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.