Friday, December 12, 2008

Alliterative Characters

After years of working in publishing I have decided that it’s a common mistake all writers make. Alliterative characters, character names that all start with the same letter. I don’t think anyone does it on purpose, but instead I think authors get in a rhythm and don’t even realize what they’re doing. Remember, while these characters might seem very distinct to you they aren’t always distinct to your readers, so be very careful that the names don’t sound too close or can too easily confuse.

In other words, while Sara, Samantha, Sasha, and Sally might make really cute names for sisters, imagine how confusing they would be if they were all in the same book. Heck, even as sisters I can imagine the new boyfriend saying, “So which one is Sally?” In other words, it can be difficult for us to distinguish people who have such similar names. However, by giving very distinct names we’ve instantly created very distinct people. Would Sara, Doris, Francine, and Clara stand out more?

In addition to alliterative names, be very careful of names that are too similar to each other. For example, would it confuse you to have both Carl and Cal or Al and Arnold? It might sound easy in the blog, but imagine trying to distinguish them in a book?

While I think it’s perfectly acceptable to have a few characters with alliterative names, be careful that it’s not running to three or four or more. Remember, names are one of your strongest character traits, just ask anyone who grew up in the '80s about the name Heather, or what does Adolf or now Barack represent to you?

Jessica

40 comments:

Yunaleska said...

I've done this a lot in the early versions of my wips. I'm slowly trying to get out of that habit. Sometimes it is necessary, and I try to limit it to one or two.

Thanks for this reminder :)

Aimless Writer said...

I've been guilty of this! Its one of the things I always catch myself doing. I never new there was a name for it though.
:)

Kathleen Peacock said...

I've occasionally had to explain to people that the reason I have one of those 1001 Baby Names books in my study isn't because I'm pregnant but because I'm writing.

Periodically, I flip through it and circle names I like for future use.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

This makes me glad that my three fantasy races have very distinctive naming conventions. I'd have to seriously drop the ball to end up with similar-sounding names in a mixed-race group.

Ann Victor said...

Good tip, thanks, Jessica.

A question: any tips on how an author can make characters unique and yet universal?

I've given my characters very different names and personalities and experiences, but every now and then I deliberately repeat a phrase or action to indicate that, underneath our external differences like skin colour or gender, we are all the same (the bones in a graveyard are indistinguisable except for the gravemarkers).

And LOL to Kathleen's comment about the 1001 Baby Names books! I've had some raised eyebrows too!

Melanie Avila said...

I went through after my first draft and had to change all my male characters. I'd somehow given them all Hispanic names that started with R or A - too confusing!

acpaul said...

I have actually done this one purpose. Sometimes there is a reason why everyone's name starts with a certain letter.

But after that letter, the names are very different. And the letter is obviously tacked on, to make it more clear that the letter stands in for a shortened title.

What's your take on something like that?

H. L. Dyer said...

This name confusion surprised me with my first round of test readers for The Edge of Memory.

After my first round of edits, I had about 50 testers from a chat board community read through. These women were not writers for the most part, but readers (I posted my request on our "Book Club" board).

I had a Eureka moment when several testers mentioned they were confused by two characters "Melanie" and "Mallory."

But what really surprised me was that people also confused two minor characters with alliterative surnames. It didn't strike me that "Paula Reid" and "Eloise Richter" were remotely similar. And yet I had several folks questioning why Mr. Richter had no say in Eloise's decision to move (she's a widow).

It wasn't until someone included a physical description of "Mr. Richter" that I realized the confusion. (And the Richters became the Baxters)

All my characters in my novels have completely different initials now. ;)

beth said...

I just started changing names in my revision. I had (last names): Mallory, Manchester, and Masson

Anita said...

My opinion: Harry Potter books have fabulously named characters. It's a subject I need to work on.

Kate Douglas said...

Really a great post, and something we all need to be reminded of. I just read a book that kept me scratching my head throughout because of the "not so similar" similarity of names. I read fast and unless I get a really great visual from the beginning on a character, they do tend to blend together. (I hate to admit I've done this to myself with "Eve" and "Lisa." I have a horrible time keeping them straight in my series, even though they look nothing alike!)

Kristin Laughtin said...

I noticed in the last novel I wrote that a lot of my characters had names starting with G (although some started with a "g" sound and some a "j"). These were mostly minor characters, though, so changing their names was not a huge deal (although I kept two with similar names, since they were supposed to be practically indistiguishable). Luckily, the two characters I had with "M" names had radically different personalities and never interacted, so I don't think there was too much confusion there. Still trying to decide if I want to change the name of one of the two characters whose name begins with "E", although so far no one's been confused by it...

I had to laugh, though, because my main character's name is Barak (no c). I can't bear to change it, though, as I had come up with the idea for that book years ago and didn't start writing it until right before all the election coverage. His name is stuck in my head, although thankfully, he goes by a pseudonym for most of the book.

green_knight said...

I've used similar (but not easily confused) names on purpose to bring two characters together who are otherwise very different.

My biggest problem is that, left to its own devices, my brain wants to come up with two syllable names on a-i. With the occasional i-a pattern for variety.

On the other hand, for my current alternate history WIP I wanted authentic names that reflected the differences, so I have Matho, Joslyn, and Kieron. I also have _ _ and _ _ in the draft, because far too many people in the sources I've studied for inspiration were called Robert, William, Henry, and Richard (or Mary, Elizabeth and Anne) and finding the right mixture of authentic and uncommon is much harder work than making names up.

My pet peeve in fantasy is to have very common English names either in alternate worlds or in ours. Among my circle of friends, there are many interesting names, among my neighbours even more so, and as for the local phone book...

So why, with all the names to choose from, are we finding Tom and Harry in books?

Jinni said...

Great tip. I just finished a Harlequin Blaze where the hero was Gage and the ex-boyfriend was Greg. I had to keep flipping to the back of the book to see who was who.

Kirsten said...

So true. This is why the characters in Crime and Punishment are hard to follow -- their names aren't just alliterative, but Russian!

Robena Grant said...

I didn't grow up in the eighties, so what does Heather mean? Is it a good or bad name? I was having babies through the eighties and my brain had turned to oatmeal, so I could have missed something really important. Grin.

One place I find interesting names is in the credits at the end of TV shows or movies. Of course then I mix them up by taking a first name from one and a last name from another.

jnantz said...

Ah, a HEATHERS reference! Pre-klepto Wynona! Well done, Ms. Bryant, well done.

Dara said...

I actually make it point to make sure my characters names are as varied as possible.

Of course, it's still difficult, as my book takes place in a foreign country (Japan) so to an English reader, the names may be a bit confusing. I do try my best to keep the names from ending with the same vowel (o's and i's are very common in first names there)as well as trying my best to have my characters with distinguishable personalities and traits.

Ana said...

I made a list of all my character names, sorted it alphabetically, and was stunned to see how much I'd used M's and S's. But I really had to watch it when renaming them...I started reusing a whole new letter. Even if you know all the character names perfectly, it's definitely worthwhile to keep a written list to avoid this problem.

On the flip side, I like using a bit of alliteration to create a tie between characters, particularly male and female characters who are linked. As long as the names are gender-specific, there's no risk of confusion, and it works with the readers' subconscious to better understand the story.

Anonymous said...

Wow, never thought of it before, but I got lucky. Every name I picked had a meaning, so maybe unconsciously I was paying attention to them. Now I guess I'll have to check out my other books to see how I did. I like the idea of writing them all in a list.

Dal Jeanis said...

Always a struggle, since we all have our favorite letters.

As far as acpaul's question about fantasy prefixes, I'd suggest being careful. I'm working on similar issues. Perhaps having the prefix be lower case - vaJoe and vaMariana and vaHenry - to make the name part stand out slightly?

Steven Till said...

I've definitely noticed doing this in my own writing before. Like you said, it's easy to get in that rhythm and not even notice you're doing it. Maybe that's why families all name their children starting with the same letter: Derick, Diane, Darren, Dana, etc.

Tara said...

Oh, THANK you for pointing out the "similar name" issue. And sometimes it's worse than just a first letter -- recently I read a bestseller with major characters named "Marino" and "Maroni." I'm slightly dyslexic, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed *that* reading experience!

Anonymous said...

Another slightly dyslexic author, cool!

acpaul said...

Dal Jeanis per your suggestion of making the name stand out more clearly, I already do something like that, but through the use of the apostrophe: V'Harry to use a bad name example.

For other names, I like the random name generator at seven sanctum.
http://www.seventhsanctum.com/index-writ.php

I am in no way associated with them, I just think they've got some cool tools for throw-away background characters.

Anonymous said...

"I like using a bit of alliteration to create a tie between characters, particularly male and female characters who are linked. As long as the names are gender-specific, there's no risk of confusion, and it works with the readers' subconscious to better understand the story."

Surely you jest?!

The Rejection Queen said...

I've read about this in one of the writing books I read a few years ago. It also said to never have the first name and the last name start with the same letter.

Kathleen Peacock said...

It also said to never have the first name and the last name start with the same letter.

My boyfriend and I were talking about how often Stan Lee (yes, we are geeks) does this. Peter Parker, Scott Summers, Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Bruce Banner, Warren Worthington...

Marian said...

I've read books where characters (sometimes main characters) were identical twins, so of couse they had names beginning with the same letter.

That made it difficult for me to see them as individuals, though. Especially since they looked alike.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I do this completely by accident. Luckily, I have crit partners who catch them if I don't. LOL.
Hopefully, they don't slip through.

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice, as always, but it left me with one burning question. I did not grow up in the eighties (some say I still have not grown up) so what does the name Heather mean to those who did? I am surprised that I could care less, but I am chewing a rag here. If you have a chance, please enlighten us.

The only thing I can think of is from the musical MY FAIR LADY: "In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricans hardly Heather happen." Or that is what I think they said, anyway. Say that fast and you'll get the point.

Incidentally, in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN we are told the sister of the mother of Jesus was named Mary, which is strange since the mother of Jesus was also named Mary. I have always thought some ancient scribe made a mistake transcribing, but most modern authorities accept that as written. Imagine the confusion when Mary's mother called for Mary and Mary answered instead. Fortunately the traditional name of Mary and Mary's mother was not Mary but Anna. The ancient historian Josephus says Herod the Great named two of his sons Herod, which makes for very confusing reading. Maybe art imitates life!

Jessica said...

I haven't done this, but maybe because I grew up in an alliterative family. LOL
Us three girls start with a J and two of us married guys who start with a J.
So no alliterative names in my manuscript. But it's interesting that people do that. Wonder why...

BookEnds, LLC said...

I was away, but can't believe no one else jumped in to answer the "Heathers" question. Heathers was a movie about three horrible, horrible, mean girls all named Heather. The Wikipedia definition can give you more details http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heathers

Robena Grant said...

Thanks, Jessica.
jnantz alluded to Winona Ryder so I googled her movies and tracked it back through that. Somehow I missed that movie, probably couldn't relate to teenage angst while going through the throes of motherhood. Grin. In 1989 I had an eight year old and a five year old and a new career. Yikes!
Anyway, now I think I'll have to change the heroine's name in my last completed ms. Yes, she was Heather.

GentleLavender said...

This is a great entry coz I have done it often. It's one of those things I always find myself doing and then stop myself right on time. I also keep a list of names that I can refer to so that I dont have to fall into this trap again. But I am glad that you have discussed this in your blog.

terri said...

Great post and some fantastic comments. I don't have that particular tic (I have many others though!).

My only naming convention is that no one can have a name ending in 's'. Really saves on copyediting when sorting out contractions and possessives!

A little note on the naming thing. In one of Stephen King's short stories, he'd given a primary character a long, difficult to say last name. He then found out he was going to be doing the reading for the audio version. Like lightning, the character had a new last name, single syllable, easy to say.

Chumplet - Sandra Cormier said...

My Acadian grandfather's name was Adolphe. I wonder how much ribbing he got in the 1940s.

I like to search through family names and mix them up a little. I have dozens of cousins to choose from.

K.S. Clay said...

I'm guilty of this in my latest manuscript. Shamefully, I didn't realize this until recently when a beta reader pointed it out. Luckily the problem is mostly with minor characters so my main characters get to keep their original names while some of their friends are going to suffer from temporary identity crises while I come up with alternative names.

Venus Vaughn said...

Thank you for addressing this. I've always thought that the author who does this has forgotten their reader.

Dal Jeanis said...

OOoo - I had to respond to this one, even if I am a week late.

You want to see how this is done really well, look at YA author Rosemary Clement-Moore's Prom Dates from Hell. The school's "Jocks and Jessicas" clique has three girls all named Jessica, and it works. The reader can actually keep them apart, and the characters who haven't previously known the Jessicas are always having to be cued as to which is which.

Really fine work. I reviewed it over on Abandoned Towers recently.