Last week I wrote about how dicey it can be for authors to name their characters–especially for authors of historical fiction who must consider names suited to both era and ethnic group. This week I thought I’d bring up another challenge that all writers face: avoiding look-alike names.
Today’s agents and editors often advise authors to choose names that do not resemble others in the story so readers will not easily confuse the characters. For example, when I wrote THE IMPERSONATOR, I had two brothers named Ross and Reed. My editor ruled them too similar, so I changed Reed to Henry. Ever since, I’ve tried not to use the same first letter on any of my characters. You don’t want a Mary Ellen and a Mary Jane, a Richard and a Rick, or a Bonnie and a Barbie.
One trick I’ve learned from other authors is to keep a list of the alphabet beside your keyboard and tick off each letter when you use for a character. After a while, you start looking at your list of available letters and thinking, “Let’s see, H, L, M, and W still open . . . what would a good man’s name be that starts with one of those?”
It gets trickier for me because some of my characters are real people. I can’t change the names of silent film stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, or President Calvin Coolidge, so I must exclude those letters from the start.
Another concern is accidentally using a real name. Obviously, just about any name an author chooses will have a real person or two (or eighteen thousand) somewhere, but authors don’t want to use the name of a real person who is well-known. Once I named a character Brian Jones, unaware that it was the name of a musician with the Rolling Stones. (Obviously I am not a rock music fan.) That would have been distracting to many readers, so when my critique group called my attention to this, I changed the character’s name.