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