I was reading a book recently that inspired this post revisiting my character naming strategies. This book was by a well-known, award-winning author, and is someone I respect. I'm not trying to single her out, because it's a common enough "problem" in books I've read. And for the sake of anonymity, I'm not going to show the names of the characters.
I counted 32 named characters. That gave me 32 first names, but not quite as many last names, because some were related, so they had the same last name. For this post, I'm not separating first or last names. I just put them all in a single list, alphabetized them, and then counted repeats of the same initials.
What I found:
Also, there one character had the same first and last initials as the heroine.
When I was starting out learning the craft, author Jeremiah Healy mentioned creating a simple list (I use Excel, but you can do it on a scrap of paper, or in a word document) with all the letters of the alphabet in 2 columns. Then, when you name a character, you put their first name in one column, their last name in the other. It's easy to see at a glance if you're repeating letters, or if you've got an abundance of 4 letter names, or names that sound alike.
And, Healy also suggested (strongly—if anyone's ever heard him, he's not a soft-spoken man!) that the initials of your protagonist be "dead" for any other characters in the book. Of course, when writing series, this can't always be the case, but it's still something to consider.
For the book in question, there are eleven "unused" letters of the alphabet which the author could have utilized in naming her characters. It might have spared the reader a little confusion, because I think a lot of us look only at the beginning of the names as we're reading through the book.
I checked my spreadsheet for my new Pine Hills Police book. Since it's #3 in a series, and I have recurring characters, it was a little harder to choose unique names, but at least I made a conscious effort to ease the confusion for my readers. Here's my breakdown—again, first and last names are included in the count.
Also, some of these are 'throwaway' names—the ones that appear because there's no logical way not to mention a character's name, but the character may not even appear on the page, or may appear only once. On my spreadsheet, I'll note those in a different color. Likewise, I'll note my protagonists and other major players in their own colors. That way, when I need a name, and I see there's a 'green' one there already, I know it's safe to use that initial again because the other character was mentioned only in passing.
Does my "system" make for a better book? Of course not. But it does, I hope, make things a little easier on my readers.
As far as how to pick the names? That's an entirely different topic! I'll usually start with Google for popular names of the time period. Or I'll open the phone book! The important thing is to make sure the characters sound like their parents named them, not like you did. If I'm creating characters of different ethnicity, I might try to make their names match their heritage, although since we're such a melting pot, I think that might be stereotypes. However, it also might help readers visualize and remember characters. Just something to think about.
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