Names and Not-Names
Updated: Jun 28, 2021
What do authors think about when choosing names for the characters in their novels? This is a question I get often at book signings or in classrooms. People are curious.
I have three major objectives when choosing names.
First, I want the names not to be easily confused with each other. I’m not going to have a Sue, a Susie, a Suzanne, and a Sue Ellen in the same book. In fact, I may not even have two people whose names start with the same letter.
Second, since my stories are Christian-themed, most of my major “good” characters have Biblical names: Rebecca, Luke, Matt (Matthew), Joanna, Samuel. Not every single good character has a Biblical name. But most do.
And third, I don’t want names that are so unusual that they actually distract the reader every time the name appears in the story. Names that are long, difficult for English-speaking readers to spell or to pronounce, or that, for whatever reason, cause readers’ eyes to stop and stare at the name: I avoid placing such names in my stories.
And this brings me to a different, but related, point. I try not to have many named characters at all, precisely because I don’t want readers to get confused by, let’s say, having two or three dozen different names to keep track of.
Could a not-named character have a major role? Probably not, but that does not mean that a not-named character couldn’t have an important role. For example, near the end of my first novel, The Face of the Enemy, we find this:
… [It was] one of the policemen from the south porch [of the Cathedral] guard unit. With him was a man whose face he recognized after a moment. It was Meredith Lancaster’s driver. The two approached him, well ahead of the dignitaries. The policeman addressed [Jonathan] Foster.
“I don’t like to bother you, sir,” said the man in a stage whisper, “but there’s someone here says he’s got to talk to you. Says he’s Dr. Lancaster’s chauffeur, sir.”
Foster nodded and, with a gesture, dismissed the policeman, who turned and walked back along the aisle. Foster motioned for the driver to follow him in the other direction, out of earshot of those who were arriving. “Now,” he said, looking closely at the ashen face of the man. “What is it?”
“Mr. Foster,” he said in a gravelly, rushed whisper, “I don’t know what to do, sir. It was the most terrible thing ever I’ve seen.”
I don’t want to tell you what else the chauffeur said to Jonathan Foster, because that would give away some important details about the denouement – the climax – of The Face of the Enemy. I don’t want to spoil the ending for any of you who have not yet read that book, and may decide to.
But you can see from that little exchange that a given character – in this case, Dr. Lancaster’s chauffeur – can have an important place in a novel, yet without being so important that you and I need to have his name. And so, the chauffeur remains nameless, as does the policeman who escorted him to the detective.
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