion, uncertainty, and awkwardness. Strive for clarity at least—and, at best, something distinctive, unique, and memorable.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
all rights reserved