21 February 2009 - 8:00 pm

Naming: Part 1: Identity

Names matter. They shape our perceptions of a person. They give us a lot of information, most of it unconscious. They also identify characters and make it easier to keep track of who is doing what, where and why. Names do a lot of legwork in our creative work, and so I believe that some attention should be paid to them.

Be kind to readers

Your readers don’t know your characters. The primary purpose of naming is identification and it is important to keep this in mind. Your readers are there to read your story, and the monikers given to characters are markers to help them keep everything straight. You can use the tools laid out in Naming: Part 2 to make the names of your characters do a lot of work, but don’t let them lead you astray.

  • Don’t give a character too many names. If every person that a character encounters calls them by a different name, your reader is going to be very confused about how many people are being talked about. Keep it simple.
  • Don’t refer to a character by more than one or two different names in a single scene. This quickly becomes confusing and makes it difficult to follow who is doing what, where and to whom. This is especially important in very busy scenes, with a lot of action or characters involved. You already have a lot of work to do to help your reader keep up, so don’t make it more work than you have to!
  • Don’t assume that your reader is taking notes. No-one should have to take notes in order to keep up with your story. If it’s possible that your reader might have forgotten that your character changed his or her name three chapters ago, throw in a little reminder of who you’re talking about.
  • Don’t make characters’ name too similar. Understand that readers skim certain words when they read, and how that impacts on your job as a writer guiding them through your story (see below).

Tom and Tim and Tam and who now?

Similar names quickly grow confusing for readers because of the way that the eye skims words when reading. Readers don’t want to have to re-read sections three times just to get straight who is doing what – this is a good way to turn a reader off a story.

Here are the things to watch out for when deciding on names:

  • If the first and last letter are the same, what comes between is immaterial. The eye skims over the middle part, particularly vowels. This is most applicable when the names are the same length, as they make the same ‘shape’ on the page. You can get away with this if the lengths are markedly different, but it is worth checking.
  • Rhyming names. These are easily confused, especially if they are interacting a lot.
  • Same first phoneme. The eye can skim from the first phoneme, effectively missing the latter part of the name. Again, this is particularly the case when the names are of similar lengths.
  • Same initials. Similar to the above point, Jack Martin is easily confused with John Michael.
  • Different versions of the same name. Tom and Thomas may easily be confused with each other. Abbreviations that are markedly different from the full name may avoid this problem (Elizabeth and Betty, for example).
  • Sex is not a barrier. It is possible to get male and female characters muddled up! Don’t think that giving the characters different genders will prevent any of the above from applying. If your response is ‘but a girl wouldn’t do that,’ then your reader is likely to say, ‘that’s why I had to read it twice!’ (The same applies for out-of-character actions.)

These are not hard-and-fast rules, but they are guidelines for what you should keep an eye out for. They apply most strongly when the character names in question are in the same scene, being talked about, or are closely linked. However, the guidelines do still apply even if the characters never meet in the course of the story.

This effect can be counteracted by strong characterisation and careful use of pointers in the text to make things as clear as possible. It is by no means impossible to have Tim and Tom in the same piece, but you should be aware of the confusion that this might cause.


So now you know the pitfalls to avoid, and how to make it easier for your readers to keep track of your characters and the action in your story. But a name can do a lot of work for you – see Naming: Part 2.

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