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Sunday, January 6

Sunday Writing Tip: Fix Any Confusing Names in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For 2019, I thought I’d do a new Sunday column—quick writing tips!

Each week, I’ll offer a tip you can take and apply to your WIP to help improve it. They’ll be easy to do and shouldn’t take long, so they shouldn't take up your Sunday. Though I do reserve the right to offer a good tip now and then that will take longer—but only because it would apply to the entire manuscript.

This week, it’s a quick check on the names in your novel.


Although we know our characters and who is who, readers can be confused by names that are too similar. Bob, Bill, and Barb are hard to keep straight, and while Jane, Shane, and Dane, look different to us, they sound a lot alike and could blend together in a reader’s head.


Take some time today and check all the names in your book. Are they different enough for readers to remember who is who with no trouble? Look for:
  • Names that all start with the same letter (Kari, Karl, Katherine)
  • Name with similar sounds or middles (Jane, Shane, Dane,)
  • Names that are all the same length (Bob, Joe, Ann, or Annamarie, Donatello, Maximilian)
  • Names that are hard to pronounce (Kalamium, Architol, Pthistis)
Pay particular attention to any names in the same scene that could easily be mixed up.

For more on dealing with names in your novel, try these articles:

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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11 comments:

  1. Too true.

    Done right: Stan Lee insisting on the hyphenated spelling "Spider-Man" so his hero wouldn't be just two letters different from Superman.

    Done wrong: the Dragonlance books gave us Tasslehoff Burrfoot, abbreviated to "Tas" even though the hero was "Tanis." Yes, they're the team's comic relief and its tormented leader.

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    1. That's cool about Stan Lee. I had not heard that, but it makes sense.

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  2. My protagonist's name is Eli, and his off/on girlfriend (and supporting character) is named Aimee. Too similar?

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    1. I think that's fine. Different enough to stay separate.

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  3. I think Aimee and Eli are fine because visually they're different even if they sound alike spoken. I just realized the other day I had three: Marek, Morec and Marko, sigh. Marek has to stay because he's in something else, too, and probably Morec. One's a child and the other a very distinct adult so I think that'll still work but Marko became Cyrus. He was another child and often in the same scenes as Marek, and it was even confusing me, sigh.

    One thing I've done in the past, if the stories are fantasy or sci-fi, is just drop or change the first letter. Keeps it close enough I know who I mean but usually changes it enough for others.

    Thanks for these Janice. This will be nice new series

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    1. That was my thought, too. The names seemed to fit the characters and their history. I was thinking of the actress Audrey Tatou when I created Aimee, but the name Audrey kept reminding me of Little Shop of Horrors.

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    2. Nice tip--dropping the first letter. That's a lot of M-names :)

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  4. When I decide to write a piece of fiction I usually research the time period and the geographical location. Thank goodness for the Internet. So what I do is pick out names and surnames which would give a more realistic feel to my story. Often the surname is indicative of the occupation of my character, e.g. a barrel maker would be a Cooper. You might want to apply a Dickensian technique of creating a name that sums up the character's personality. Who could ever think of a more clever name than Scrooge! - T.R.

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    1. Another great tip. I have several name sites bookmarked for research. I also like the Social Security site to see what names were popular at what time.

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  5. Great post! I learned early on (from ARC readers) that the names in my multi-POV thrillers were too similar. One of my Scrivener files is now a simple list of all the names (across my series) and a short (one line) description. I keep separate detailed files for each character, but this list makes it easy to spot the problems you highlighted.

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    1. I have a list like that in my OneNote file.:) I also keep a "name pool" for when I need an extra.

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