Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Margaret, Maggie, Marge and Meg: problems with names and how to avoid them

Names are identifiers. We're called John and Jane to tell us apart. Still, we're still reduced to saying, Jim, the guy who fixes our car, not Jim who's in Sales or having to say John the guy I golf with, not Jon my brother. If it's confusing in real life, how much more confusing is it going to be in your novel if you don't identify your characters clearly?

You'd think authors would naturally be aware that similar names might confuse their readers. Not so: I read a novel where the author gave me a Jenny, a Janey and a Janine. I kept breaking away to remind myself who was who. And a reader who pulls away from a story is bad news for the author, who ought to want to keep the reader gripped. That's why you should take care to have the names you choose look and sound different from each other. Jenny, Janey and Janine look too much alike. So do Fred, Ted, and Jed. Think about how every name will look on the page. What will it look like if Johnny and Ronny and Tommy and Bonnie are sitting around the dinner table? It will look like the author needs to read this article.

Names that look too much alike also tend sound too much alike, so those readers who 'hear' words will be doubly irritated. For instance, Anne and Patty and Janet all share a vowel. This makes them flat and repetitive, too much like sheep baaing through the novel. To create texture, contrast your sounds. For instance, if you have a few names with 'a' sounds, like Anne and Patty, create contrast with some closed 'i' and 'oo' sounds: Lucy or Kim or Tootsie. Look at all your names to see if you've left out any vowels you could usefully add to the spectrum. If you have a Patty, an Ellen, a Kim, even an Eunice, but no name that contains a broad 'o', why not name your next character Toby, Jobe, or Lorna? By doing so, you'll be giving this and the other characters a strong identity. No reader is going to confuse Kim and Lorna.

It's not just the look and sound of the names you have to consider, but also their rhythms. You could name your characters Ted, John, Frank, Jane, and Ann, but we would start feeling like we were being hit over the head with a hammer.

"Where?" asked Ted.
"That way," said John.
"Why?" asked Frank.
"Because," said Jane.
"Really?" asked Ann.
"Yes," said Ted.

By choosing instead Ted, Francis, Jonathan, Jane and Anna, you will instantly be able to construct more fluid, musical prose:

"Where?" asked Ted.
"That way," said Jonathan.
"Why?" asked Francis.
"Because," said Jane.
"Really?" asked Anna.
"Yes," said Ted.

Since your readers are going to see these names over and over through your book, make sure it's a pleasant experience.

Names come with psychological baggage. We react differently to Hepzibah and Kate, as do we to Jake and Armand. We can't help having opinions about names. We probably have an instant mental image of a Shari-Lynne, not to mention a Chudleigh. If you name a character across the grain of what we expect, you 'd better have a good reason for doing so. We all know that a boy named Sue is going to have a rough life, so if you have a character with a name that should give them grief and it doesn't, like Hepzibah, we'll wonder where your understanding of human nature has gone. A girl called Hepzibah might well hate her parents. A girl called Kate probably won't. Again, if Hepzibah is a cheerleader and Kate is a gypsy, we'll wonder where your common sense has gone: these names just aren't "right" for the people they are attached to.

We often assume, rightly or wrongly, that names tell us something about their bearers. If you want to portray a charming, sunny, ordinary girl, you won't call her Protasia. If you want to convey that your male protagonist is 'all man', you won't call him Algernon. If a character is plain-spoken, give her a plain name: Pam, Joan. If your male character is sweet and shy, we'll be more comfortable with Timothy than with Steve, and so will he. Bertha tells us something about an older woman's background and social class. When she calls her daughter Lavender, we know a lot more about her at once.

Unfamiliar names should only be used when there's something different about the character and/or her background. Ordinary people tend not to give their children eccentric names like Moon Unit. The man who replaces your hot water tank might be called Jerry or Daniel, but you'd be surprised if he were called Blenkinshop or Gwilim. You'd want to know why; there must a story behind it. In your novel, there'd better be, or why did you give him that name in the first place? If you don't actually want to create that complexity, don't give him an unusual name. There's no point. Only beginners think that characters become more complex and interesting if they're given interesting names. Unusual names have to have compelling reasons for existing. If you want your characters to be extraordinary, don't give them extraordinary names, make them do extraordinary things. Call your girl scout leader Sandy, not Alexandrina. If she decides to call herself Alexandrina, we will know something (interesting) about her. If you decide to call her Alexandrina for no apparent reason, we'll know something (unflattering) about you.

If you're writing historical fiction, your names should be historically accurate. You won't find a Cindy in any 16th century document, but you might find a woman called Giles or a man called Ann (e.g. the famous French soldier). Names have their fashions. If you're setting a story before the present day, you should make it your business to know what was in vogue and what was not. When were Betty and Gertrude popular and when did they fall from favour? When did Arthur and Herbert leave the Top 40, when did Jake and Daniel enter it? If you have a character in the 1880s with a 1990s name, it will look as if you don't know what you're doing–and you don't.

In the same way, communities and groups have special names that you must be aware of if you are not part of those communities (and certainly if you are). African Americans, for instance, favour both traditional names, such as Washington, William and Alice, and also newly-created ones, such as DeeVine and African ones, such as Keshala. They are fully aware of the significance of these names, and so should you be, especially if you are not a member of that community. Chinese Americans and Jewish Americans sometimes seek translations or similar versions of their Chinese or Hebrew names. An Italian-American, baptised Giovanni, calling himself Giovanni means one thing, calling himself Johnny means quite another.

Names themselves have intrinsic meanings. Margaret means 'pearl', Stephen means 'crown'. The reader doesn't have to know the meaning, nor do you, but if you learn those meanings, you can subtly enrich your story by choosing names that are a commentary or secret clue to the action. For instance, in my first novel I have a woman called Pascale, the feminised French word for Easter. In the novel she redeems several other characters. Nobody needs to know this to understand the story, but it's a satisfying bit of under-story that will please those readers who know what "pascal" means. It underlines the theme.

Once you are alive to the rich complexity and subtlety of names, you can use them to add layers of meaning. My example of 'Pascale' is one way. There are other ways, such contrasting names, echoing names, and changing names.

Contrasting is just that, using names with different looks, sounds, and 'feels', such as Bertha and Lavender, or Jake and Fontleroy, to engender certain emotions in the reader. We'll dislike one and like the other, feel comfortable with one and uncomfortable with the other. Let the names you choose do some of the work for you. You're already at first base if you give your straightforward guy 'Jake' and your stuck-up snob 'Fontleroy.'' You can contrast characters not only against each other (we'll like Lavender, we won't like Bertha) but against us: if Selwyn and Mike are both under suspicion in a murder mystery, who are we going to suspect? We can believe that a Selwyn is creepy, but it will take us longer to distrust a Mike.

Echoing names is to use two similar names, Meg and Maggie for instance, or Janey and Jenny, or Tim and Tom, to suggest that these two characters have a connection of some sort. Perhaps Meg is the daughter Maggie gave up for adoption, perhaps Janey is a creepy psychopath who wants to absorb Jenny's identity, perhaps Tim and Tom are boyhood friends who love the fact that they almost share a name.

Changing names can indicate changes inside a character. A plain-spoken woman called Pamela would prefer the nickname Pam. Or a Jimmy, wanting to be taken seriously, starts using Jim or James. That creepy psychopath starts out as Joan, then, after she meets Jenny, she changes it first to Jane, then Janey. Tim and Tom might have been boyhood friends, but as they grow up Tim wants his own identity, wants to break free of old patterns and habits. He insists on being called Timothy. Tom is hurt, and the story begins.

Names are powerful tools. Use them correctly, and they'll invisibly support your story, enhancing and underlining your narrative. Of course, if you want your readers to laugh, get Johnny, Ronny, Tommy and Bonnie around that dinner table...