Choose Those Character Names Wisely

I have a confession to make. I'm kind of terrible with names. Like really, kinda bad at them. 

It's not that I don't remember the people, I do. I've often met them and had long conversations and can tell you many details about their life stories... I just don't always remember their name

And it's even worse when I'm reading books. If the book is written in third person, I usually have a fairly good memory for the main characters' names, and a better than even chance for side characters, but if a book is written in first person, and we only see the main character's name a few times, I might read half the book before I have any idea what the main character's name is. I'm not kidding. I've actually had to check the back of the book to see what the main characters' names are for books that I really loved. And if I'm that bad with main characters, side characters have a 50/50 shot and anyone less important has to REALLY stand out if I'm going to remember their name. 

And, to make things worse, I read very quickly, and I don't always read each letter of a word. Instead I've learned that I just recognize the first and last letter and the length of the word. You know those blocks of deliberately misspelled text that are floating around the internet?

The first time I ever got one of those, it was in an email and I had read half the paragraph before I noticed what they were actually doing. I can read them just like they are properly spelled text. I have to actually slow myself down and put myself into copyediting mode to notice things like misspellings. 

And when you are talking about names... which remember, I already have a problem with... it makes things really complicated. I invariably end up thinking of any given character as something like: Main character's best friend whose name starts with an L. Which is not a problem if the names are fairly varied. I can pretty easily recognize the difference between Allison and Lydia, no matter how fast I'm reading. But Mary, Mindy, Mandy, May and even Melanie will probably all fade together. The odds are that I'm not going to remember two chapters later whether it was Mandy or Mary who spiked the punch during the school dance... I'll only remember "Teen Girl whose name starts with an M." So Mandy and Mary are now the same person, and I, as a reader, am now SUPER confused, and have to stop reading, and flip back to figure out which girl you are talking about. That's going to knock me right out of my reading zone and make me annoyed. 

And I know that it's not just me. I've talked to other people about this and it seems like a majority people who read a lot... (like everyone in publishing and the majority of romance readers) probably do the same kind of mental shorthand when they read. Or they do something very similar. (And as we established above, apparently there's a Cambridge study that says over 55% of people only need the first and last letter of a word to be in the right place to recognize it. If true, that's over half your reading audience.) 

So, the next time you are picking character names, you might want to keep this in mind. Is it important that I remember who this character is? If so, give them a unique name and make sure that no one else in the book has a name that starts with that letter, or if it's absolutely necessary that they both start with the letter A, make sure that one of them is long and the other is short. Amy and Alexandria are much more likely to register as two different people than Amy and Alex, but honestly Amy and Lexi would be your best bet. 

And, occasionally, you can also use this to your advantage. Do you have a group of friends or siblings that are kind of meant to blur together in reader's minds? If so, feel free to have them be Jessica, Jacob, Jordan, Jeremy, Jennifer, and Janice. I promise that I will not be able to keep ANY of them straight.

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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