This week I read an interesting post the importance of choosing the right names for fictional characters. One of the points the post made was that authors should avoid doing anything that might bring a reader out of the story, including having names that sound alike.
I first ran into this specific problem when I was about to publish my first book, Maids of Misfortune. Most of you know the story by now: I published this book thirty years after I came up with the plot and twenty years after I wrote the first draft so, as you might imagine, I had grown very fond of the character names I had chosen.
Then one of my beta readers pointed out that two of my main characters, my main protagonist, Annie Fuller, and Annie’s maid, who I had named Maggie, had names that ended in “ie,” and she found this to be confusing.
Well, that was a blow! I certainly wasn’t going to change Annie’s name, so the name Maggie had to go. As the writer, I may have believed that no one could possibly mix up the two characters, but as a reader, I could understand how someone who was being introduced to both characters for the first time could mix them up. So, I decided to turn Maggie into Kathleen (another good Irish name and a salute to Kathy, the reader who had pointed this problem out.) Six years later, I can’t imagine the character Kathleen being named anything else.
A second problem in similar names unfortunately slipped through. In Maids of Misfortune I introduced Mr. Harvey (one of Annie’s boarders) and Mr. Harper (one of Madam Sibyl’s clients) and I keep forgetting which is which when these characters reappear in my later books and stories—so I can imagine how difficult it might be for a reader to keep them straight. Since then, I have started keeping a list of characters names as I create them, changing them ruthlessly if I discover I have inadvertently created a name that is too similar to another.
A second issue is how to treat minor characters names in general. Since a minor character is often on the stage for a short time, I have discovered that I need to be very efficient in making that character memorable. For example, in any given book or short story in the series, the older seamstresses in Annie’s boarding house may not even have a speaking part, or they may only get to say a line or two (which is one of the reasons I finally gave them a whole short story of their own.) Here a name can do that. Miss Millie and Miss Minnie Moffet are hard to forget, because of their names. I also try to choose names that reflect a character’s ethnicity. I don’t have to keep reminding the reader that Beatrice O’Rourke is Irish because her name is the reminder. Interestingly, in 1880, over 74% of San Francisco residents in 1880 were either foreign-born or the native-born children of the foreign-born (from a variety of countries), so it is easy to create different kinds of names.
On the other hand, sometimes I leave a minor character nameless. There is no reason to force the reader to keep a name in their head if the character is never, ever going to appear again. Usually a descriptor like “errand boy,” “other teacher,” “policeman” is sufficient.
At the same time, I don’t want to get into the “unnamed ensign” habit (remember those early Star Treks, when one just knew that a crew member without a name was going to get killed on the next mission.) Giving names to enough minor characters makes it less obvious which of them might turn out to be important later on in the plot and which are really bit players.
Finally, there are the characters who simply announce themselves to me. This happens all the time. Beatrice O’Rourke’s name was just there from the moment I conceived of her over twenty-five years ago as Annie Fuller’s Irish cook and housekeeper. Then there was the occasion when I gave one very minor character in Maids of Misfortune (who had been one of those unnamed minor characters) a speaking part in my last major rewrite. When Annie ushered him into a room, he bowed and said, “I am Ambrose Wellsnap.” And there he was—fully formed, from my imagination to the page, and I wouldn’t have dared give him any other name. It’s a very silly name, and he is a pretty silly character. But I would swear he was the one who picked it, not I!
In Uneasy Spirits, it was the two spiritualists, Simon and Arabella Frampton, whose names just came, without any conscious thought, into my head. And in Bloody Lessons, it was Able Cranston, Nate Dawson’s new law partner. I can look back and speculate that I chose the name “Able” because I wanted the new law partner to be someone who Nate would look up to and learn from (who knows why his last name was Cranston?) But the choice itself was not conscious, nor can I imagine ever changing his name the way I did poor Kathleen’s. He was much too forceful a personality from the start, even though he only shows up in one scene. Then again, Kathleen is now such a real person to me now that I know she won’t ever let me change her name again (at least until Peter McGee gets her to tie the knot.)
Oh, and that reminds me of another problem––what to do with Annie Fuller’s name if (or when) she marries Nate Dawson. But I suspect that is a subject for a whole other post.
So, for the other authors reading this: How do you choose names for your characters? And readers, how important are names to you and do you have any kinds of character names that bug you—and take you out of the story?