Don’t Confuse Readers With Inconsistent Character Names

One area in which authors often create unnecessary reader confusion is in their usage of inconsistent character names.

Sometimes the simplest things in a story can create distance between reader and writer. The last thing any author can afford to do is push readers away from the story by confusing them. We want readers to think about what we’ve written, but not because they’re trying to figure out what—or who—we’re talking about.

For example, I recently read a historical novel that left me wondering who was who, who was on stage, who was talking, and just generally who these characters were. The problem in this particular story was double-sided.

To begin with, the author often failed to name the characters at all—instead referring to them as simply “he” or “she” for pages on end. Pronouns are a wonderful tool in fiction, not only because they prevent clunky, unnecessary repetitions of names, when only one or two characters are present in a scene, but also because they allow an unprecedented amount of intimacy between the readers and the characters. Despite all their benefits, however, they should never be used at the risk of confusing readers. When in doubt, make sure readers know precisely which character is doing what.

The second problem in this book was that, even when the author bothered to refer to his characters by name, he didn’t choose just one name, but instead multiple variations. Occasionally you’ll see books (military thrillers are frequently culpable) that call their characters by their first names, last names, nicknames, code names, ranks, and the author only knows what else.

Simplicity is the mark of an author who is both confident and experienced. Your characters can have all the nicknames and code names in the world, but do your readers a favor and consistently refer to them each by one name throughout the narrative.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What names and titles are used for your characters? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I dealt with this when I wrote “What’s in a Name?” where my characters are often assuming other identities. I made sure that each character thought of himself/herself by the “real” name when I was in their POV.

    I really have trouble when authors create too many similar names, or names starting with the same initial. I developed a simple spreadsheet to avoid that.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  2. I have a character named Lee, but his full name is William. He’s only called that when he’s in trouble. Would that confuse people too much? The reason that his name is like that is because he had trouble saying w’s when he was little. Thanks!

  3. You should bring this advice to Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak. Names in Russian novels are often quite confusing because every character has 3 names, short name for Alexander is Sasha and stuff like that.

    Cold As Heaven

  4. A related problem is having characters with names that are too similar to each other. I mentioned Tolkien’s Hobbit on your previous post, I’d add LotR to this one.

    Now that everyone’s read the book a dozen times and seen the movies even more times than that, it’s not such a problem but – the first time I read it – I had a lot of difficulty remembering who was Sauron and who was Saruman.

    Names, as you say, are critical. Ideally you want one which brings the character to mind as soon as it’s mentioned.

  5. I suspect that we get carried away thinking up THE perfect name for a character, much as we do when naming our children, but we forget that in a story, unlike real life, names are tools. It’s not so much how a name rolls off the tongue as what it suggests about a character. I think a lot of us could do with more education on how to choose character names.

  6. Since I am dealing with the military in one of my books, I had this problem. My main characters, who are not military, call one guy by his first name since they were with his wife, who used his first name. His soldier friends call him by his last name. I don’t think it’s too much of a problem since he has a small role, and I keep it pretty obvious he’s the same guy, or I hope it’s obvious. The rest of the military people normally go by the last name or use a nickname constantly. I might be taking the nickname use in the military a little too far but I don’t want things to get confusing so I might have to get someone from the military to read the book to make sure everything is okay. (I have absolutely no military experience.)

  7. @Terry: What a fun premise idea!

    @Kate: Nicknames in dialogue are rarely a problem. The problem occurs when the author (not another character) refers to the character by more than one name within the narrative.

    @Cold: The Russians are a prime example, although many of the best Russian authors were able to handle the names changes in a way that didn’t leave the reader gasping in confusion.

    @DAJB: Saruman and Sauran *still* trip me up. My eye trips right over the word, sees the big “S” and the little “n” (not to mention the similar interposing letters) and often reads the wrong name.

    @Carol: Excellently put. Authors love names, but, at the end of the day, the name is fluid part of the story that has to flex to fit the needs of the plot – and the reader. In some of my stories, I’ve ended up changing “perfect” character names when I realized they potentially could have been confusing to readers.

    @Jessi: As I mentioned above, the problem with multiple names really isn’t an issue in the dialogue. As long as you’re not calling the character Jack in one sentence of narrative, Ryan in the next, and “Swordsman” in the third, you’re fine.

  8. Thanks a whole bunch!

  9. You’re welcome!

  10. I once read a book where the author had two main male characters, each with a POV. With every new scene, the author chose to use the pronoun “he” rather than the character’s name, and I had to read halfway down the page to find out which he she was talking about. It was confusing and frustrating, yet this book is quite popular and on the must-read list of many people.

  11. The book I referenced in the post is actually a Nobel winner, so this pitfall is not necessarily a roadblock to success. But you’ll make a lot more friends along the way if you play nice with character names.

  12. I was just alpha reader for a friend who wrote a 168,000 tome. In the first paragraph he introduced 9 characters and used 3 nicknames for 3 those 9. By page 19, he’d introduced 21 people, 5 nicknames, 3 planets in a new solar system, several pieces of technogadgets the new solar system had, and at least 3 new species of humanoids. I couldn’t get past page 19.

  13. Yowch. My brain hurts just thinking about it!

  14. Great point to keep in mind! I have two minor characters and both their names start with N so I’ve been considering changing one so it’s not too confusing.

  15. I have a main characters name but I either use her full name or her nickname. Should I not do this? I made it clear in the beginning of the story that she was the same person. Bad idea?

  16. @Plamena: Changing character names can be like pulling fingernails, but sometimes it’s for the best.

    @Anonymous: Within the narrative, I’d choose and use just one of the names.

  17. Good topic! I find that the more books I write, the more I tend to use the same character names. Ack! Don’t know why I am so name-challenged. I am now making lists of characters during the rough draft stage of a manuscript and comparing the list to my previous books.

    I’ve also learned to look up the most popular baby names for the year in which my character was born, so that my names will be age-appropriate.

  18. So true. This issue came up in our critique group recently. : ) Thanks!

  19. I confess I sometimes refer to characters by first name and sometimes by surname. Sometimes when I sit down to write a scene I scratch my head and wonder which is correct.

    What I’m taking from this is that either is fine as long as I pick one and use it consistently.

  20. I tend to like using distinctive names, especially for the main characters, and I like to introduce them to the reader with their full name, that way I can refer to them by either their first name, or their surname.

    Also, I’ve found that sometimes names do make a character… changing a character’s name can sometimes improve the story.

    BTW: I ordered your book “Outlining Your Novel”.. can’t wait for it to arrive! 😀

  21. In my current project, proper names have three versions: one used by the Human, one by the aliens, and one by the Dragon. In the narrative, told in first person by the Human, the Human’s version of the name is consistently used, with rare reminders of what names the other characters use. In dialog, each character uses their version of names. For example, the aliens refer to the Human as “Dakquagomi,” but the Dragon calls him “Prey-Animal,” which the Human always finds disturbing. Within the realms of narrative and dialog, there is consistency for what names each character uses. So far, my alpha readers seem happy with the results.

    My alpha readers and I have discussed my character names. In my next pass through the story, I may refine a few. One alpha reader did complain specifically about one character’s name. She is one of my favorite characters with a name I love. I plan to carry her through at least the next three book series, and I plan to keep the name.

  22. @Pamela: I find myself repeating names occasionally too. The MC in my fantasy Dreamlander was named Chris and, without even thinking about it, I named the son of the MC in the next book Christopher. Not a huge gaffe, but I probably would have avoided it had I thought about it.

    @Beth: Critique groups are great at catching little bloopers like this, which authors sometimes don’t give a second thought to.

    @Adam: Spot on. I’ve written stories in which the MC goes by his last name, instead of his first name. That presents no problem whatsoever, so long as we’re consistent in referring to him by the last name.

    @Gideon: The accepted practice in most books is to introduce the character by his full name, then choose either his first or his last name and refer to him by that name throughout the book. It’s important not to alternate between the two. Thanks for buying the book! I hope you enjoy it!

    @Lester: What you’ve described is a process that usually works and is sometimes essential to staying true to various characters’ narrative POVs. Generally, in my own writing, I prefer to make names as simple as possible by choosing names all viewpoint characters can use to refer to the other characters, which allows me to maintain consistency from one viewpoint to another. However, this isn’t always possible since unique characters and their unique voices sometimes require unique vocabularies. When this is the case, beta readers are invaluable, since they can point out areas in which the lack of consistency becomes more of a stumbling block than a useful technique.

  23. Also, same spelling – Allen or Alan, Jon or John, etc. I read part of a novel on Kindle and three characters had names starting with the K sound. Very confusing!

  24. Just read a book like that myself. It had three or four characters whose names started with “R,” and two of those names differed in spelling only in the central vowel. Talk about confusing!

  25. I have a big problem with the name of my MC. His real name is something he dislikes, and eventually adopts a nickname his best friend gives him. This change will be important in the conflict he has with his father.
    Furthermore the nickname is the name I really want to use to refer to him, but he only receives it around the first plot point. What should I do?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although I would always encourage authors to find names they can stick with throughout the story, it’s definitely possible to make this work. If there’s an obvious and plot-enhancing reason for the name change, most readers will be willing to ride it out.

      • Thanks! I’ll try to figure out how not to make that change altogether, but it’s nice to know it’s not a complete deal-breaker.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Nothing’s a deal breaker unless it divides the reader from the story. If you can pull it off in a way that feels seamless, most readers won’t think twice about it.

    • I think Veronica Roth did this successfully in Divergent, when the main character went from Beatrice to Tris. I’d guess that what made the change successful was that the change furthered the plot, and that Tris was used from that point forward. Also, that the nickname was closely related to the original name, and wasn’t similar to any other character names. It’s been a while since I read the books, but I don’t remember her original name being used again after the character decided to change her name. I hope that helps 😊

  26. Lynda Cooke says

    So, just to test it out and see what you think, I have four main characters in my current WIP and two of them have names starting with S. The male, Samson, will not be having a name change…as far as I can see, it fits him well. The female, Simone, may need a new name to avoid confusion but if you think the names are different enough to not have that problem, I’ll keep them both. What do you think?

    Also, recently found this blog through Pintrest and I’ve been loving all your wonderful advice!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog! Painful as it is, my advice would be to change the female’s name. Not only does it start with the same letter, but it’s the same length as Samson, and also features an “m” and an “n,” which compounds the potential of readers misreading it.

  27. What if for example he refers himself with nickname Sho in the character’s narrative which is simply a shortened version to his long name Shosuke and he is called Sho by his family members and his close friends while only on formalities and with his co-workers and his boss is he called with his actual first name Shosuke along with his last name.
    Is this okay??

  28. My WIP has three characters with “2 names”. The co-antagonists have unrecognizable alternate identities and names when they’re out mingling in public or with the heroes

    Also one of the MC’s has a “traditional” name due to his heritage that’s only used at the points when such is referenced.

    But I’ve made it as clear as I possibly can when it’s one or the other, so it doesn’t feel too confusing.

  29. How would you advise handling a character using an alias?
    I have a character working undercover throughout the story. In his viewpoint he’s referred to by his own (last) name. In my other character’s viewpoint, she refers to him by his alias. However, she eventually finds out his real name and will have to switch (70% into the book).
    Is this going to be hopelessly confusing/jarring?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes situations such as this are unavoidable. As long as readers are never confused, that’s really the only thing that matters.

  30. I know and love this one, thanks for posting about it. I once wrote a scene where an Alison and and Annette were having a ferocious argument. It just degenerated into a hopeless tongue-twister. In the end I replaced Alison with Moira.

    I try to be consistent. Jane is introduced with the words “Lieutenant Jane Gould pressed the button firmly and the stars began to go out.” That pretty well nails her being Jane or Lieutenant Gould, and she is never anything else. However she has a middle initial M and she will never say what it stands for. In fact if you read both books it is possible to work it out.

    What worries me, and I’d value your comments, is how similar names can be without causing confusion. Keller and Kelso, for example I thought would confuse, so Keller became Garrett.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, I know I’ve got to change character names when even I get confused when editing them. :p

  31. I named one of my characters after an Afrikaans words.

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