Oh dear. We've all been there. Trying to figure out if the 'Steve' your boss has asked you to email is Steve in accounts, or Steve in sales. I once worked somewhere that had FOUR J. Smiths. All the email system listed them as was email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com etc. It didn't help that two of the women also had the same first name. The entire staff mailing list would get periodic reminders from these poor workers asking us to double-check who the intended recipient was when sending an email.
As writers of fiction we can usually avoid this situation by choosing different names for our characters - after all, I'm the one in charge here! Tip - keep a list of character names to avoid using the same name twice, and perhaps try and use different first letters as well as avoiding names that rhyme! Andy, Sandy and Mandy may all have different first letters, but it can make it more difficult for readers to follow them.
But sometimes, repetition is unavoidable. Take a family, who all share the same surname. There's a father and two sons, Mr Elton, Mr Elton and Mr Elton. Mrs Elton is Mr Elton's wife. Mrs Elton is Mr Elton's wife (and also the mother of Mr Elton and Mr Elton), and Mrs Elton is the ex-wife of Mr Elton, who is due to marry the second Mrs Elton next summer.
Unfortunately, that's how names work and you will need to deal with it.
Dealing with multiple instances of a surname The most obvious solution is to use their first names. That works fine in dialogue - outside of formal speech, people are far more likely to deal with a person by their first name these days. In a police investigation, officers will usually use a victim and suspect's first names when they are discussing the case, so it would feel natural for them to do so in your story. But what about in the prose? In an interview for example, the convention in crime fiction is usually to refer to the subject by surname. "I don't know what you mean," said Smith. "Yes you do," replied Harrison.
I was confronted by this problem (again!) when writing next summer's book. I have a father and three sons, plus a daughter and two wives. All have the surname Patel. All of these characters are interviewed, or discussed by the investigation team at some point. Fortunately, none of them are ever seen interacting with each other. But even so, one of my beta readers did admit that she lost track at one point of who was in that particular interview. I tried rewriting the scene by referring to them by their (clear and distinct) first names. It didn't work. Everywhere else in the book (and all my other books!) I stick with the surname-only convention for third-person narrated prose. So I had to use tricks to remind the reader who was in the room during that scene. If you are struggling, try some of the following: 1) Introduce the scene with their full name eg Manoj Patel was a man in his forties ... or "Please state your full name for the tape." "Manoj Patel."
2) Gender - occasionally use He said or She said. This immediately differentiates between a husband and wife or brother and sister, for example.
3) Use the character's first name in dialogue. This can be a little more tricky in a formal situation, but it will work well if used correctly eg "Tell us what happened, Manoj," said Sutton. Patel said nothing, and stared into space.
In this instance I have reminded the reader who is being interviewed, and also paired his first and last names again as a recap.
But be careful not to over use names, or the writing becomes clunky and amateurish. Just sprinkle them in periodically, for the benefit of those who may be distracted or interrupted whilst they read.
Dealing with the same first names Plenty of cultures follow the tradition of naming the sons after their father - sometimes for several generations. Take a fictional American family with three generations of Charles Jones. They will sometimes deal with the surnames in the following way (eldest to youngest). Charles Jones Senior, Charles Jones Junior, and Charles Jones III. But how do you ask the correct person to pass the spuds at Thanksgiving? Perhaps consider giving each of them a nickname. Dad is Charles, Son is Charlie, Grandson is Chuck. Again, you can insert subtle reminders of who is who into the text eg Charles looked at Charlie, barely hiding his contempt for his son. or Charles started the engine. "Where are we going, granddad? asked Chuck.
Do you have any tales to tell or advice to add? As always, feel free to comment here, or on social media.
Choosing character names from a different background to you
Last week, I discused how to choose appropriate character names. This week, I want to address choosing names outside of your own ethnic background.
Khaaaan!!!! One of the most popular Star Trek villains of all time is the genetic superman, Khan Noonien Singh. First appearing in the 1967 episode Space Seed, the character was also the eponymous bad guy in the second Star Trek movie, 1982's The Wrath of Khan. Khan remains an incredibly popular villain, even outside Trek fandom. But there are a couple of things about him that haven't stood the test of time so well. First, he was portrayed in both these instances by Ricardo Montalban - a respected Mexican actor chosen, in part, because they needed someone with dark-skin to portray a character of Middle-Eastern heritage. That's a casting decision that would likely be avoided today. The second issue is his name: Khan Noonien Singh. Khan is most closely associated with Muslims. Singh is a name traditionally given to Sikh males. Bi-racial or bi-heritage children do of course exist in significant numbers these days, but without an explanation being given, authors - especially those who are not from that background - run the risk of having their work dismissed as poorly researched. *It should be noted that this seemingly incongruous pairing is addressed in Greg Cox's 2001 novelStar Trek: The Eugenics Wars (Volume 1): The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, but it is considered non-canonical.
How do you name a character that is from a background different to yourself? I am a white male, of British ancestry, as are all of my closest relatives. But confining myself to only including characters from that ethnic background would lead to books that are not reflective of the modern society in which we live. I was forced to address this issue head-on in two of my novels: DCI Warren Jones 4: The Common Enemy, and next summer's release, which I recently submitted to my publisher. In both books, there are significant characters whose family heritage is the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, my suggestions apply directly to the subcontinent, but will likely apply to other situations that you may encounter.
How did I avoid the "Khan" problem? The Indian subcontinent is vast, and during its long history has been divided and sub-divided many times. The current configuration of countries and territories is largely a 20th Century construction. Furthermore, the continent is home to many different religions and caste traditions and languages. All of which have names - given and family - associated with them. Some names are traditionally female, some male and some both. There are also masculinised/feminised versions, rather like Paul, Paula or Pauline.
The website Behind the name has a random name generator. https://www.behindthename.com/random/ But it only has the option to choose "Indian". So you will need to do some further research. Most entries have a short sentence listing the name's provenance and variants on it - but don't take their word for it. I can't stress enough that this site should only be the first step in choosing a name.
Unless it's relevant to the story, keep it simple. Assume that both parents of your character (or their families) originally came from similar regions, religions and backgrounds and choose names accordingly. Give the character first and last names that are from the same traditions.
Then research the names further. Wikipedia often has short background articles for popular names.
Next, when you've chosen two names that you think will work, do some research on that pairing. First, does that person already exist? The fact that there are individuals in the world with the same name doesn't mean you can't use it, but if that name is associated with an (in)famous person already, it may be a distraction for your readers. There are a lot of Sam Smiths in the world, but if your character also happens to be a musician, perhaps reconsider.
Then do a final check that the pairing actually works in the real world. For this, I type the name into Facebook search. If I get a couple of dozen hits for people with that name (and their profile pictures suggest they are the correct gender and ethnicity), then I will assume that the name is not outlandish enough to raise eyebrows from readers from that background.
Fingers crossed, no complaints so far!
Next week I will conclude this particular topic by looking at how to deal with the problem of multiple characters with the same name.
Feel free to comment, either here or on social media. Paul
Original baby picture credit Beth. Speech bubble added by Paul Gitsham.
Choosing Character Names
I hate choosing names. I really do regard it as a chore, rather than a pleasure. I don't mean my core characters, that can be quite fun. Choosing a moniker that I will live with for some years is something I've grown to enjoy. Rather I hate naming the secondary and minor characters: The shopkeeper that appears once, but has a vital clue, the brother of the victim, who is briefly a suspect and gets a whole chapter dedicated to their interview, the detective constable that accompanies a main character on an arrest. Those are the people for whom choosing a name is difficult.
For that reason, I defer choosing names until the last minute; an activity to be undertaken when I can't think of any other valid procrastination activity.
When I am writing, I use place holders. In my current manuscript, there are two witnesses to an event on New Year's Eve. They are currently known as NYE_Male and NYE_Female. Note the use of the underscore (_), it makes it easy to find and replace them later.
So where can you find names? Sometimes, they are given to you - literally. I have numerous work colleagues begging to be included in a book. That's fun: I always write them with a couple of in-jokes; a former physics teacher with a meteorology degree, who we used to call a jumped-up geography teacher, naturally became a ... geography teacher. The namesake of a tall, skinny, bald colleague is short and stocky with a ponytail.
I also take part in 'name a character' charity auctions. Click Sargent get in character is a wonderful cause, raising money for kids affected by cancer. I always leave a couple of suitable characters (male and female) un-named for this purpose. Where possible, I will also tweak the character descriptions to include a couple of the biographical details they furnish me with to make it a bit more personal. https://www.clicsargent.org.uk/getincharacter/
But where else can you find names? My books are set in the English county of Hertfordshire. We recently visited St Albans cathedral, and whilst there, I photographed a war memorial. The plaque was 100 years old. I reasoned that those listed are likely to have 'traditional' Hertfordshire names; ideal for a character whose family have been local for several generations. As a mark of respect, I don't use real pairings of first and last names, but they provide great inspiration.
Similarly, there are lists of the 100 most popular names in a region, on the internet. There are also lists of 100 most popular baby names for a given year. That's often useful for deciding if a name is realistic for your character; there's a good chance that a cool-sounding first name for a baby born in 2000 would raise eyebrows if used for a modern-day eighty-year-old. By all means use unusual character names, but consider if you need a little backstory to justify why they or their parents chose that name.
Names in families can be thematic. For example, take a family with three girls. The eldest is called Rose - perhaps her younger siblings are also named after flowers, such as Lily or Saffron. I'd probably steer clear of Japanese Knotweed 😁
There is a lot to consider when choosing names. Tune in next week, when I discuss naming characters outside your own ethnicity.
Feel free to comment, either here or on social media. Best wishes, Paul.