by Kelly Lynne, editor
Do you know a guy named Robert, a good friend, perhaps a relative, maybe an old beau? In whatever capacity you know Robert, his name pops up in your story a lot. You need to be aware of this.
Robert is someone you want to name a character for, perhaps to solidify his role in your life, and in the hope he’ll be happy to spot his name in print. He isn’t a major character, not even a secondary character, just a guy who plays a role in one scene and has been given a name.
As your editor, I write down the names of all your characters to be sure every description of that individual maintains continuity, and what I’ve discovered is you have five guys named Robert.
Several Mikes, two Rogers, two Janes, three Erics, and a few Richards.
We all know this first name duplication happens in real life, especially with common names. My husband’s office boasts three Mikes and in high school I had at least six Jennifers in my graduating class. But when the reader gets at best minimal description of these folks in passing, having too many characters with the same name can get confusing.
In fiction you have the luxury of giving an individual name to every character that appears. The easiest way to check this is to read your manuscript front to back and write down each name as you run across it and add a short description of who they are. Alphabetize that list and voila, you will see how many Mikes, Roberts, and Rogers you have. Rename as needed.
To find names outside your circle of family, friends, and acquaintances, look up baby names online. References abound for every culture. You can find names popular in particular birth years as well, to assist believability. For example, a woman born in 1925 might be a June, Ruby, or Vera but is not as likely to be a Jasper, Justice, or Riley.
You also have the obligation to make sure every character even needs a name. If we only see Mary in one scene over about two pages, and we’ll never see her again, do we really need her name? Giving readers too many details to track can annoy them. Readers will assume if someone has a name, they must be important to remember.
On the other hand, duplicate names for minor characters can be used to comic effect, if you want to go that way, the same as everyone in Verplanck, NY in “Drowning Mona” driving a Yugo. “Every time I turn around, I run into another Mike around here,” your detective complains.
Names have power. Don’t dilute it without paying attention.
Kelly Lynne edits multiple genres of both adult and YA/middle grade fiction.