The Name of this Character is Secret

The many pitfalls of naming book characters.

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Readers rarely pay much attention to the names of most book characters. Names tend to fall into the category of necessary detail. But authors have to put a lot of work into making sure those details don’t spoil the whole book.

Naming characters can be great fun. There are just a few little things to watch out for…

Characters with similar names

It’s easy to mix up characters with similar names. Having characters named Judy and Julie in the same book is a recipe for confusion.

Abbreviated names

Sometimes shortened names are absolutely fine. But sometimes they aren’t. This one needs thinking through for two reasons.

If the full name and abbreviated name are not similar enough, readers may think they are two separate characters. 

If the abbreviated name is too similar to another character’s name, readers may think two different characters are the same person.

Names that don’t belong

Many names that are popular now weren’t around hundreds of years ago. A modern name won’t feel right in a historical context. A character from a different geographical region should have a name that would be used there.

Readers expect to come across across a few names they aren’t familiar with. It’s part of the fun.

Hard to pronounce names

There’s a fine line between choosing names that are authentic to a particular geographical region or culture, and choosing names that readers don’t know how to say. Readers need to be able to read the name by sight and not have to work it out every time it crops up.

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Having no name

A character with no name is very mysterious. And really unhelpful. A name is an important part of each character’s identity. And in real life, people have names.

Different parts of the same name

Some characters have titles, like Doctor or Detective. People who don’t know them well will refer to them by their title or last name, or both. But people who do know them well will use their first name. These names have to be particularly memorable. Otherwise readers won’t recognise the character from one scene to the next.

Nicknames need to be handled carefully. There may be one person or group who call a character by a different name. But there must be clear boundaries or things can get messy.

The initials MC

This one has no impact on the reader but it makes life hard for the author. Because the initials MC also stand for main character. So if there’s another character with those initials, we may get confused by our own notes and give an action to the wrong person.

Changed names

This is the cardinal sin of naming characters. Sometimes an author needs to change a character’s name. It’s not a good fit for the personality. Or it’s too similar to another name. That’s fine.

As long as they change it in every place it appears. And check they’ve caught them all. Because a character whose name keeps changing for no reason is really annoying.

See how easy it isn’t?

Ok, so there are quite a few pitfalls for authors naming a character. The next time you read a book where the names cause you no confusion at all, you’ll know the author put a lot of thought into them!

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6 thoughts on “The Name of this Character is Secret

  1. All good points and certainly not disagreeing but will point out that Cormoran Strike in the Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) crime series has a slew of different nicknames used by different characters – at least eight (though not in the same book)! But confusion is avoided because the nicknames are only ever uttered by other characters, never in narrative or as dialogue tags attributed to Strike.

    Liked by 1 person

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