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Melva McLean

What’s in a Name?

Copyright: artisticco / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: artisticco / 123RF Stock Photo

Last month’s book club choice was from a bunch of bestseller and book club lists. It was one of those “family” stories with a sizeable cast of characters. You know the kind — three or four sisters with partners and/or lovers and children and a couple of pets.

I was a hundred pages into the read when I started to feel the kind of angst I can only get from a thick Russian novel. I just couldn’t keep the characters apart. I had to resort to getting out a recipe card and writing down names and identities. I felt defeated until the night of the club meeting. I was late and in the hallway taking off my shoes when I heard from the living room: “Did anyone else have trouble keeping the characters apart?”

The answer was “Yes.” The next question was, “Why?”

One confusion was easy to figure out (thanks in large part to my cheat sheet). Two of the male characters, partners of two of the women, had four-letter names with the same two first letters. But the three main female characters had dissimilar names. Perhaps the confusion was that two of them worked together. I have to admit I’ve never really thought about name choice when editing a piece of fiction. Should I? And what criteria do I use if I were to suggest a change to the author?

I know there are lots of fiction editors out there. What are your thoughts on critiquing names when editing fiction?


Previous post from Melva McLean: Writing Wrongs in Fiction.

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2 Comments on “What’s in a Name?”

  • Frances Peck


    This is a great question, Melva. I don’t edit fiction, but I read it and write it. I think names matter tremendously, especially in character-driven fiction. The best, most memorable characters are inseparable from their names. Think of Becky Sharp, Tess, Holden Caulfield, Scout. The sound of a name, the feel of it on your tongue, and especially its connotations all contribute shading and dimension to a character. A man named Howard and one named Rafe are two very different characters. A Willow is not the same as a Mary, and neither are a Dodi. I wrestled through two drafts of a novel unsatisfied with the name of one minor character, a sort of granola/hippie young woman who is mostly flaky, but at certain key times solid. (I settled on Melody.)

    For some great tips on character names, whether you’re writing them or editing them, check out what the ever-instructive Janice Hardy (Fiction University) has to say:

  • Melva


    Thanks, Frances. I’ll check out the blog. When I write, I have a tendency to pick a name, then, as the character evolves, I change the name. Of course, that always make me thankful I didn’t have kids.

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