Rule 37: Use names that don’t confuse your reader

You’ll notice that I have skipped ahead from Rule 0.  Like NCIS Special Agent Gibbs, I won’t dole these rules out in numerical order. The numbering should reflect the rule’s overall importance, I guess.

I was reminded of this rule when I was rereading Senator and I noticed that I had one character named Danny and another character named Denny.  Why did I do that?  Danny is a major character — the Senator’s brother; Denny is a staffer who appears in a couple of minor scenes.  The chance that the reader will be confused is slim; but still, that’s the sort of thing a writer should avoid.

You don’t want to risk confusion with last names either.  A rule of thumb is to avoid having two characters whose last name starts with the same letter: Maloney and Mackey, for example.  That’s hard to manage in a novel with a large cast, but you can vary the number of syllables and the vowel sounds: Maloney and Meade, let’s say.

Another subrule is to be careful if you refer to a character in a lot of different ways: Katherine and Kate and Mrs. O’Connor, for example.  You sometimes need to do that in dialog or when you’re using multiple points of view, but it can be troublesome for the reader.  Think of those Russian novels where a character is Vladimir Vladimirovich in one scene and Volodya in the next; this problem crops up in Summit.

A couple of related rules, which don’t merit a number:

Don’t end a character’s name with an “s” — this gets awkward if you have to use the possessive.  Senator O’Connor’s ex-law partner is named Roger Simmons.  Again, why did I do that?  Now I have to write a phrase like “Simmons’s wife,” which sounds awful, or recast the sentence to avoid the possessive.  In this case, it’s a first person narrative, so the senator always refers to him as “Roger,” which mitigates the damage.

Don’t use an ethnic name unless the ethnic identity is part of the characterization. The reader is going to expect that. The police lieutenant in Pontiff is named Kathleen Morelli.  The fact that she has an Irish first name and an Italian last name has some significance to who she is, and I have to draw that out at some point in the novel.  Senator Jim O’Connor’s Irishness is a part of his identity, although I think the publisher made too much of it with the bleeding shamrock on the book’s cover.

A big problem with names (at least for me) is that a character’s name quickly become deeply entwined in his or her characterization, and if I finally notice a problem — like the final “s” in Roger’s name — it’s hard for me to do anything about it.  He just feels too much like a “Simmons” to me.  Which is odd, because “Roger Simmons” is an utterly bland name.  It’s not like Pecksniff or Gradgrind or a hundred others out of Dickens.  Of course, Roger Simmons is an utterly bland character compared to anyone in a Dickens novel.  But he’s my character, and that’s his name.

6 thoughts on “Rule 37: Use names that don’t confuse your reader

  1. Don’t even get us started on how to do possessives of names ending in s. I’ve tried, and failed, to be consistent across mutiple books. One guide I looked at said “use ‘s for everything” and be done with it. Another–I think it was the Chicago Manual of Style–said “use ‘s except when the final s sound like a z, and then just use an apostrophe.” It’s enough to make a writer crazy. So you have your Simmons and I have my Antares, and we both wonder why we did it. Like you, I find it hard to change a name once it’s stuck on a character.


    • Ahem, Jeff. It’s easy to change a character’s name. You click on “edit” and scroll down to “find and replace”. And then, you know, you just … do it. And you try to ignore the tiny, high-pitched, screaming noise from your computer that goes on and on, for about, oh, 250,000 words. . .


  2. Pingback: Rules for writing — Rule 3: Rewrite | richard bowker

  3. Pingback: Should a character’s name mean something? | richard bowker

  4. @ MaryA: Ah, the “global search and replace” trick! Sometimes, that has problems of its own. Consider, for example, changing a character’s name from Samantha Alica Pomeroy to Matilda Olave Madison and inadvertently generating in the following line, “Her legal name was Matilda Olave Madison, but we all called her ‘SAP’ for short.”


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