The First Letter of Character Names

Sidenote: I keep rewriting the post on the advantages of critiquing. One day I’ll publish it…

Letter M from the Fantastic Alphabet - Click for source

In Christi Craig’s most recent blog post, My Favorite Letters of the Alphabet, she and several commenters admitted to using J and M for the first letter of many character names.

Why are these letters so popular? My guess is that every writer is drawn to a limited range of names. I have a habit with my novels of starting a character’s name a letter that identifies its type. For example:

  • dark hero’s name with a D
  • main character’s inspirational friend’s with a J
  • warrior woman’s with an S
  • scary authority figure’s with a T

I realized months ago that I lean towards D but didn’t realize until tonight that other letters indicate a character type.

At least this letter-by-type method is more developed than starting most of the important characters in the same story with the same letter.

“But wait,” someone might say. “People prefer M and J, so shouldn’t I use those for my important characters?”

No. Readers need variation to help them tell characters apart, and they’ll appreciate if it’s in more than the physical description and dialogue.

Consider this scenario. If a book introduced you to Dina, Donny, Darcie, and David in the first few chapters, then how likely are you to remember the difference between Dina and Darcie, or between Donny and David, without a heavy use of character tags (recurring actions, dialogue or description specific to each character)?

Tina, Donny, Alice, and Mike don’t blend together as much but conjure similar images as the first list.

Orson Scott Card mentioned this issue in one of his online Writing Class posts, More on Naming Characters. This form of reader confusion appears to be common and long-standing concern.

I’ve seen writers insist that introducing characters in different chapters and different locations should prevent reader confusion, and while some readers may catch on to the difference, I prefer not to take unnecessary risks in keeping readers in the story. As a reader myself, I also dislike struggling to remember which character is which. Give each prominent character unique qualities, including a name distinct from the other character names.

Bonus!

There’s a benefit to starting each character’s name with a different letter. If you make notes about your plots and characters like I do, then you like shortcuts. I prefer to write “D woke to find S waiting by his bed. S tells him T is planning on killing them” and so on instead of writing full names over and over and over again in an outline. This is especially helpful in the notes that are handwritten first.

This shortcut won’t work for multiple characters whose names start with D or S.

Have you been confused by names that started with the same letter? Do you know of any other reason to vary the first letter of important characters?

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14 thoughts on “The First Letter of Character Names”

  1. Definitely, I’ve been confused by character’s with names too similar. That’s why I was surprised to find that I’d used so many J names in my novel. I’ve already changed one, but the uncle and nephew I think are appropriate, easily distinguished and only appear together a couple times. The fourth one is a woman, so there’s that distinction, though I may change her name in the end.

    I’m not sure why those of us responded that we too found M and J names common in our writing (though M is not common for me) but I suspect it has something to do with cultural linguistics.

    1. Similar names for family members make sense to me, and I’d think the age difference would help.

      I wonder how many J and M names are in bibles. Many people in English cultures have based their children’s names off of bible names. That might contribute to our preferences.

    2. I’ve been confused/frustrated by character names before. Then I flip back to remind myself who’s who. Ugh. Recently I read a book in which two characters had the same name. And the same nick-name! Granted one was a minor character, but it drove me insane anyway.

      1. Welcome to Shadows, V.V. Denman! That book you read recently sounds particularly frustrating. I wouldn’t want do to that to a reader. If I wanted to give characters the same name, I would at least use different nicknames. Sheesh.

  2. In my family we are 5 Js. me, my husband, my son, my mother, and my brother. I almost didn;t name my son with J because of it, but love the name.

    In my first novel, I had a Daniel and a Nathaniel. I had to change that. In this one I have a Caroline and a Charles. I have been debating changing Charles…not sure, it fits him so well.

    O go crazy when I read books with names that are similar – I do find it confusing!

    1. That’s a strong family tradition.

      I wrote here about first letters, but in DeCo, I had to pay more attention to name endings. For some reason, I wanted to give all the females names that ended in an “ee” sound.

  3. I have experienced that reader confusion myself. And, I hate to pass that experience onto anyone who might eventually get their hands on my WIP. In thinking about this current novel,most of my M characters are introduced in the first few chapters. Looks like I’ll be attacking my outline with a red pen tonight!

  4. When using the alphabet to choose a name, I like to use hard consonants for more active characters. Chuck is a tough guy, Charlie, on the other hand, might be easy going. I often choose names by looking at baby name sites, also check the meaning or background of a name that might fit my character. For example: Dolores means sorrow. So I might not use that name if she is a cheerful sort. But, her nicknames might fit her better, Dori, Dodi, Lori, even though her overbearing mother might call her Dolores.

    1. Welcome, Elizabeth! Thank you for sharing your naming methods.

      My favorite baby name site is Baby Names World because of the visitor comments and Similar Names feature. It also allows for searches on meaning, language origin, and starting letters. Do you have a favorite site?

      Delores means sorrow? That’s oddly relevant in my personal life.

  5. George RR Martin not only has names that are similar, his epic is so expansive, some minor characters have the same names as the major characters. Good times. That piece of advice about character names beginning with different letters seems like good advice so that’s how I’ve approached it. I do have two female characters that end in ‘a’ that I manage to confuse often, so I’ll have to change that.
    Thanks for the great post and thanks to Jen for alerting me to your blog!

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