What's in a name?

Sat Aug 20 2016

Recently, I've worked on a few client manuscripts that have had some issues with the names of the various people in the stories. I've often said that every manuscript I work on teaches me something about writing, and that has certainly been true here. In helping those clients resolve their naming issues, I've learned some things about names that I think are good general guidance for all writers.

Names are a tool

A name is nothing more than an identifying label for someone. That's not rocket science. But consider why we use names at all. What purpose do they serve? I see names as tools for organizing information.

Mental models

Consider (as writers always should) your readers. What cognitive task does a reader face while consuming your story?

Their job is to build mental models.

As people read, they construct information structures in their brains corresponding to the elements of your story's world: how the politics works, what the weather is like, how far different places are from one another, where the treasure chest is buried, and of course about all the people in the story too.

These mental models can be extraordinarily complicated. They shift and grow from page to page. They record not just the instantaneous state of the story's world as of page 167, but the entire history of changes from page 1 all the way through page 167.

Building these models is a lot of work. Your duty as a writer is to make that job as easy as possible.

If you do it right, the reader's mental model will closely match your own mental model of your story, and readers will have a clear understanding of what's going on in the story.

Names as faces

Have you ever had the experience of watching a movie, following it just fine, and then realizing at the end of it that you can't for the life of you remember what most of the characters' names were? Or have you met people in real life whose names you didn't know despite having plenty of interactions with them?

Despite the lack of names, you probably don't have any difficulty maintaining your own mental model about that person. This is because every time you see them, you are confronted with the full 3D sight and sound of that person, which offers your brain tons of material it can use to connect this interaction with memories of earlier interactions. That's how your brain knows to add new information to the correct mental model.

In a book, we don't have that. We can't see the person. We can't hear them. All we have to go on is the name.

The name becomes&emdash;if I can borrow a database term&emdash;the reader's "primary key" for accessing and organizing information about that character.

Typically, readers encounter a new character's name in close proximity to some descriptive information about the character. We associate the two, and a new mental model is born. The description (plus the context in which the character appeared) is the first information attached to that mental model.

In reading, names thus become replacements for the real world's full 3D sight and sound of a person.

Problems with names

When names are not used well in a story, two different problems can arise.

Confusing names

By far the most common naming problem I see in clients' manuscripts is with names that are confusing.

Hit readers with a pair of characters named "Amanda" and "Amara," and you shouldn't be surprised if readers can't keep them straight: both names are three syllables, begin with "Am," and end with "a". As database keys go, those are similar enough to invite confusion.

Similarly, if the first half of your book has a supporting character named "Steve," and the second half of the book has some other supporting character also named "Steve," you can't really blame the reader if they accidentally think it's the same guy showing up again.

Naming issues like those are prime opportunities for the reader's mental model of your story to accidentally diverge from your mental model, with potentially disastrous results. If readers get confused about whether it was Amanda or Amara who slept with Steve that one time, you can imagine how later parts of the story could end up feeling like a complete muddle.

And for confusing name problems, reality is no defense. Yes, real life throws multiple Steves at us. But real life also offers us different 3D sight and sounds for those two Steves. Real life offers much richer database keys than just the name. But in books, the name has to do the whole job.

Names vs. descriptions

A less common but far more damaging naming problem is when writers don't use names at all.

I don't mean that they never give the characters names, but that as the story progresses, they tend to eschew the names in favor of descriptions. Rather than:

Steve came through the door, a lurid smile on his face.

we get:

The heavy-set man came through the door, a lurid smile on his face.

Here, the writer is relying on the reader remembering that Steve is heavy-set, and thus being able to use "the heavy-set man" as an alternative database key that still references Steve.

Well, maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. Are there other heavy-set men in the story? Did you adequately describe Steve as heavy-set in the first place? Or did you call him "fat" in his original description? Or perhaps "stocky" or "hefty"? Each of those may call to mind different visuals for different readers, thus risking that when you later use "heavy-set", their mental database might not return any matching records.

Either way, relying on descriptions instead of names invites confusion because cognitively associating a description to a name and from there to the correct mental model, is harder than just giving the reader the simple primary key in the first place.

Why make readers go through two steps to reach the mental model instead of one, especially when one of those steps is difficult and error prone? Nobody benefits from that.

In extreme cases, the effect of relying on descriptions is to anonymize the characters. I had a memoir client who almost universally referred to their children by their birth order rather than their names. "My oldest daughter", "our third child", and so forth. Yes, we were given the names at some point, but jeez, talk about imposing a steep cognitive burden on readers!

Ultimately, it was too much work to keep track of. The narrative was telling me important things about these children. The writer gave me good information to add to my mental models. But since remembering which name went in which birth order was too much work&emdash;especially since "our third daughter" and "our third child" weren't necessarily the same kid&emdash;I couldn't do it.

That information floats in my mind, disconnected from the people. It is wasted, anonymized and unrelated to any of my mental models.

Consequently, my mental models of those children remained virtually empty since I could never connect anything to them. As such, I never felt like I got to know--or care about--any of the children.

Names exist for a reason. Use them.

Naming rules-of-thumb

Fortunately, avoiding both of the above problems is pretty easy.

Keep your names distinctive

Real life may offer us Amanda and Amara, or a flock of various Steves, but your novel is not real life. Even if you're writing a memoir, that's not quite real life either. In both settings, you have the freedom to choose (or change) names in order to avoid reader confusion.

My favorite technique for this is just to keep the first letter of all your major characters different. Don't give us "Jack" and "Jane" when you can give us "Mark" and "Jane". The more dissimilar the names are from one another, the easier it is for readers to keep the characters straight too.

Don't go overboard, though. To be easily useful to readers, names should also be familiar. If you go making up character names readers have never encountered in their lives, that look like they're from some other planet, we're going to have a hard time even treating those names as names.

Baby name websites are a great resource here, especially if like me you have trouble coming up with names. Just read through lists until you find ones that grab you.

(Side note: Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors powerfully demonstrates the value of keeping names distinctive, by doing exactly the opposite. That entire story is predicated on the characters' making mistakes in their mental models about other characters because their names/faces/voices are too similar. Shakespeare does this intentionally and to hilarious effect. If you do it accidentally, the results won't be so hilarious.)


Names aren't just arbitrary labels. They are also miniature descriptions in their own right.

At my day job, I have a couple of co-workers whose names both start with "F". One of them is called Frank, the other is called Faraz.

Did you just get two different visuals? I'll bet you did, because you recognize that those two names come from different cultural backgrounds. And indeed, Frank is a white guy while Faraz is Indian. Each name, by virtue of its cultural associations, brings with it a template for what that person probably looks and sounds like.

It's a stereotype, to be sure, but for writers it's a hell of a useful one.

When you're picking names for your characters, use that. You know what cultural, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds your characters come from. Give them names to match. Doing so helps bring real life's 3D sight and sound cues into the book. Not all of the cues, to be sure, but enough to help readers keep the characters straight.


Yes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. The point is, a rose has a name, and it is distinctive from the name of other flowers. Nobody gets confused when you say "rose", and if you tell them "sugared rose petals are pleasantly tart," they have no problem adding that information to their mental model about roses rather than chrysanthemums.

Character names work exactly the same way.

So give your characters names, and use them. Make the names distinctive and evocative of the image you want readers to have. These are not difficult tasks, but they make a world of difference in readers' ability to both understand your story and know your characters as people.

Got a favorite character naming tip of your own, or a an example of what not to do? Share it in the comments!