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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. Yes, characters whose names begin with the same letter get very confusing. The story gets choppy and instead of flowing through stories I end up stopping taking time to double think what just happened instead of sailing through a scene that was meant to be smooth sea.

  2. Yes. I agree. I’ve had to go back in and change the names of my characters several times trying to come up with one that fits them and also not to be repetitive.

    Nicknames work for me if I absolutely have to have two characters with the same names, like father and son. Big Joe and little Joe for ex. would be Big Joe and Jack.

  3. Quote: There’s been many a fine story o’the exploits o’No’-as-big-as-Medium-Sized-Jock-but-bigger-than-Wee-Jock-Jock.

    (Pratchett, Wee Free Men.)

  4. I have even been confused by similar names in my own stories before. In my last book project the two main characters’ names both began with ‘A’ and I frequently typed the wrong one.

    So far I’ve avoided that among my main characters in my present work, but thanks for the reminder!

  5. I was just commenting on this in a friend’s manuscript last night! Nice to know I wasn’t just making it up.

  6. I haven’t had a problem with names with the same first letter–after all, it happens in real life, as do many people with the same first name.

    I did have an issue with two secondary characters named Amanda and Amelia. Those were just too close, and they were infrequently on stage so it made it harder to remember who was who.

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has two a Berger (last name) and a Birger (first name). The Girl Who Played with Fire still has Berger and a brand new Birger. Took a while to get that one figured out.

  7. @Jessica: The last thing an author wants is for a reader to ever have to stop and double-think. *shiver*

    @Anne: As if characters weren’t sometimes hard enough to name the first time around, huh? It’s very important to me that names *fit* characters, so trying to find those names, while at the same time avoiding names that begin with certain letters, can be very challenging.

    @Cricket: Hah! Gotta love Pratchett.

    @Hannah: I’ve done that too. Actually, sometimes I’ve even found myself confusing names of characters from *different* stories. *facepalm*

    @Anne: Nope, you were right on!

    @Debbie: When you have names that have, not only the same first letter, but also the same second letter, the problem can get even slipperier.

  8. For my current book, I’ve made an alphabetical list of all my characters so I can catch similar names. I’ve noticed I have some letters I probably overuse in names but the names don’t really sound the same so I’m hoping I’ll be able to get by.
    There was one story I worked on for NaNoWriMo and I tried to use weird names for the alien characters. It ended up being a very bad idea because I got the minor characters mixed up. It wasn’t because I used similar sounding names; it was because the names were so weird I couldn’t remember them.

  9. That’s funny! I’ve had to change several character names late in the editing process – and I inevitably remember them by their original names. I’ll have readers talking about Roderic – the bad guy in Behold the Dawn – but I find myself still thinking of him as Gregory (had to change his name because another character was called Gethin).

  10. Yes, I’ve experienced this pitfall. On some occasions it’s hard to avoid. I’ve just completed a screenplay based on a true and very powerful story (which is far better than my screenplay) The problem is that the two central characters are named Mrs Harrison and Mrs Harding – and it’s set in a relatively formal world where christian names are rarely used. Less of a problem in a script, maybe.

    Because I comment so rarely, may I say how useful I think your site is.

  11. Yes, I think screenwriters have way more leeway on this issue than novelists do. Harding and Harrison *sound* much more different than they look on the page.

  12. For the most part, I try to avoid more than one character with the same first initial, but in my WIP I have a boy named Joe and a girl named Jenny—opposite genders, and the letters after the first one are different, different syllables, etc. Yet because they are boyfriend/girlfriend and will often be in the same scene, I’m thinking of changing Jenny’s name.

  13. That’s always a tough decision to make, especially when both characters are adamant about their names. In my experience, it’s better to change the names early in the outlining stage, rather than waiting, since names influence character personality to a large degree.

  14. I love your blog, so I’ve awarded you the Versitle blog award on my blog. http://wordsharpeners.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/versitle-blogger-award/

  15. Thanks, Tamera! I appreciate this (and the AuthorCulture award) a lot.

  16. As a writer, I say names out-loud to hear if they’re too similar. So far, so good!

    As a reader, I can’t think of a book off the top of my head where characters have similar names… which is probably the point!

  17. Good technique – although it is important to note that names that *sound* similar aren’t as much of a problem as names that *look* similar.

  18. Definitely guilty over here. My characters usually come with their own names, even if I don’t particularly like them, and they tend to resist change.

    The biggest one, which for some reason was not obvious until I read it out loud, was a Leah, and a Nataliya who went by Liya. Though it makes sense that we read by sight rather than sound, I’m still not sure how I managed to be so oblivious.

  19. It never ceases to amaze me how blind I am to my own work sometimes. Thank heavens for objective beta reader eyes!

  20. If characters spend a lot of time together I make a conscious decision to keep their names looking and sounding different. I do focus more on the sound than the look, so I shall be more aware of that in the future, thank you!

  21. Reading your work aloud is a fabulous practice. And making certain that character names sound different will ensure that your book is all ready for the audio version!

  22. Great advice. I try to keep this in mind as I name characters, and its surprising how difficult it turns out to be sometimes.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  23. Having just spent weeks trying to find the right name for a very picky character, I can heartily second that.

  24. Yes, that gets on my nerves soooo much. I always get characters mixed up who have the same names, especially if they are hardily developed.

  25. Yes, indeed, the only thing worse than major characters named Jack and John and Jill are *minor* characters with names that similar to one another. At least the heroes have a better chance of being remembered by the reader.

  26. When I first started assembling my Justice Coalition and naming the members, I discovered I had a lot of surnames ending in -son. So I changed some and lopped off the O-N, and in one case the S too, of others.

    I do my best not to have similar names, but in my current WIP I have two young men in the gang. I keep getting them confused with each other, even though one is Dale Jessup and the other is Jay Watkins. Maybe it’s the syllabology of “One Two” that’s confusing me.

    So it not just similar names that are the problem, but similar personalities. I think I’ll have to find a quirk for one of them so they can be told apart. Maybe one should speak more substandard English than the other.

    ~ VT

  27. I try to keep suffixes varied too, although, in certain circumstances (purposeful ethnic similarity, etc.) I wouldn’t have a problem with last names that are similar.

  28. This was my biggest problem with The Lord of the Rings. I know I am not the first person to have said this, but I remember reading it the first time, when I was 13, and knowing I was missing things because I would get so frustrated at having to go back and look up names.

  29. Lord of the Rings made things doubly difficult because not only were the characters named similarly, but the cast itself was mammoth.

  30. Yes, sigh. I try to avoid this, and yet my characters in my last WIP wanted to name themselves Leonard and Lambert. Alas, I had to rename Lambert to Blake. ;o)

  31. It wasn’t specifically names that begin with the same letter, but I was going to call one of my NaNoWriMo characters “Rebekkah,” but I kept writing “Elizabeth.” And that was her name.
    I also have a ‘Joel’ and a ‘Jedidiah’, but they are rarely seen together and two generations apart in age.
    What makes it hard with name endings in my current story is that I am deliberately choosing Hebrewic names, many of which end in “ah” or “yah.”

  32. It’s always a pain, at best. When I have two stubborn characters, I usually just have to decide which is the less insistent about his name, then grit my teeth, and change it in spite of his protests.

  33. Joel and Jedidiah don’t present a huge problem, just because they’re of such different lengths and silhouettes.

  34. Oh yes–I still remember a book that had two main characters with names in the same letter family. The names were quite different, but the characterization was so poor that I every time it changed scenes, I had to stop to think who was who.

    I have a basic rule with names: No one is in the same letter or sound family as the main character. He’s going to be in most of the scenes, so it’s particularly important to make sure his name isn’t similar to anything.

  35. Good rule. As hard as I try to give all of the characters unique letters, I will occasionally have to bend the rule with minor characters. But never with majors.

  36. Once I read a book in which there was a minor character named Ames and a main character named Anne. The two were together in one dramatic scene and it was terribly confusing. 😛 I wondered if the author made the names similar on purpose, in order to make readers particularly alarmed when reading that the villain hit Ames with his deadly weapon. (While reading that sentence, I thought for a heart-in-throat moment that Anne had been killed).

    So, making similar names can actually be a clever tool to heighten suspense. 🙂

    -whisper

  37. Wow, that is confusing. I even misread them in your post!

  38. Oh boy, you didn’t even mention Russian novels. After reading one of those you’ll want to drink some vodka straight out of the bottle from the headache. 😉

  39. Oh yes, no discussion of confusing names would complete without bringing up the Russians and their half dozen nicknames per character!

  40. I have run into this problem myself, thankfully my TTS program allowed me to hear the problem. I have found that a just a few simple changes have made the problem go away and made the work sound better.

    BTW, nice hair and your eyes sparkled brilliant.

  41. Thanks for watching! TTS? Is that a software program that reads aloud?

  42. I only get confused if the characters are VERY similar: their names start with the same letter and are about the same length, and the characters sound alike when they talk.

  43. The problem goes way beyond a potential slip of the eye for the reader when the characterization is poor as well. In that case, similar names is the least of the author’s problems!

  44. When I was in 6th grade, my homeroom had a Rusty Janes and a Rusty McCowan. The teacher thought it was too confusing and told them one of them would have to go by a different name. Rusty Janes decided to go by his first name, Steven. After knowing him since Kindergarten as Rusty, calling him Steven was hard to get used to. 🙂

  45. That’s one of the risks of having a common name (although I wouldn’t have thought that Rusty would be too big of a problem). Growing up, I was surrounded by Katies…

  46. Occasionally. It happens to me more frequently in political thrillers where the casts are huge. I’ve even seen in Tom Clancy books where there may be characters with the same name! How original is it to have 3 “Johns” in the book? I mean, really?!

    I’ve had a similar problem in when writing my own novels. In one book, I discovered 6 characters that had similarly-sounding names–but on the END of the names, not the beginning. Four of them are getting renamed in the second draft. 🙂

  47. This is a pet peeve of mine. So many manuscripts and published books do this to my consternation. Maybe its just my feeble brain, but it gets very confusing. And then, imagine my surprise when someone pointed out to me that my manuscript had the same problem. Sigh.

  48. Yes TTS is Text to Speech software. It helps to hear what I have written. I find that using a British voice helps to clearly identify stuff. Text Aloud (by Next Up) is the I use most often. You can get different voices for them.

  49. @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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. @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.

  53. 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?

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. J must be a popular letter!

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

  60. 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.

  61. 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

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

  63. 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.

  64. 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.

  65. 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.

  66. 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.

  67. 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.

  68. 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!

  69. 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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