I’ve just set out on the mission to rewrite #rockstarnovel, and in comparing names in the full first draft to some changes I made in the partial (unsuccessful, abandoned) rewrite draft I attempted, I’m wondering what I was thinking.
Two names got changed literally because the originals weren’t conducive to creating a memorable or useful ship name. No, that’s not vanity on my part as an author, hoping for fandom shipping. The characters are rock stars, and at one point they do something eminently shippable on stage. Social media goes nuts over it, thus, they need a good ship name.
But then, I changed another band member’s name, for no apparent reason, while leaving the other three of the principal cast untouched.
And even more strangely, if I changed the name to avoid having two characters start with the same letter of the alphabet, when I changed the name it still started with the same letter as another character’s name? Neither pair are so similar I think it would be confusing to a reader, but I still try to avoid that most of the time.
Name frustration in my reading doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it drives me batty. In a series of several romance novels I read, several main characters had incredibly similar names, to the point where I would legitimately confuse them. There was a Piper, and a Tyler, and they were different genders so that wasn’t so bad. But then came Tucker, who was friends with Tyler, and they were both men. Can I be blamed for getting T—er and T–er confused as I read? I don’t think so.
So that author had a preference for -er names that stuck out, but it’s more common that I get inundated with names that begin with the same letter, or sound too similar when spoken. In What We Need to Survive, the character Mark was actually named “Will” for a while, but in reading it out loud to myself during the editing stages, I thought it sounded too much like the main character’s name, Paul. Two male four-letter names that end with “L.” So I changed it. (Actually an astute reader pointed out to me that in the first paperbacks, I missed a single instance of that name change, and he was like, “Wait, who’s Will?” I fixed it the same day.)
All of this leads to my rough (and adaptable) hierarchy for choosing names that won’t confuse your readers.
1. If you’re writing fantasy in any form, you might be making up a lot of your names to suit your world and any language you might or might not be constructing to go with it. Either you’re putting in the work on your own, or you’re helping yourself out with name generators. Good luck, and feel free to ignore any of the rest of this list that doesn’t apply, because I’m concentrating on existing names in the real world.
2. Start with any names that need to have a particular meaning, are in a foreign language to the one you’re writing in, need to match a certain historical period, etc. Put your research in for that as necessary: as an example from my own work, in #spookyromancenovel, my hero is a Japanese-American, and I wanted a good last name that had some relevance to the story, so I chose Ishikawa, because “ishi” means “stone.” And the point of the story is to save him from being transformed by a curse into a gargoyle. Now, I didn’t stretch myself too much to make this too cute–Ishikawa is a reasonably common Japanese surname, and the other half, “kawa” for “river”, isn’t of any particular importance. And his first name, Noah, is one that I randomly chose before I’d even decided on his heritage, and no, it’s not a Biblical reference, it’s just a name I liked enough at the time to pick, and it stuck.
3. Once you’ve got those names chosen, you’ve probably still got some unnamed characters. For the sake of your readers, choose names dissimilar from the ones you’ve already set. If your main character’s name is Bob, don’t name his best friend Ben (same number of letters, same first letter) or Rob (avoid rhyming names!) If your heroine is Melissa, her coworker shouldn’t be Melanie (same first syllable) or Alyssa (not quite rhyming but really close.) Now, to some extent within families, siblings can have similar names if their parents do that to them–I knew a family of nine kids when I was growing up and all of them, boys and girls alike, had “J” names–but if you’re going to do that sort of thing deliberately, then there should be a story reason, and you should still do whatever you can to make those somewhat-similar names distinct from each other in whatever way you can.
4. Yes, in real life, friend groups and sets of coworkers and what not are going to have doubles (or more) of the same name. There were eleven Elizabeths in my freshman class at college, and most of them went by “Liz” and two of them were assigned to each other as roommates, which we all thought was cruel of the housing department. I dated two guys with the same given name in a row, once, though fortunately for me the second one went by a nickname; and that was the same name of my biggest junior-high crush, who I never actually dated. No, I don’t have a thing for men named that, it’s just really common! So if you want to reflect this sort of commonality in your work (which you absolutely don’t have to) you can get around the potential for confusion by having doubles that include an important character and a minor or offscreen one (“Yeah, I’m Brandon, and so is the head of my department at work and the guy who makes me my coffee at Starbucks every morning”) or by having two major characters with the same name go by different nicknames (Cathy or Kate for Catherine, for example–derived from the same source but quite different.) Though if you’re going to do that, you are drawing attention to their names in a way that might seem silly if the story doesn’t require it in some way.
5. One last note: we all have names that, for whatever reason, we don’t like. Either because of some past association with a person of that name, or you don’t like the way it sounds, or whatever. But you can use that to fuel your mood when you’re writing a character you don’t want your readers to like. Not that they’ll have the same association with the name that you do–that’s not likely at all–but the feelings you have in writing a character with a name you find distasteful will (probably) seep into your writing about them, and your audience will pick up on that. So “bad” names aren’t always bad, if you use them to your advantage.
I think that’s everything. I hope that’s everything. It’s a lot, and as always with any writing advice (whether from me or other sources) it might not all apply to your style in general or any given project you’re working on. Absorbing and using writing advice is always a synthesis of what you already do and what you want to try–some of which might not work for you.