To Name A Character: That Is The Question

John loves with Mary, but Mary loves Bobby, who has a secret he keeps with Paul, though Bobby doesn’t know that Paul told Dave, and Dave told Dana, David, and Doug. Doug also goes by Greg, since his father’s name is Greg, and he sometimes likes to distinguish himself. Tom is Paul’s plumber and they both went to George Jeremy Sycamore High School, where Dana also went for a year before he got kicked out for selling homemade pot brownies to Mary, who fell in love with Bobby when she was high.

How many names did you just read?

You don’t have to count to know that you’ve read way too many. And that’s a simplistic way of demonstrating something that often happens in BWW workshop pieces in more subtle but nonetheless confusing ways. I’m not picking on any one writer. I’m as guilty of this as anyone in the workshop. Sometimes, when we’re writing a story, all our characters mean so much to us that the thought of leaving out their names or eliminating them as characters is unthinkable.

But too many names can transform your piece into something so confusing it’s simply not readable. When I read, my brain attaches special significance to any character with a name. A name is like a bucket that I have to fill with character traits. A character develops as that bucket fills. I can’t hold too many in short pieces (novels are sometimes better for lots of named characters) because I spend all my mental energy holding the buckets, and when that happens, I can’t enjoy what I’m reading.

So how do you know if there are too many characters? There is no right answer here, but every writer has his rule. One of my former professors liked to say that “fiction is about relationships between people.” So which relationship is the most important in your story? Figure that out, and other characters may seem less important and worth cutting.

The characters you name should be memorable. Flannery O’Connor does a wonderful of job of introducing a character and then providing a distinguishing characteristic that makes him/her easy to remember. Check out her skills on display in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”:

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy.

Here we’re focusing on the grandmother. Since she’s described as the “grandmother,” we know some essential demographic information without needing her name: she’s female and probably the oldest person in the room. We also know what she wants, which is going to be the driving (no pun intended) force in this story. Then the first name hits us: Bailey. O’Connor wastes no time letting us know who he is. We know he’s probably middle-aged, since he’s the son of someone’s grandmother.  So here we are, in paragraph one: We’ve got a relationship to focus on, and one name that’s easy to hold onto, and another character defined by her position in the family.

As the story continues, we meet Bailey’s wife, who is referred to as “the mother.” And then there are the children:

The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.

She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.

O’Connor gives little John Wesley a few distinguishing characteristics. He’s stocky and wears glasses. We don’t get too far with the name “John Wesley” in our heads without also getting some information about him. And “little girl” June Star sits on the floor, and she’s got a “yellow head.” By the end of this brief exchange, we have a clear picture of these kids.

You could debate why O’Connor decided to name Bailey and not his mother, or the children and not their mother, or why O’Connor decided to refer to the killer as “The Misfit,” but the effect seems clear: without so many names, it’s easier to write a clear piece.

Can you think of any examples of stories that use a ton of names and still work? Post them here!

About Peter Biello

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered on New Hampshire Public Radio and a writer of short stories, novels, book reviews, and essays. He's also the host of The Bookshelf, a series of interviews with authors from or writing about the Granite State.
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