Monday, January 18, 2010

The Name Game


It’s a simple rule: don’t give a character in your book a name that is in any way similar to another character’s name. Why? Because it confuses readers. When you confuse your readers—when you make them stop and think about anything except your story—you jerk them out of the alternate universe you’re creating. And anything that jerks your reader back to reality is a Bad Thing.

I was reminded of this last night while reading a mystery/thriller by a long-published, NYT bestselling author (in other words, someone who really ought to know better). About a third of the way into the book, our author begins a scene by introducing his hero to two new characters, Parker and Paterson, in the company of another character named Barker whom we’ve met just once before. That’s right: Barker, Parker, and Paterson.

It gets worse. The love interest in this book is a woman named Madison. About half way through the book, the hero—followed by the bad guys—heads off to Madison, Wisconsin. A fairly big chunk of the book takes place in Madison and everybody keeps using the town’s name. I tried to give the author the benefit of the doubt; I mean, maybe—just maybe—he didn’t notice there was a wee bit of a problem with the name of his locale and his heroine’s name. But then at one point the hero is thinking about Madison, and our author helpfully ads, “The woman, not the town.”


Now, this isn’t enough of an irritant that I’m going to stop reading. I am actually enjoying this book; in fact, I’m having a hard time putting it down (not a problem I often have these days). But I have to wonder what was going on in our author’s head. There is nothing in this segment that requires the action to take place in Madison: any state capitol would do. So why didn’t our author have his hero go to Hartford or Tallahassee or—anywhere but Madison? Conversely, if our author really wanted the action to take place in Madison, then he could have changed the love interest’s name. But no. He obviously really liked the name Madison, and he really wanted the segment to take place in Madison, and so to hell with his readers.

And that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


Lainey said...

Candy - you should consider giving up those long-published, NYT bestselling authors for Lent.
I've been on a steady diet of mid-list, highly readable satisfying authors and I feel a lot better.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've had stories where I had to go back and change various names of people or places for just this kind of reason after the story was completed. A writer does really need to check these things. Barker and Parker, and Madison and madison? That would drive me crazy.

orannia said...

Barker, Parker, and Paterson...and Madison and Madison?

Why? Why would you do that? Confusing a reader in that way (because confusing them by NOT telling them who the murderer is one-third of the way through the book is good IMO :) is just plain wrong.

I also hate names I don't know how to pronounce. Because every time I come to the name I stop and stumble over it, pronounce it a few different ways, then move on and it happens all over again. That drives me crazy!

Steve Malley said...

I don't know what to tell you... Maybe someone told him he was funny once, and he believed it?

cs harris said...

Lainey, now that's an abstinence I could embrace with relish! Only, that's not the idea, is it?

Charles, I've had to change names, too, once I've realized what I'd done. But he obviously knew the Madisonx2 was there.

Orannia, it is just flat out strange. On the not knowing how to pronounce last names, though, I guess I'm guilty because people are always asking me how to pronounce "St. Cyr." Since it's a name I grew up with, it never occurred to me that people in other parts of the country would find it strange.

Steve, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe he thought he was being funny. It didn't work.

Barbara Martin said...

I wonder if the publisher noticed the name similarity before it was printed.

cs harris said...

Barbara, it would have been impossible not to notice the Madison part, at least. Maybe the author thought it was funny. And when you're a Big Name, it's hard for an editor to tell you "No."