Despite some concerns about how I prioritise my time, I recently allocated several hours to a task that is either brilliantly forward thinking or the biggest waste of time since ironing underwear (not guilty: I struggle even to assemble the ironing board). In the process of editing the short stories in my forthcoming collection, Becoming Someone, I altered the names of a few characters to avoid duplication. So far, so sensible. But I couldn’t leave it at that. I also trawled through my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, my second novel, Underneath, and my current WIP, with the aim of abolishing overlaps across my published work. Is this evidence of a professional approach to my writing or an overly obsessive and perfectionist personality?
I’m less fussy about naming the secondary characters, often plucking names from the ether. But in my novels I do try to avoid confusing readers by giving characters similar names. It’s particularly tricky with my current WIP as three interweaving strands means more characters than my other novels. When I discovered I’d written a scene involving a Mervyn, Matty and Mavis, the latter, as the most peripheral of the three, had to become Hilda even though I preferred her original name. And pity the occupational therapist, currently on her third name (Heather) after Vanessa and then Ingrid were too easily confused with other characters.
If naming is so complex within books is it worth the effort of striving for uniqueness across published works? I say yes for our main characters (I don’t expect to ever again write a novel narrated by a Diana or a Steve or partnered by a Simon or Liesel) and a qualified no for bit-part tertiary characters (unless they’ve been given particularly unusual names). But for secondary characters, those who pop up now and again to help push the story along?
Perhaps by now you’re wondering why I think that matters. It’s unlikely anyone will ever study my fiction so closely to notice such a gaffe. But a reader named Max or Hetherington might pick up on it. If I can avoid such duplication in the future, shouldn’t I try? Or am I better off spending my time ironing knickers? Let me know what you think!
I’d already chosen the image to accompany this post when Charli’s introduction to the latest flash fiction prompt featured an impressive array of badges. But the theme is “follow your dreams” and, in composing my response, it struck me that I hadn’t considered gender in my musings on character names. This might be why:
The girls talked shoes and shopping, so I ran with the boys. Till they obsessed on cricket and football, and I walked alone. Why did girls paint their faces and fuss with their hair? Why did boys get drunk on swagger, beer and playful punches? Neither camp suited me.
“I’m changing my name to Alex, Chris or Charlie.”
Sis clocks my breasts, my knee-high boots, my beard. “Looks like that’s not all you’re changing.”
“I’m following my dream to shake off the shackles of gender.” Gonna get me a badge: I’m Sam and my pronouns are they and their.