What I'm reading: Chasing Shadows, by C.J. Lyons.
Since the rights to my second published novel, What's in a Name? revert to me on Dec. 31st, I've been working on preparing it for digital release.
Of course, I wanted to read it for typos—no matter what, a few always sneak by. And I also wanted to update the technology. When I wrote it, pagers were the norm, and the basic backup for computer files was via CD ROMs. What I didn't realize was that when I wrote this book, I hadn't started using my name-tracking system. Considering the title, I decided to 'retro-fit' one, and made my basic spreadsheet using Excel. It takes no special skill – I just list every letter of the alphabet in two columns, one for first names, and one for last. I space them a number of columns apart, and then simply fill in the names as I create them. Note: This page of the spreadsheet doesn't keep first and last names together; it's simply a way to track the names appearing in the story.
Imagine my shock to find that not only was I terribly uncreative with names, but that my editors didn't seem to notice—not even when I had three characters named Henry! Some larger publishers have editors who actually write down every named character, and on what page they first appear, but I've never had that "luxury."
I think if you click on the images, they'll open in an enlarged format. If not, you can email me or leave your email in a comment, and I'll send them to you.
I decided to apply what I've learned about naming characters to the edits. This was a little more complicated that usual, because the book's heroine has undergone 3 name changes before the book starts, and there are references to them. The hero also assumes an alias during several scenes. In this case, I didn't think it was wrong to reuse his "B."
How do readers react when they come across names? I can't speak for everyone, but I tend to zero in on the initial letters. (Which is probably why Horace Blackthorne showed up as Horace Blackstone in the galley copy of When Danger Calls—neither I nor 2 different editors noticed it.)
Author Jeremiah Healy once said that you should avoid re-using the initials of your protagonist for the entire book. Sometimes that's not possible, and things get complicated when you're writing more than one book; I find I have 'go to' names and in this case, although I didn't have too many D names, one of them was David, who was an important character in another book, so I changed him to Doug for this one.
Another thing I'll look at is how many times does the character appear, and is the name really necessary at all? Once you name a character, you're telling the reader "this is important." On the flip side, people tend to think of other people by name, so if your hero knows Miss Walk On, he's likely to think of her as "Mary." I had a short elevator encounter in the hero's building, but although he knew two of the other characters, in the revisions, they referred to each other as "Mr." and "Mrs." That meant I could get rid of two first names!
Compare this to my "before" spreadsheet.
If a character appeared only once or twice, or was mentioned in passing, I didn't mind doubling (or tripling) up on letters. In my "after" spreadsheet, Amanda and Angela, for example are two young children, sisters (and are simply made up as part of the heroine's cover story!) However, in most cases, I tried to make them look different—different number of syllables, and not all starting the same. So, my revised "M" people, for example, are now Margaret, Melina & McGregor, and none is a major character.
I also did a lot of Google searching for popular first names of the decades my characters would have been born in, and also for ethnic and regional surnames to add some variety for my characters.
Another writing tip I gleaned from a workshop was to make your character names sound as if the characters' parents named them, not the author. I failed, I think, to deal with that the first time around.
The result? I now have a much broader use of the alphabet, and the only time I used the same letter for more than 2 or 3 characters was when they were "throwaway" names—they didn't appear more than once, and weren't ever in the same scenes.
Now, before I release the book, I'll be going through it once more to make sure I haven't left any of the old names.
Hint: When doing Find/Replace, make sure you click the "find whole words" and "match case" boxes so you don't get strange new words!
What's your take on character names, as a reader or a writer?