Friday, June 15, 2012

Should Your Characters Have Distinct Names?

No Name
No Name (Photo credit: Giant Ginkgo)

My novel-in-progress, The Power Club, features a small city full of teenaged characters with super-powers, six of whom belong to a team. Three of those characters are named Damon, Denise, and Danner.

I didn’t set out to create three prominent characters whose named begin with the letter D, but there they are, and in so doing, I’ve violated one of the cardinal rules for writing fiction: Give each character a distinct name.

Distinct names help readers keep your characters straight. They also help you, the writer. I confess that, while writing scenes featuring both characters, I’ve occasionally typed “Danner” instead of “Damon” and vice versa.

Members of my writing group have urged me to change Danner’s name. (Damon, the central character, is probably safe, and Denise is a girl, so she’s not likely to be confused with the other two.)

Yet there are compelling reasons to use similar character names:

  • Similar names reflect reality.  When I was in grade school, my small class included a Gregg, a Ginny and a Jenny, and two Steves. Even into adulthood, similar names abound: My brother and my cousin both married women named Christie. A writers group I joined last year had four members, two of whom were Kristi and Kristie. Even my present writers group includes Dennis and Dave and Kara and Kenand Christine, for another “K” sound. I've lost track of how many teachers I know named Jane.
  • Young fans have no trouble distinguishing rock band members with similar names.  Duran Duran famously had three unrelated members with the last name Taylor (John, Andy, and Roger). Styx featured Dennis DeYoung and James “JY” Young. The British folk rock band Fairport Convention included three Daves (Swarbrick, Pegg, and Mattacks) for several years.
  • Similar names crop up in respected works of fiction. The 1980s TV series Hill Street Blues, which pioneered the format of large ensemble casts, featured police officer Bobby Hill, who worked at the Hill Street police stationa coincidence which added to the cinéma vérité.

Some may point out that works of fiction should not reflect reality to such a degree that character names become distracting. They may also point out that it’s unlikely anyone would confuse a character with a street, and they would be right on both counts.

I’ve considered changing Danner’s name, but he’s such a strong personality whose name suits him. Early in the story we learn he doesn’t like being called “Danny”.  His masculine, adult-sounding name reflects his desire to tower over everyone, literally and figuratively.

Likewise, Damon and Denise are intended to be vivid characters whose personalities and powers leave the reader with no trouble telling them apart.

And the similarity in names provides a subtle touch of reality in a world dominated by an unreal situation, namely kids with powers. To give each character an obviously distinct name would risk coming across as artificial.

So, for now the names stay.

What do you think?  Do your strive to give your characters distinct names?

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Unknown said...

My very first thought upon even seeing the title of your post was Tolkien's Silmarillion. While it does stand as my favorite work by him, when I first read it at the age of 10 or 11, the VERY similar names were extremely confusing.

That being said, similar names for characters, particularly if they are from the same background, makes perfect sense, and provided they are distinct people (as your's seem to be) should cause no issues at all.

In the creation process of my own comic, I have taken the opposite route, with very different (and usually ethnic) names. However in my case the tale and characters hail from all around the world and thus my names make sense in my situation.

I guess the main thing to keep in mind is the setting and backgrounds of the characters in question. I know that in real life I have known at least 8 Jennifers (and am related to 3 of them). I feel your choice in names reflects reality and is a good decision.

Quislet, Esq. said...

I think the similar names are ok if they are somewhat common names, such as the ones you are using.

Picking up on what Viridis said, I find similar names in fantasy stories to take away the enjoyment of the story for me. "Now which one is Pangliosis and which one is Pandelia?" When that happens, I tend to skim over the names, which I don't thinkhelps make the story memorable or enjoyable.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Viridis and Quis.

I hadn't thought about names of fantasy characters being similar. I can see how Pangliosis and Pandelia would be confusing.

Kristin McTiernan said...

I have to be very vigilant with my names. I always end up giving them names that start with A and S, thus confusing my readers. But there does come a point where I have to settle on what "sounds right" for the character, even if it may be similar to another character's name.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Kristin: It's always interesting to analyze the names we select for characters and look for patterns. In some of my past (unpublished) works, the names Pete and Chris come up a lot. They were probably inspired by the confirmation names (Peter and Christopher) of my brother and myself, though the characters were not at all like us!

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