Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame; Each to his passion; what’s in a name? ◊
Too much sometimes. As in eye-squinching, brow-furrowing overkill. Some writers feel a need to ensure readers know who’s speaking, or being spoken to, frequently—as in all the time frequently.
Jeff jumped and almost dropped the phone when he saw the number on call display. He stared at the phone for a couple of seconds in disbelief and then hit the answer button. There was silence on the other end. “Hello, who is this?” Jeff asked anxiously.
“Jeffrey, is that you Jeffrey?” a female voice on the other end asked.
Jeff hadn’t expected a female voice. The number on call display belonged to Marcus Smith, who was only to call if urgent.
“Jeffrey, is that you Jeffrey?” the female voice at the other end asked again.
“That depends on who’s asking,” Jeff said angrily.
“Jeffrey, its Jane Holloway. Marcus Smith gave me this number. He’s been shot and told me to call you. Marcus said he needs to see you, Jeffrey, as soon as possible. Please come, Jeffrey!”
“Jane? Jane? Are you there? Where’s Marcus?” Jeff suddenly realized that Jane had ended the call. He stared at the phone and wondered what the hell was happening.
“Jeff, who’s Jane?” Nancy’s voice from behind Jeff demanded in a voice that was both inquisitive and peevish.
Like anything, use names in moderation. Yes, sometimes readers need to be reminded who is speaking or being referred to, particularly if there’s a lot of dialogue. By and large, however, we’re pretty decent detectives: we can deduce the obvious.
So, how about some quick rules about names?
Once you’ve given a character a name (or maybe a pronoun to refer to him/her), keep using it. The hero’s name is George. Don’t call him “the man” or “the government agent”, or “my older brother”, unless perhaps someone is describing him as such.
No: The tall man stood and looked over at Henry. “I want to know what happened,” George said.
Yes: George straightened to his full height and eyed Henry warily. “I want to know what happened.”
Don’t refer to relationships repeatedly. Neddy, for example, has a habit of referring to his sister and girlfriend as “the two women” (over and over and over again). Once in a while, depending on the action/scene, sure, do so. Constantly, however? No. Nor does Neddy need to tell us that Margaret is his sister … over and over and over again. We understood that the first time it was mentioned. Don’t overuse titles and personal/professional relationships; stick to names and pronouns.
Now, some characters may have several names (maybe they work undercover, lead different lives, are criminals). If this is the case, keep those to a minimum. Too many names for one character can lead to confusion, particularly if they thrown here, there, and everywhere. If a lover calls his sweetie “Cutie-pie”, cool. Make sure no one else calls her that, unless maybe in jest. Be aware of which character(s) would know and use that other name; ensure this is evident and logical. Use common sense and consistency—give a character multiple names only if the plot/character warrant it.
When you open your story, keep your characters—and names—to an “understandable” level. There’s no reason to introduce all the primary characters, and secondary ones, in the prologue or first chapter. And if you name [a lot of] characters early on, give them a purpose. Don’t throw them in for the sake of padding the plot or because you want readers know these characters exist. Too many characters at once is, simply, too much. Some can appear later, as the scene and story [logically] dictate.
One major rule: do not, please, constantly call people by name in dialogue. We don’t do this in real life (listen to conversations at work, on the bus, at home). Characters shouldn’t do this, either. It becomes annoying, to say the least. Use names in dialogue with a particular purpose—basically, to let us know who’s speaking to whom (when dialogue is lengthy) or inform us that someone new to the scene is speaking.
Names should enable us to follow the story easily and effortlessly—to understand what is happening to whom. ‘Nuff said.
◊ Helen Hunt Jackson (American poet and writer; activist of Native American treatment by US government)