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How to Avoid Confusing Readers With Similar Character Names

character namesIt’s important for authors to avoid confusions big and small. We understand the importance of creating a plot and a character progression that keep readers from wrinkling their faces in confusion. But it’s equally important to avoid smaller confusions—such as confusing readers with similar character names.

Consider, for example, a sci-fi book that featured as many as three characters whose names began with the letter J and who appeared regularly in scenes together.

At first glance, this isn’t obviously a problem. But because most people read by sight, rather than sounding out words, and because most people read so quickly that their eyes take in multiple words per second, it’s easy for readers to take a look at nothing more than the first letter in a name and make an assumption about which character is on stage.

When an author has given names beginning with the same letter to more than one character, this can confuse readers. When the names themselves present similar silhouettes on the page (e.g., Julie and Judie, the problem is exacerbated.

Fortunately, the answer to this little problem is as simple as it is obvious. All authors have to do is select names that begin with different letters.

This, however, can grow surprisingly difficult when your cast is large or when a character absolutely insists that his name is such-and-such. A little ingenuity can help you around these pitfalls.

Sometimes a different spelling can preserve the sound of the name, while lessening the possibility of confusion for the reader (e.g., Quora instead of Cora).

Also, sometimes it works to have more than one name beginning with the same letter, if the subsequent letters and number of syllables are different (e.g., Jim and Jonathan).

In the end, this is such an easy problem to fix that writers have nothing to lose by exerting a little extra creativity in naming their characters.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! As a reader, are you ever confused by similar character names? 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. @Liberty: Wow. That’s frustrating! Plus, I know Clancy has a tendency to call one character by several names (first name, last name, code name).

    @Charlotte: It never ceases to amaze me how blind we are to our own problems – even when those problems are ones we’re adamantly opposed to.

    @Travis: Gotcha. I use the Read Out Loud feature in Adobe Reader. The voice isn’t great (actually it’s pretty hilarious sometimes), but it does the job.

  2. For me, there are a few factors that help with keeping characters separate, including ethnicity (if it is from a real culture).

    And there might be good story reasons for having similar sounding names, it might be part of the plot (especially in humor).

    It happens all the time that two people of the same first name work together or go to school together. E.g., I was on an archaeological dig where we had ‘The Two Heathers’. In such a case people will sometimes in third person references speak of e.g., “Josh K” and “Josh L” (a case at a former workplace). They were the “two Joshes” come to think of it!

    I was on a text-based role play world where there were 5 characters with the names Eirik (mine), Erik, Eric, and Erich. What’s worse, for a while Eric was Eirik’s mentor and I borrowed his ‘room’ for my character’s home, so Eirik was staying in ‘Sir Eric’s’ room.

  3. It can be confusing, but preventing this problem is a responsibility shared by both the writer and the reader. A good reader will note that some characters have names with similar silhouettes and train themselves to note the differences between them as they read. This skill sets us apart from those who could never keep track of the roles of Grumio and Gremio in Taming of the Shrew.

  4. @blackfeather: Okay, now that’s *really* confusing! Can you imagine reading a book with all those variations of “Eric”?

    @Caddie: Ultimately, I agree about the reader sharing the responsibility with the writer. But writers would do well to take as much of the burden as they can off the reader, because, frankly, not all readers are willing to share the responsibility.

  5. I’m new to your site. I just found it and enjoyed your posts.

    This is a very interesting subject. I had a conversation with an author about character names at one time. I do have a question. What is your view on long, or short names? Should a writer stay away from either one of these?

  6. Unless we’re talking *really* long (as in Horatioligitamusfaralgio), I don’t think it matters. Readers are often put off by names that aren’t easy to pronounce, so watch out for that.

  7. Not so much if the author varies the syllable count and overall sound of the word enough. But at four or more, my teeth start grinding.

  8. Two is enough to confuse me – although I won’t start wanting to throw things at the author until he ups the count to three or four.

  9. This post is so timely – guilty as charged…and with ‘J’! The names make sense to me though, so I’ll keep them until the final draft. Will give me time to think of replacements.

  10. J must be a popular letter!

  11. I guess. 😀 Had a reason for doing it, but this post is making me question that. Thanks for the reality check.

  12. Who knows, maybe your reason is worth taking the risk of confusing readers with the same initial. But this is always a good thing to double-think.

  13. This is something I don’t notice as I draft, but then as I edit, I’ll see a bunch of names that either sound similar or start with the same letter. Thank goodness for find and replace. 🙂

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  14. Yes, indeed, Word’s Find feature is the best writing tool since someone invented ink!

  15. I’ve been confused by similar names and it drives me crazy! And I’ve had the problem of wanting to name all my female characters with the letter L for some reason.

  16. I admit to liking “L” names, especially for females, as well. Ah well, I figure I can always save a name that doesn’t work for one story and put it in another.

  17. Hey! I could really use some help 🙂 In my story there is a male and a female main character. The male is called Alevan, but the female has two names: she uses Seflatinel (or Sefla when they get more close to each other) as a disguise, when in reality she’s called princess Alvaéla. Recently I started worrying about the similarity of Alevan and Alvaéla. Though they are of different sex, and the two names won’t usually be used when they are together.
    But! There’s a third major character, a witch (kind of), who will take on princess Alvaéla’s identity (by stealing her seal ring) and a little bit later the princess’ whole shape (by using magic). So there will be Alevan, Sefla and a false Alvaéla.
    Is that confusing? Is that really confusing, or only because of my poor english? 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      They’re all great names, so it would be a shame to lose them. But, yes, I think you might be able to avoid a lot of unintended reader confusion by mixing up the name patterns a little more.

  18. Just discovered this site and I’m really liking your posts! In my current project my two protagonists both have names that start with A, and I’ve been worrying about it.

    Both of the names have meaning important to the characters, so I’m reluctant to change either one. One is named Alesia which is a reference to the Battle of Alesia in the Gallic Wars, the events of which are echoed in that character’s story arc and growth. The other is named Ana, and her twin sister is named Kata, after the two four-dimensional directions (their parents are STEM nerds, and that background is important to her character development). I wasn’t worried at first – I figured, hey, Harry and Hermione have the same first initial, right? – but after seeing this I’m now not so sure.

    I really don’t want to give up those names, and I’m doubtful I could find other ones that are meaningful in the same way (especially with Alesia), but I also don’t want to use them if they’re too similar. I usually only get confused when same-initial names are of similar length and/or have a few other letters in common besides the initials, but other people might feel differently.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Despite my own preaching on this subject, I’m in the same place again with my own WIP. Both my antagonists have two-syllable names that start with M and end with C. I know I’m going to have to change one of them, but I’m very attached to both for logical reasons within the plot. It’s tough, but definitely worth it to avoid confusing readers.

      • Thanks for the reply! I’ve been thinking it over and have now actually shown some people the names in context, and no one has been confused, so I’m starting to think it’ll be okay since they don’t really look the same (length, different letters in the middle). So I think I’m going to go for it, unless anyone thinks the names I have are really really too similar.

        Good luck with your own character naming!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I always know I’ve got a problem when *I* start tripping over the characters’ names. If neither you nor anyone else is having that difficulty, you might be able to get away with it.

  19. I have a father named Edward and his two sons are Ethan and Erik. Are those too confusing together? I wanted them to have the same initials.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If this were me, I would try to start their names with different letters, unless the initials are important to the plot.

  20. It’s frustrating, as I have a Daniel and a Dylan in my wip. I know that at some point I may have to change one of those names, but they fit so well with the characters, that I dread the idea of it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I relate so much. :p But I will say that the earlier you change a name, the easier it is!

  21. I had two main characters in my book. Rebecca and Richard. I confused myself sometimes, so I changed Rebecca’s name to Katalin. I like it so much better and I’m no longer confused.
    It’s not like they were related or anything like that, and I am more attached to Richard than Rebecca, so it was an easier choice ‘:D

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