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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Writing tips - Taking the Michael… What’s in a name?

Well, quite a lot, actually. Almost everybody is happy with their name, even proud of it, and won’t take kindly to being ridiculed because of it. Names enable us to be individuals. We don’t take kindly to having our name being taken in vain. has a large selection of this type of book (post-free)

There may be four Michaels in your acquaintance, but they’re all different – even if each one prefers to be called Mike. Prefer – that’s the thing. If one Michael opts for Mick, fine, that’s his choice. If Patricia elects to be called Pat, that’s fine too.
This is in the real world.

However, in the world of fiction, it’s recommended that you don’t use the same name or variants, unless there’s a very valid plot reason. Because similar names have the potential to confuse the reader. Just because you can cope with four Michaels in your life, it’s not necessarily so easy for your readers, as they haven’t got your history of friendship and acquaintance and visual clues to fall back on to avoid confusion.
So, my plea to writers is, make life easy for the reader: one Michael, please. Or John. Or Jane. Or Alice… I’ve read a book with three Toms in its pages, all unrelated.

I know it isn’t easy, believe me. When I started writing short stories, if I was writing about an old chap, he was always called Alfred. (Maybe subconsciously I was thinking of Bruce Wayne’s butler). I quickly realised and changed it; certain names spring to mind at once, and there you go, you’ve got your character christened. Maybe sometimes it would be wise to rethink. Is the name appropriate?
Some names are hard-sounding, and therefore preferable for a villain – or a bold hero. If you’ve got a tough heroine, then try to settle on a name that conveys that toughness too. For example, Rapunzel doesn’t quite do it – indeed, no long name does. One of my heroines is called Tana Standish – so her first name is short, quite hard, and her surname is old and suggestive of high nautical rank. It’s a perception thing, and it may be misguided, but that’s how it works. There's nothing to stop you writing against perceptions, of course, but at least be wary of their existence.

Another name issue to avoid is beginning character names with the same letter. Some names can be so different even though beginning with an ‘S’, for example, that they’ll never be confused by the reader. Fine. But why invite confusion? It isn’t as if there aren’t plenty of alternatives in the world. I’ve got a book of First Names, but recourse to the Internet will produce countless examples, in virtually any nationality. Researching your character’s name can bring up interesting meanings, too.
‘I’ll never understand why Tolkien settled on two villains with the names Sauron and Saruman!’ – Write a Western in 30 Days (p89).
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The final name issue is those names ending in ‘s’ – Jones, Landers etc. Nothing wrong with that, of course. So long as you’re comfortable with the possessive apostrophe.
Modern writing seems to allow Jones’ – that is, with no subsequent apostrophe ‘s’; although it’s preferable to write Jones’s. To some extent it may depend on the publishing house rules. The final arbiter can be Fowler or Strunk and White, of course.

Purists will insist that only Jesus is entitled to not have a possessive ‘s’ – Jesus’ sandals are leather, for example. (See p56, Lynne Truss’ book Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003)
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Whatever your choice, be consistent – and make sure it’s right. Jone’s is wrong, but we all know that.

Then there’s the plural, where there’s more than one in the family – keeping up with the Joneses; no apostrophe, because there’s simply more of them, that’s all. It could be keeping up with the Barnets; same applies.
I maintain a spread-sheet for my Leon Cazador stories (Spanish Eye has 22 of them). To date, that lists 98 different names used in those tales; I try to avoid using the same first letter for characters in the same story, and it enables me to keep track of who appeared when and where, in case any, such as relatives or villains, crop up again.
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And we’ve barely touched upon the meaning of a character’s name. That perhaps is another article, to name but a few still to come.


ChuckTyrell said...

As narrator, you also must make up your mind whether to call the character by his or her last name or first name. First names make the character seem closer to the reader, last names add some distance. Some authors will use first name for protagonist, last name for antagonist. And vice versa. But think about it and make a rational decision.

DW Rob said...

Interesting article, Nik.

I try to marry forenames to the person's age, and sometimes it's hell. Names like Ethel and Muriel are almost never heard of these days, but others, such as Hannah and Chloe are making a comeback.

Neil Waring’s –Western Ramblings said...

Too many characters make reading difficult, but names that sound the same drive me crazy. I have given up on books where two or sometimes three characters have similar names. Good Post.

Nik said...

I agree, Chuck. Fleming used Bond rather than James. Whatever you do, it should be consistent. David, getting the right name for the right age-group is, as you say, important too. Neil, I couldn't agree more - it isn't as if there aren't enough names to go round, after all! Thanks for your feedback, all.

Jack Strandburg said...

Good article. I heavily rely on spreadsheets and I have a "name" sheet with a list of first and last names alphabetized and actually keep track in books and between books on how many names begin with each letter of the alphabet. Don't want too many names beginning with 'J' or last names beginning with 'S' for example.

Nik said...

Thanks, Jack. Those spreadsheets make life easier and the story arcs better!