How (not) to name your minor characters…

I may be having problems with my current work-in-progress… Draft one was completed and polished a few months ago and went to my fabulous editor for the first edit. (Edit 1 is mainly about the plot, structure and character development) Back it came, and I started on draft two, incorporating my editor’s suggestions for giving one of the child characters a more extensive role in the story, while cutting down on her mother’s contribution. So far, so good.

I like my characters in this one. The main characters are all nice people, and the two children were great fun to write. I worked my way through draft two, then let it rest for a while before getting it out again and going through it with (hopefully) fresh eyes.

Character names are tricky. I always seem to fixate on one letter – Ward Zero, for instance, came back from its first edit with the news that my characters included Megan, Marianne, Mhairi, Mim and Martha. Not to mention Roger and Rita and Ralph. And Nora and Netta. And Jack and Jim. I vowed back then not to make the same mistake again, started a names list, and renamed practically everyone in Ward Zero.

So, confident that my names in this book, which is still a title-free zone, would all pass the starting-letter test and hadn’t appeared in an earlier book either, I began to check through draft two.

By the time you get to this stage, you’ve read your own book roughly eleven million times, and it’s easy to miss things. I was slightly less than halfway through when I came across Jill the librarian. She’s a nice lady, appears in one chapter only, and has two sentences to speak. She almost doesn’t need a name, but I called her Jill anyway. Two pages further on, the main characters were exiting the library, when a thought struck. Wait a minute… WAIT A MINUTE – wasn’t the police officer in the last couple of chapters called Jill too? Quick check… yep, she was.

So Jill the librarian became Paula, and on I read, tweaking as I went, and eventually I came to Jill the police officer. She doesn’t have a big role either, but she’s mentioned a few times and she talks more, too. I came to the end of her role, and hesitated. Maybe better just check that I really did change all mentions of the librarian to Paula. I put ‘Jill’ into the word-search box, and up came Jill the police officer’s role, as well as – several mentions in chapter three. But… Jill the police officer wasn’t around in chapter three and neither was Jill the librarian, so this must be… yes, another Jill. (This one’s an assistant in an exclusive clothes shop and in chapter three she can’t go to work because she’s moving her mother into a care home.)

It was a bit of a head on desk moment. The problem was, of course, these minor characters were so minor they never made it to the names list…

When I need a name quickly, I usually dive into Facebook or Twitter, and the first name I see there wins the role, providing it’s not already in the story. Jill the shop assistant became Marie, and on I checked to the end of the book. And we’ll see what happens when it goes for edit number two.

One day, I’ll get all my characters into a story with suitable names for their ages, no same starting letters and no repetitions. Maybe. But it wasn’t this book.

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10 Responses to How (not) to name your minor characters…

  1. Ha ha, love that! I can completely relate. I also keep a names list (a spreadsheet) and every single character who gets named, no matter how minor, goes on it. Thing is, I frequently forget to check it! Your Jill was my Lily when I spotted in my latest WIP that I had 3 different characters called Lily. And on re-editing some of my back-catalogue for re-release by my new publisher, I spotted that a minor character involved in a couple of significant scenes had the same surname as a major character in another book. They’re all set in the same town and, as it’s not a common surname, a reasonable assumption could be made that they were related. They’re not. So had to change that too. Must check the spreadsheet. Must check the spreadsheet…. xx

    Liked by 2 people

  2. gilliallan says:

    I had two Roberts in BURIED TREASURE, but generally avoid this problem by having (by the sound of it) a far smaller cast list. In the WIP I have an issue with Rebecca, hard to explain briefly, but looks like I’m going to have to rename my heroine. I think you will agree, you can’t pluck any old name out of the ethers for your lead characters. The name has got to fit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lindahuber says:

      Exactly. It never feels right when you have to rename someone, does it? I remember talking to a reader at an event, and she complimented me on my character Caitlyn. I was already uptight about the event, and I had a short conversation with her with no idea who Caitlyn was or even which book she was in. It was only later that the penny dropped – Caitlyn had previously been Kenny…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. barbtaub says:

    And don’t even get me started with names across a series! In my WIP, I’ve just realised I changed the name of the love interest from when he first appears in Book 1.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You can never have enough Jill’s lol (says she who was a librarian)

    Liked by 2 people

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