EDITING 101: 04 – Character Name Consistency…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

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:

Paul

Paulie

Paulie-Wallie

Mr. Charleston

Paulie C.

Mr. C.

Mr. VP

Mr. Veep

the vice president

the veep

Mr. Marketing

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.

Next week we’ll discuss ‘General Plurals’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.

Susan

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48 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 04 – Character Name Consistency…

  1. One nickname or two at the most would’ve been sufficient. Wow! He could’ve been called Paulie by friends and family and Mr. C or Mr. Charleston by co-workers, but no one would call him Paul. It gets confusing when you have something like this even in your own family. My brother was a second or what we called him was Jr., named after my father, David. So when he got married, if you called him and asked for Jr. they didn’t know who you were referring to, so I started calling him David Jr. but he didn’t like that. He said to call him David or Jr. but not both but he preferred Dave. 🙂 We had like 3 Davids in our family

    I was worried about my book, Haunted Hearts, because I had a grandfather, father, and main character who were named after the grandfather was Anthony Davide Calabria. The grandfather was called Davide, the father Anthony, and the main character Tony. I hoped that would make it less confusing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It sounds like you handled it well, Kim! Yes, it’s definitely a problem/issue in families. I’ve also heard writers complain it’s a problem in certain historical periods, like when everybody seems to have been named Edward, George, or Elizabeth! :O

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think also names should appropriate to the time the novel is set – don’t know about the US but here in the UK you are unlikely to come across many young girls call Gladys or boys called Horace so best avoided in a contemporary novel.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I’m sure. I remember reading some book a year ago where every character had their full name and title whenever they were mentioned. So it was always stuff like ‘Mister Paul Leonard VonCulpepper the Third’ every time. Forgot if it was published or not, but I still wonder if it was done for word count padding.

        Liked by 2 people

        • You may be right (the word count padding). But I’ve been editing a lot of novels lately that were originally written in Hebrew and have been translated into English. Apparently the Hebrew style is to use, for instance, “Mr. Paul Leonard VonCulpepper the Third” every single time the character is mentioned. It can feel excessively redundant in English, so I have to make changes to call the person “VonCulpepper” or “Paul” as appropriate to the relationships in the individual scenes.

          So I’m just saying that perhaps the book you mention was also either a translated novel, or one written by someone whose primary language was not English. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Interesting. All those years in Hebrew School and the rabbis never mentioned that. Then again, fiction novels weren’t part of the curriculum. I wonder if there are more cultures out there with extended names or constant use of titles. I know it’s big in manga too.

            As for the book I was reading, I’ll have to ask another friend who read it. It’s entirely possible, but I have a vague memory of the author being from the United States. Not that it would make a difference if they weren’t born here.

            Liked by 2 people

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