Naming Characters? Be kind to your readers

Characters need less and less detail as they have smaller roles

Not long ago I was concerned that I might not be able to fulfill my New Years’ Resolution of reading 21 books in 2021. One of the reasons for this was the relatively large number of books I did not finish due to problems with the writing that squashed the joy of reading. Surprisingly, when I shifted genres from cozy mysteries to YA fantasy, I found the reading more satisfying. Since I enjoy both genres (and many others), I believe it was just coincidence.

I am pleased to report that I exceeded my goal with ease and am still reading voraciously. I stumbled on boxed sets of delightful young adult books. The plots were entertaining, and the writing was good—not excellent, but good. The first set had nine books, and I read and enjoyed them all.

The second was also a set of nine, written as three trilogies. I read the first two trilogies, but the third did not hold my attention. I did not find the characters as interesting. The third box set had eight books, and I read them all because I liked the characters and the story held my interest. The writing was not consistent. In the last book or two all the characters began smirking—sometimes several times on a single page. Ugh! The characters lost a lot of their individuality and their dialogue became almost indistinguishable as the snarky humor spread to infect them all.

As a writer and editor, I cannot read without picking up on the things that bother me. I read for the joy of reading, but also to learn what I can about the craft. Like many readers, I read quickly and often take shortcuts. One of these shortcuts is not storing the names of tertiary characters. I have enough trouble remembering the names of real people I speak to regularly. I don’t have the bandwidth to remember characters who walk across the stage in one or two chapters of a novel.

1. If you must name two secondary or tertiary characters with names that begin with the same letter, please make the names markedly different in length. The outline or picture of the name should be distinct—especially with names that are not familiar. Don’t make the reader read every letter before recognizing the character.

2. You do not have to name every person who appears in the work—especially in a nine-volume boxed set. Some characters can be identified by a physical characteristic or a title, etc. One rule of thumb that might be useful is to remember that characters who do not have character arcs seldom need names,

3. Please do not introduce too many characters at once. I must work hard to remember names of real people I meet at a gathering—I don’t want to have to work hard to read a book.

4. Please don’t change things mid-stream. The latest book I read switched from last names to first names as the relationships became less formal. It was fine for the major characters, but the secondary characters never sorted themselves out in my head. Remember that you the writer have been living with these characters far longer than I have. I live with your characters for a few hours whereas you have been living with them for weeks, months, or even years. The intimate backgrounds that you construct as you write give the characters depth, but I don’t have access to your character sheets.

5. My final suggestion is to make sure you do make character sheets. If a character, no matter how minor, has been named, for goodness sake, please keep the same name with the same spelling throughout the entire book or series. The same is true, of course, for eye color, mannerisms, or other traits that make them unique. Anything else tells the reader you are not taking your craft seriously.

If you want to find some interesting short pieces, author interviews, or other tips for writers, you can sign up for the free newsletter published semi-monthly by three writing women.

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
― Stephen King

About dhallaj

Founder of S & H Publishing, Inc. and author of four novels, Dixiane holds a PhD in Literacy and Adult Learning from George Mason University. She lives in rural Northern Virginia with her husband of 55 years and her cat named Dog.
This entry was posted in backstory, Character tip, Dialogue, editing, Writing Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Naming Characters? Be kind to your readers

  1. It’s very useful for me to learn to write. Thank you for sharing useful knowledge.


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