I recently checked out a book from the library. I’ve met the author
and think of myself as a “special” fan of his, since he signed my
book and talked to me at dinner one night (but I don’t want to
embarrass him, or me, so he’ll remain anonymous), and I couldn’t wait for my local library to get a copy of the book for me.
Then it came. I opened it. I read chapter one. Then I put it down and
went to sleep. The next night, I picked it up and read chapters two
and three. And put it down. (Side note: I’m the type of person who’ll read a book straight through and skip sleeping entirely, EVEN if the next day is the most important day of my life. If the book is excellent, I won’t put it down.)
But I found this book at the bottom of the “to be read” pile. I
managed to read seven or eight other books before I picked it up again and read the next two chapters. Then I put it down and read
something else. I even took it on vacation with me and never opened it once. I had to ask the library if I could keep the book for
another three weeks. At this moment in time, the book mark is between chapters eleven and twelve. (Another side note: I NEVER stop mid- chapter.)
I finally had to ask: what is it about this book that I can’t seem to finish it? I love the author (and his previous works). I’m interested in the premise of the book. The plot goes at a pretty good clip. I want to know what happens to the protagonist. So why can’t I finish it?
After a ton of analysis, I figured it out. Several of the characters had foreign names that I found difficult to pronounce. Usually, this wouldn’t stop me at all. But to make things worse, at least four of them all started with the letter A. I found myself not remembering who these men were. Were they bad guys or good guys? Was one of them a traitor? Or were they all helping the protagonist? For the life of me, I could not keep them separate.
It frustrated me to the point that the story started to not make sense. Why did Adam (names changed to protect the innocent) make this comment to Aaron? And what was Abel doing while Abram talked on the phone to Adam? Did Abram know that Adam tinkered with the brakes? Is Abel in on it with Adam? Or is Adam a good guy who’s just acting like a bad guy to learn the truth? Arggh! I can’t even keep this example straight, and I’m the one who made it up. I also found that it doesn’t do any good to give Adam a beard, make Abel blond, and show Abram walking with a limp. It’s the names that tripped me up.
There’s a lesson in here for us authors: make the character names different enough so the reader can keep them straight. It might be cute, in real life, to name the triplets Janie, Jenny, and Jodie, but
in a novel, these three ladies must be wholly unique people with completely different names. It’s not just a matter of the names all beginning with the same letter. Rhyming names are out (Lori, Dori, and Kori) as are first name/last name similarities (Stephen Schwartz, Jeffrey Stephenson, and Robbie Stevens). This also crosses the gender lines. The hero/heroine pair shouldn’t be named Katie and Kelly, or Jody and Jamie (which is male, which is female?), or even Adam and Amanda. To make the reading as easy as possible for the reader, we authors need to choose names that are easy to remember, easy to pronounce, and different from every other character. I like ethnic names, and there’s a place for specialty names like Seamus, or Ahmad, or Giulio. But most of the names in our stories should be distinct. I won’t dare say common. But we should make life as easy for our readers as possible.