Character Name Consistency
A book I edited had a main character with a name of, say, Paul Charleston, who was a vice president of marketing. Within the first fifty pages, the author had referred to this one character by:
the vice president
…and probably ten others I haven’t remembered. Imagine how confused a reader would have been, as there was no discernible reason for the name changes. In addition, should the author have decided midway to change this character’s name, it would have been impossible to change them all with a simple Find/Replace operation. The risk of missing one—or more than one—was very high.
So the question is: How do you balance name and character familiarity and possible redundancy against poetic license?
Character nicknames are not prohibited, but they shouldn’t be used thoughtlessly. For other characters to refer to your main character (or others) by nicknames is normal and natural. Let’s say your novel contains this cast of characters:
- Paul Charleston, businessman
- Carole Williams, Paul’s secretary and secret lover
- Frances Bath-Charleston, Paul’s wife
- George Rocksmith, Paul’s boss
Carol refers to Paul as Mr. Charleston in public, Paul in private, but perhaps her nickname for him in the bedroom is Paulie.
Frances’ standard name for him is “dear.” Never anything else.
George calls him Paul, except when he’s complaining about him to Carol (not knowing she’s his lover), when he calls him “the jerk.”
So there you have five names for one person, all used by specific people in specific situations. This is a normal, natural situation. If everybody in the book called Mr. Charleston by his first name, it would be boring, stilted, and unnatural.
If you changed Paul’s name in the middle of your writing, though, you still might run into the problem of missing “Paulie,” since it’s unique and only one character uses it. One way to make sure you don’t miss it is to keep track of such details by using a spreadsheet, index cards, a white board, or other inventive method. When I make up a style sheet for a book I’m editing, I find errors in this arena. Here’s a sample from one (with no mistakes):
Calista (p5), aka Mrs. Grant Reynolds (p13), last name Vance (p16), aka babe (p18), aka Ms. Vance (p66), aka Allison (p89), aka Allison Hayes (p108), aka dear (p112), aka new kid (p115), aka Cinderella (p232), aka Ms. Hayes (p239), aka Miss (p245), aka Miss Hayes (p267), aka Vance (p303), aka dork (p306) (used with permission by Samantha Peterson, author of Dynam)
As you can see, if the author had decided to change the name at some point, she would have had a lot of work to do to find the correct entries! The unspecific nicknames wouldn’t have been a problem, but the proper names might have been tricky, especially with the alias.
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