A Rose by any other name… better not be Rosa

Let’s talk about names. Character names. Why? Because I need a new blog post here and I’ve got the flu and feel like I got hit by a truck and then it backed up and ran over me a few more times to make sure it didn’t miss anything. Not to mention that pesky 102.4 degree fever I can’t seem to shake. And names are an easy topic.

Names are not like other words. They’re nouns, but they don’t (usually) have meaning. When I’m reading, I use them as visual placeholders. If someone names a character “Terpsqwillicent,” the first time I see it I’m going to actually read it and try to sound it out. I’m also going to spend a moment sincerely hoping that writer is never put in charge of naming real human beings. Or family pets. But after that, every time I see the name, my brain is going to see it as “character with the long T-name.” No, I’m not actually going to think “character with the long T-name.” I’m just going to recognize it for its shape and length. Not a problem. Unless there’s another character named “Tarpsqualdiment.” That would be bad.

The problem of too-similar names is a longstanding yet mild gripe of mine, but a couple books I read this weekend brought it from a low simmer to a boil. Or maybe that was just the fever. Most writers spend a good deal of time thinking up names for their characters. I know I do. But sometimes I’m left wondering just what the hell they were thinking.

One of the books I read had two male protagonists, though one was (slightly) more significant. It was romantic suspense, so they each had a female character who was the romantic interest and with whom they faced danger and resisted/pursued sexual attraction. With admirable courage. One woman was named Olivia and the other Vivienne. Nice names. Original names. All is good.

Except . . . everyone is soon referring to them by their nicknames. Liv and Vivi. I swear, maybe it’s just me — really, it might just be me — but those names are too damn similar. Made worse because the two males are so similar: both macho Delta/Navy types (yes, I know they’re not interchangeable) (probably) (give me a break, I’m sick here), plus they’re brothers, plus they’re all being hunted and tormented by the same terrorist organization.

Even so, at first it was okay. The two couples were in distinctly different locations, doing different things. But as the book came to a climax, these people were in increasingly similar situations. The pace picked up and there was a faster back-and-forth between POV scenes. I totally lost track of which was which. And who was who. LivViviLivVivi became an indistinguishable blur. Granted, this might have had something to do with me being wracked by bouts of bone aching chills or lapsing into fits of fever-induced napping. But I finally gave up trying to keep track and just went on faith that Liv and Vivi were each with the right guy and all would end well. Which it did. Well, one of them, Vivi I think, will apparently have her own book, because things with her were sort of left hanging. And that’s fine.

At the end there was an excerpt from another book. YAY! I like this feature. I was sort of thinking it would be Vivi’s story. Or, you know, Liv’s. Depending. Seemed likely. But no, it was about another woman with a perfectly normal name that was not Vivi/Liv. It appeared she was going to go off and match wits with (and fall head over heels for) some Delta/Navy guy named Mace. I stopped and thought, Whoa. Wait. No, that can’t be right. Her readers are SO not going to be happy about this. Because I could have sworn Mace was the one who just ended up with Liv/Vivi (whichever one was not left hanging).

So I scrolled back and looked. And no, the other guy wasn’t named Mace. He was Zane. To my brain (I did mention the fever, right?), these two names are practically twins. Like this:

Mace = [straight line consonant] – a – [short curvy consonant] – e

Zane = [straight line consonant] – a – [short curvy consonant] – e

Now if the new guy had been named “Rafe” it wouldn’t have been a problem, even though it’s still one of those four-letter macho tough guy names with an a and an e. Why? Because an uppercase R is not at all similar to an M or a Z. And f is taller than c or n. It just has a whole different look. Really. Even without a fever.

Please don’t misunderstand. I enjoyed this book. This is the third one I’ve bought and read by this author and I’ll absolutely read more. I hesitate to name her or the books because I don’t know her and am not sure whether she has a sense of humour and I really don’t want her to think I’m picking on her or being mean. That’s not my intent. [If anyone says bad things about this author in the comments I Will Not Be Pleased.]

Besides, I’ve done worse in my own writing. Someone read a very early draft of the beginning of my ms and asked whether two characters were related. I said, “No, why would you think they are?” She said, “Well, they both have the last name of Johnson.” Sigh. Yeah, most writers (myself included) have to do a search-and-delete for excessive adverbs and their ilk. I also have to do one for excessive use of boring Midwestern surnames.

The other book I read (different author) was a flagrant offender, though on a smaller scale. There was a secondary character named “Kevin.” Toward the end of the book, for no apparent reason I could determine (unless it was to set up a sequel, in which case this is a slightly bigger deal), the heroine and her sister are at a restaurant and Kevin walks in with another guy he introduces as his brother. Keith. Nooo!

Kevin = Ke – [something something] – n

Keith = Ke – [something something] – h

They’re practically the same name! Well, in my head anyway. They had a small conversation and I read it twice (with only one feverish nap in between, I promise) and still have no idea who said what. Then one of them mentioned their sister. Kathy. Okay, her name is totally distinct from the other two in my mind (duh, it ends in y) and I’m not likely to confuse hers with theirs, but it’s just a bit too . . . I don’t know. Cute?  Then again, it was an intentionally cute book and it had spells and magic and so maybe it works.

All I’m saying, dear writer friends, is that when you’re considering what to name your characters, give a bit of thought to how those names “look” when side-by-side with other names. And keep in mind that some of your readers might have the flu. Accompanied by a high fever. Perhaps even delirium. Don’t make it harder on us than it needs to be.

So, am I crazy? Too picky about inconsequential details? Do you ever get thrown out of the story by names that are too similar to each other? Do you ever try to sound out bizarre character names and give thanks the writer isn’t your parent or that you didn’t grow up on the planet Zymphantabrios? Or in Middle-earth?

Does this make any sense at all, or do I need to gargle with warm salt water and go back to bed? Never mind, by the time you read this I’ll have done both.

22 Comments

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22 responses to “A Rose by any other name… better not be Rosa

  1. Read a book once that sounded charming on the surface. A Scotland Yard detective solving a murder mystery. The charm came mostly from the fact that it was written in French by a Frenchman, which I thought would provide a new way of looking at a conventional detective story. Nope. This guy totally phoned it in. Ex., in French you’d refer to a woman as Madam. He translated this word literally into English and had his detective address a woman as Mrs. (Bonjour, Mrs.! Qui a tue votre mari?)
    But the point I’m meandering toward is that in the last chapter or so he introduced a character and then two pages later changed the character’s name. (From Peter to Paul or something like that.) No, it wasn’t a different character — from the context it was clearly the guy we’d just met in the hallway in the previous scene.
    Moral: some publishers are too cheap to spring for an editor. And some writers have no shame.

    p.s. Feel better. That is an order. If you don’t, I’ll send marmots bearing Frankincense, Myrrh and Orange Juice.

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  2. Geez. Yeah, I’ve read books like that too. This whole Liv/Vivi thing had me wondering whether the copy editors were paying less or more attention than I was. Could have been either.

    If you’re intrigued by things written authentically in French, I have a book rec for you. Even though it’s not written in French. Hang on, let me go find it…

    Here: THE SPYMASTER’S LADY, by Joanna Bourne

    Even though it’s written in English, the characters who are French speak and think with the rhythm and sentence structure (what is that, syntax?) as if they were native speakers of French. And the English characters sound English. Truly remarkable. I’ve never read anything like it. Plus it’s a good story. I’ve been meaning to do a post of “books I read in 2010 and LOVED” and that one will be on the list.

    p.s. I think I’m somewhat better today. Temp is down a degree or so and I’m thinking food might be something I want to try again one day soon (haven’t had an upset stomach, just not interested in eating).

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  3. McB

    Poor baby. Hope you are on the mend.

    Yep, I’ve read similar books. One thing that bothers me is when they pair names that do not roll off the tongue well together. You can’t have one name end in a soft consonant and the next begin with a soft consonant. Or vowels, or whatever. Think about it: would Romeo and Ophelia have appealed to ya? Nick and Kathy? Sampson and Nancy?

    Oh, this should help you feel better: WHITE COLLAR IS BACK ON TONIGHT!

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  4. me

    Names that are similar don’t bother me too much, although there was one book a year or so ago that had a Karl and a Carl and caused temporary confusion (I didn’t hate it, it just took a minute). On the other hand, my current lanquishing ms has two Bobs, a couple who is always seen together and referred to (depending on who is speaking) as “The Bobs,” Bob One and Bob Two,” or “Bob G. and Bob W.” I did it on purpose, and I like it, but I am still deciding whether or not it is too cutsey/confusing.

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  5. McB, I’ve never thought of names that way. But you’re right, they sound odd together. [mentally checking the names in my ms — nope, I think I’m good on that] Do I have to admit that I don’t like WHITE COLLAR? I know, I’m in the minority. Something about the guy’s smirk is just too smug and self-satisfied…

    ME, I don’t think Carl and Karl would confuse me (though I would roll my eyes at it), because even though they sound the same, they look different. I don’t really pronounce names when I read them. I just “see” them. And having read some of your work, I think the two Bob’s thing might be very funny. I don’t think just anyone could pull it off, but you write with a very wry sarcasm (that I love) and I think you could make it work. Quit languishing and finish it!

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  6. :pouts:

    I can’t believe no one commented on my Pink Floyd reference.

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  7. KdotLdot

    I have two examples of pet peeves that fit this blog. The first one is by Jayne Ann Krentz, who tends to like unique names. In one of her historicals she named the character Iphiginia. I can’t even pronounce it. It kept kicking me out of the story. If you must use a strange name, at least make it pronouncible.

    The other one was where two secondary characters were named so similarly, that at one point they got switched. Honest to God. In Linda Howard’s MacKenzie series, Zane’s book, the female lead’s dad was Ambassador Lovejoy. His scenes were with Admiral Lindley. At one point in their scene they became Ambassador Lindley and Admiral Lovejoy. Talk about confusing. I actually penned the correct names in the book. I never mark up books, but this time I did.

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  8. Wow. I think I know how to pronounce it, but Iphiginia is just an ugly-looking name. Not a very nice thing to do to a character.

    And yes, KL, that second example is exactly what I’m talking about. Only you’re much more observant than I am. I never would have noticed she’d switched them because all I would have seen was a character named: A_____ L_____ The fact that there were TWO OF THEM that looked like that in the same book would have made me insane. More insane.

    Hmmm. Now I’m wondering whether I read that book (I like Linda Howard) (I like JAK too) and never noticed.

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  9. McB

    Kdot – I know I read that one but can’t recall that exact reference. But I have encountered the name mix up before. And names should not be so odd that you are thrown out of the story while you try to figure it out.

    Me – ah see deliberately having two bobs (like thing 1 and thing 2) is entirely different. Yes, stop languishing. That’s so yesterday’s heroine.

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  10. McB

    Meant to say that I’ve read J Bourne and enjoyed her stuff. Can’t remember if it was that exact book, but it’s a series, right?

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  11. orangehands

    Oh heck yes.

    Also, one name that is perfectly regular that I have enormous trouble with is Sean. I bounce between “seeing” the name (which sometimes means I recognize the name so the name is really a name, and sometimes means I’m just skimming the name and so just see the letter combination, like you described above) and “reading” the name. For me*, Sean, when seen, reads as ‘seen’/rhymes with ‘seam’; Sean, when read, is pronounced as ‘Shawn’. So whenever that name appears in books spelled S-E-A-N, there is always at least once I will be thrown out as my mind tries to calibrate the Seam/Shawn dilemma. (But that’s my personal problem and not something a writer can fix, unlike having two characters named Marie and Maria.)

    Me: Just keep the Office Space references to a minimum. 🙂 I can see how it would work and be funny, but if I’m skimming the names as opposed to reading them, it could be annoying.

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  12. Yes, McB, there are two more! I didn’t realize it until I went to Amazon to find the link for Merry. I read the first one before the others were listed there. (I think the first two were originally pubbed in 2008, but maybe not on Kindle until last year.) Not sure whether it’s a true series, but they definitely sound like the same period in history. I downloaded the free sample of both so I won’t forget about them. Trying very hard not to indulge in any more distractions right now…

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  13. OH, one of my nephews is named Sean (pronounced shawn) so I don’t have trouble with that one. But there are others. Many others. And of course I can’t remember any of them right now. My mind has blocked them.

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  14. cbpen

    Sorry, OH. My son’s name is Seannan. Shawn-nan. It’s an old Irish family name means little John. And, boy, did he (probably still does) have probs w/ it in school. Once was partnered in a locker with a girl. Once was scheduled for a girl’s gym class. You should hear people butcher it. They know how to pronounce Sean Connery, but this??? Sea-Ann-Ann…that’ s what one of his teachers ALWAYS said and he had him nearly every day of HS. We called him Mac at home (that was the deal…I got Seannan if his dad got Mac.) And when he started K, they asked him if he wanted to be Mac or Seannan (I wasn’t even there) and he picked it. And was stuck with it.
    As far as characters go, I try to pick names that are a little unusual but not unpronounceable. Every time I use a fairly common name, I get accused of writing about someone in particular. No, I’m not. Not unless I say I am. And even then, it usually ends up not so much them anyway. 🙂

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  15. Okay, Pen, I’ve got to admit, I would not have pronounced that correctly. Looks like it should rhyme with Rhiannan. But I wouldn’t have any trouble at all if it were a name in a book. Well, unless there was another character named Shannan.

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  16. cbpen

    That’s prob bcause they both are ^rish for little John. 🙂

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  17. Either of which is preferable to being named Mary, like your sister and your mother and your grandmother, and … sorry, was I grinding my teeth that loudly? I’ll try to do it softer.

    I did have one (brief) moment of satisfaction re the naming thing. I persuaded my sister to go back to college and get her degree, twenty years after she dropped out. Whilst I was in grad school and my big sister was finishing up her B.A., we ended up taking a class together. We sat next to each other. The poor teacher would call on one of us, “Mary?” In unison, we would both answer, “yes?”

    Not sure the poor man ever recovered from us. Last I saw, he was looking very pale and wan.

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  18. cbpen

    Well, at least the gaelic has different versions…old man named John? Okay, Seannan, Shannon, Ian, Ewan, Eoan…all named after Da! 🙂

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  19. cbpen

    I should have said Shane and Sean too….

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  20. Merry, I’ve heard you mention that before and I just can not imagine having a sister with THE SAME NAME. Did everyone always call you by your first two names? Mary Frances or Mary Catherine or Mary Hey You? I guess in your case it was Mary Merry.

    Pen, are you saying ALL those names mean John? Wow. I did not know that. I take back what I said about names not (usually) having any meaning. So… the name “John” to the Irish (& Scottish?) is sort of like the word “snow” to the Inuit. This is starting to feel like one of those convoluted multiple-choice SAT questions. Better quit while I’m ahead.

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  21. cbpen

    That’s what all my baby name books always said. Maybe they are all different dialects of gaelic. Or, maybe some of them come from older versions…one of my sources said Seannan was old gaelic for Shannon (which would mean Sean is old gaelic for Shane.) I am pretty sure from looking at it that Eoan is old gaelic for Ian. Anyway, this is all part of my weird trivial brain…get the dumbest things stuck in there and important things phffft away. 🙂

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  22. GatorPerson

    I have all of Bourne’s books that are available for the Kindle. Love her stuff.

    I also agree about the names looking alike. Too confusing. After I’ve finished a book, I probably can’t say what the names were because I just go by the way they look on the page.

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