Naming Our Characters: Part 2


Why isn’t it a good idea to name characters with similar names like Fanny, Fran and Frank? (Or even with the same beginning letter?)

If you’ve ever tried to proofread your own work, you’ll understand the concept behind why it’s difficult — if not impossible — to do. It’s because our minds are nice to us. Our minds like to help us swim across the sentence moat into the castle of imagination. Our minds want to help us “see” what it thinks we expect to be there, like “and” instead of “adn”. No, no, silly. Those aren’t piranhas, those are goldfish. Keep swimming.

That’s why I always tell my clients, when their book is at the final stages of design, when they have to give it that final run-through, to read it backwards.

“What?!!” they e-mail back to me, and I don’t need to see their faces to know their eyes are wide with disbelief and even horror. “But I can’t read it like that!”

“Esattamente!” I tell them. “We don’t want to ‘read’ it at this stage. We want to fool our minds into actually seeing each word individually rather than assuming what might be there.”

I soon get the next e-mail: “I caught a big one! And it was a whopper!”

It’s a lot of work doing it that way, tedious, tiring, slow going but it’s amazing how the errors seem to leap off the page.

When we read a novel, we like to get right into it. We like to imagine ourselves in the world the author has created for us and this to the point where we no longer even want to know that some author has created this world we are now exploring, living in. (When we get to this stage in our writing career, when we can cause our readers to want to shut us out, too, we’ve made it. We have arrived.)

When reading a well-constructed novel, we are in that delicate world between right and left brain, balanced on the rim of concept and detail, so every time we run across anything that tips us too far to one side, we fall into either the complete concept pool (where words do not exist, only pictures) or into the complete detail pool that has all the words and numbers and previously filed pictures (sort of) in it, but no imagination.

When we read about a character — for instance Fanny — we take a picture of that name and store it in our concept side. We merely need to see the capital letter “F” and perhaps the roundish letter “a”, the smoothness of the “n”, and we know this mental picture means our heroine, the girl/woman we’re already deeply interested in and know a lot about.

On we read to possibly skim right over “Fran” the first time, or even the second. This will go on until we read something quite un-Fanny about what our minds had assumed was Fanny. What’s she doing with Joe? I thought she was married to Peter. What? SPLASH! Into the detail side of our brain we go and out of the world we’ve been inside.

We might even have to go back and re-read several pages to figure out who the hell is who anymore. Annoyed, do we set the book aside?

Let’s make a solemn vow right this instant never to push readers off that tenuous rim and in with the piranhas.  Or the goldfish. Moats have neither. Trolls, drowned knights, swords, and the odd maiden perhaps — but that’s another post.

Next post May 23.

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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