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November 25, 2011 / benrovik

Keeping Names Straight

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Ever read a book– especially a sprawling fantasy epic, or a sweeping space opera– where you just can’t keep the names straight?  I’ve definitely had trouble remembering exactly who’s who in, say, David Weber‘s Honor Harrington books.  Partly my fault, of course, because I have a bad habit of binging on a series for a few weeks and then spending many months reading/doing other things before coming back to it.

“Ensign Luddsby St. Michaels… wasn’t that the secondary character in that short story outside the main plot line set a dozen years before this book who had lunch with the Marquis de Lubbdsy that one time, with the intrigue and the fighting?”

When you write big books, there’s no way to keep from having loads of characters.  I’ve been putting into practice a tip from a professor about a straightforward way for writers to help their readers keep track of who’s who.

For the Mechanized Wizardry books, every time I introduce a new character, I make a note of what letter of the alphabet his/her name starts with.  The next time I create a character, I switch off to another letter.  And so on and so on, marking each new entry in a little database.

So now, more than a hundred thousand words into the story, when it’s time for a new character, I can go right to that database and see that, for example, while I have four characters whose names start with an “M,” there’s only one who starts with a “J,” and he’s been out of the picture since part one!

So why add a fifth “M” name when it’s just as easy for me to make up a “J” one?

The idea is that characters whose names start with different letters are less likely to get jumbled up in a reader’s mind, making the story that much easier to get immersed in.

If, as the series gets bulkier, and it’s ever harder to spread the love through the alphabet, maybe I’ll start giving all my characters distinctive hats too.  You may not know the difference between Llangia and Llamina right away, but I bet you’ll remember the one with the ten-gallon hat.

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  1. Danielle Heath / Nov 25 2011 11:03 pm

    Great advice, and something I do, too.

    I also try to make sure the names don’t sound similar. I try not to have Bill and Will or Amy and Jamie in the same piece because it just confuses things (even for me). It’s also useful to keep some of the names fairly simple. There’s nothing wrong with having uniquely-named characters, but too many unpronounceable names is overwhelming.


    • benrovik / Nov 25 2011 11:30 pm

      Totally! I can only take reading a name like “Tkk’b’qznit” so many times before I lose interest in the crustacean princess and the men who love her.

      Making sure names sound distinct is a great tip too. Thanks!

  2. Sonia Lal / Nov 25 2011 11:08 pm

    That’s actually a pretty good idea. Not that I am writing anything that big, but for the future, in case I do write a large sprawling fantasy.

    • benrovik / Nov 26 2011 12:27 am

      It might happen! I first got the tip when writing plays, so it can be useful in other, shorter genres too. Thanks for visiting!

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