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.