Monday, May 24, 2010

The Name Game

What I'm reading: Hour Game, by David Baldacci

The first serious work begins on our house today, and I'm hoping it won't be totally disruptive. We'll have to see. We're starting with the painting and the master bedroom closet installation. I'm hoping that the closet installers show up at the beginning of their window so we can put all our clothes away, meaning less stuff in the way of the painters.
Last week, I talked about a story "bible" for keeping track of things, and how I hadn't really done as much along those lines as I should. Keeping track of characters' names is one of the basic skills any author should acquire. Regardless of how one chooses to do it, you really have to avoid confusing your readers. I'd like to share my system.

I recently read a book by a major, big name, best-selling author. It was a good book, but I wondered why she'd chosen the character names she used in the book. And I don't mean places where she was locked into names because the characters were in the same family—that's unavoidable, so you have to be careful not to refer to them by their last names.



But in this book, a player of significance introduced early on was Doug. Then we meet who we assume will be the hero, and his name is Derek. And another who's referred to by his last name, which is Dodge. There's another character with the last name of Duke, but at least we see his first name being the one on the page more often. Oh, and there's a Dora. The hero's assistant is Marlene. The hero has a dog named Maggie.

I strive to avoid too many characters whose names start with the same letter—at least if they're on the page a lot. It's easy for sleepy reader eyes to pick up only the initial and get confused.

Since I don't have a real 'bible' yet, I'll share what I've been using. I got this from a workshop given by author Jeremiah Healy at a SleuthFest conference a number of years ago, and I've done my best to stick with it. And one other thing he suggested. Once you've named your hero (and heroine), you should NOT use those initials for any other character in that book. Of course, writing connected books, it's often impossible to keep ALL the names unique.


So, here's what I do: I create a spreadsheet. (Don't panic. You can use a Word table if Excel scares you). I list all the letters of the alphabet in two separate columns. One for first names, one for last names. Then, whenever I name a character, I fill in the name. It's easy to see if I'm filling up the M's or the L's, and I find different names.

I also color-code for my POV players, other major roles, and my throwaway names. I'm more likely to repeat an initial if the other character is little more than a walk-on.

Below my columns for names, I wrote the actual character name so I can track those, and then if I found a detail I needed to remember, such as a specific character trait, or the car the character drove, or something else I deemed significant, I'd note that as well.

This is the sort of information that lays the foundation for the story "bible". If you're intimidated (as I was) to create a major document, this might help.

If you'd like to look at my rudimentary spreadsheet I used when working on my mystery, you can see it here. It's a draft version--some names are questioned because I wasn't sure if that character was even going to show up. And, being lazy, sometimes if I decided on a different name for a character, I neglected to adjust the spreadsheet. But this should give you an idea.

Tomorrow is a real treat -- multi-published author Cleo Coyle will share not only writing tips, but RECIPES! You can't miss this one.

23 comments:

Mason Canyon said...

I like the idea of not have everyone's name begin with the same letter. It can be confusing, but sometimes that's part of the mystery too. Good luck with the work on the house.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

Debra St. John said...

Names can be tricky. Great idea for keeping track of and keeping repeated letters in names to a minimum. I've also learned to look at how many syllables names have, how they are spelled (how they look on the page), and how they sound together with other characters.

There's always so much to think about, isn't there?

Karla Brandenburg said...

Interesting system. I usually do mine in paragraph form in Word - Character names, descriptions and background (along with character traits). Funny thing about that - as I was editing Epitaph, I found where I'd used one name twice for incidental characters (I had a friend who said "I want to be in your next book! Problem was I'd already used his name without associating it.) Either way, it's important to make note of even the minor players.

Terry Odell said...

Mason - When I was writing a scene with Laughlin, Lalone and Langley, I knew someone's name had to change!

Debra - yes, the appearance and syllables should be different, too. We don't have the luxury of 'seeing' or 'hearing' characters on the page the way we do in real life. And other issues can crop up -- I've got a character whose nickname is Grinch, and I started to write "Grinch saw Dylan flinch...." and that's yet another problem!

Karla - I have character notes in Word, but the efficiency of the naming spreadsheet makes it a breeze to see if you've used a name. Otherwise, you're having to do much longer searches once you get a lot of meat into that Word file.

Desirée Lee said...

I too try not use names beginning with the same letter in the same book. The exception I have with that is characters in the same family. I have one WIP where the main character is named after his grandfather, but the MC goes by his nickname and his grandfather by the given name (or by "Grandpa") so there's really no question of which character is which.

I also try not to use the same name from book to book. To help me with this, I keep a list in a separate document listing all of my books and all of the names used in those books. I can scan it at a glance and see if I have used one more than once.

Carpe Noctem,
Des

Author Desirée Lee
Putting the Romance Back in Necromancy
http://www.desireelee.com

Terry Odell said...

Desiree--My spreadsheet is actually a separate worksheet for each book, so I can see what other names I've used as well.

Still need to get that 'bible' thing going, though, for all the rest of the information I need to track.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love this idea Terry - I have a list of character names in a file, but using the spreadsheet would be so much simpler! Thanks :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I always wonder what these authors are *thinking* when they do that. All those names with the same beginning letter? It's nutty. I've been careful to avoid it whenever I can. Good idea with the file!

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - yes, the spreadsheet is a great 'in a glance' tool.

Elizabeth - yeah, there was a book with two characters with the SAME NAME. Where are the copy editors? That shouldn't have been let through.

Carol A. Strickland said...

Years ago "the Plot Doctor" was the one who first pointed the naming problem out to me (and the group taking her workshop), as well as furnished us a chart with which to keep track of names. I try not to violate the rule, but sometimes you run into two similar but perfect names...

A couple years ago I pointed out to a comic book writer the confusion I was having with a particular series because they were using a lot of similar names. The writer pooh-poohed the idea of varying nomenclature. That didn't do anything to help my confusion!

A few weeks ago while giving a workshop about working in series, Sabrina Jeffries (or was it Claudia Dain?) shared one of her charts for a particularly long series. We saw that she added birthdates for everyone, and at every turning point (fictional as well as historical) she noted how old the characters were so as to figure how they might have been affected. She also added phrases (eg, "fiddle-dee-dee") that each would say in order to keep their speech patterns straight.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - I had enough trouble coming up with names for MY kids--we had 2 weeks notice that kid #2 was really going to be kids 2 & 3, and I went nuts trying to find the extra names. And back then, you didn't know gender prior to delivery.

I think the chart for a big series would be critical. The name spreadsheet is very basic, but it's a start from which the "bible" can take root.

Carol Kilgore said...

This is what I do, too. Although in my wip another character has a name that begins with same letter as that of my protagonist. Both characters are female, but the names and characters are so totally different that I hope it's not a problem. Truth is, the third-tier character's name is more fitting of her, so if I have to change one, it will be the protagonist.

Kathy said...

I have my hero and heroine with last names that begin with the same letter. What I ran into was I named a minor character then forgot what I named him. Later I reffered to him and my critique partner went wait you called him this before. Then I had the heroine meet her parents and her deceased husband's parents at the airport and call her in laws by name so when I had her mother in law talking to her I had to go scrolling back up and find her name. SO yes the spreadsheet is a wonderful idea. I even mixed up the first names of another character in it.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - isn't it nice to have the power to change a name - no worries about the problems of changing RL identities.

Kathy - glad to share what works for me.

Maryann Miller said...

Great tips for keeping the names straight. I guess I really need to move from the tablet beside my computer for those kinds of notes and start working more with the computer. But it is so easy to just jot a note. LOL

Terry Odell said...

Maryann--I jot a lot of notes, but then I can't find what I'm looking for! However, my story board tracker is low-tech. I think there's room for both. It's whatever gets you to 'the end.'

Cleo Coyle said...

Love the spreadsheet idea and I am also enjoying reading the comments. I agree with you completely on writers being aware of what names they give to their characters and the confusion factor if names are too similar. When I do use similar names or names that start with the same letter, I do this for a very specific authorial or thematic purpose. (As it happens, I'm doing exactly this in Roast Mortem - for a reason that becomes apparent by the end of the mystery.) Looking forward to being your guest tomorrow!

Terry Odell said...

Cleo - yes, it's important that the author is aware of what names are being used. And I'm so glad you're my guest tomorrow. Those recipes you're sharing are YUMMY sounding.

Sheila Deeth said...

My first-draft characters often have names starting with the same letter, as if my fingers are too lazy to move far from the key. I like the spreadsheet idea.

Terry Odell said...

Sheila - I tend to fixate on initials, which is why I've come to rely on the spreadsheet for names.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Very helpful post! Oh yes, I've had to work out the name game, too.

How wonderful, recipes tomorrow! I look forward to it.

Terry Odell said...

TerryS - yes, the recipes are worth coming back for.

K.M. Weiland said...

Brilliant! I'm linking back to this on my video post. Thanks for pointing it out to me!