I always begin with an outline, but part way in my stream-of-consciousness takes over, and the outline goes out the window. When that happens, I find myself giving every walk-on a name, right down to the dog.
For me, the second draft is a mission to whittle down my cast of thousands.
It’s sometimes difficult to decide should go and who should stay. What is the optimal number of primary characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen. I say introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense.
Rule 1: When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember.
Even if this character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named. Some random walk-on characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest. They might show us something about the protagonist, give us a clue into their personality or past.
Does the character return later in the story? Give them a name only if they have a memorable role later.
Some characters are part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store. If they are just part of the scenery, overheard for the ambiance, they don’t need a name.
Rule 2: Only give names to characters who advance the plot.
In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:
In a screenplay, the rhythm you're attempting to establish--along with the emotional investment you're asking a reader to make--is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:
1. Advances the plot,
2. Thwarts the hero's objectives,
3. Provides crucial background, and/or
4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.
If you've included characters who don't fulfill one or more of these jobs, they're probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.
While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story. A name implies a character is an important part of the story.
Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know? If not, don’t give them a name.
Rule 3: Never name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same.
I learned a difficult lesson the hard way about naming characters. Ten years ago, when I began the Tower of Bones Series, I had a main character named Marya. She is central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name, but my mind must have been in a rut when I thought that one up—for some stupid reason I named her Marta.
Unfortunately, the two names are nearly identical.
What is even worse, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly was a protagonist with a major storyline. She actually becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.
Rule 4: My personal rule now is to never have two that even begin with the same letter.
This means I must exhaust the alphabet, but trust me, your readers will be grateful that you did.
Rule 5: Spelling and ease of pronounceability are critical. How easy is it to read and how will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud?
Audio books are gaining in popularity. You may have your book made into an audio boo, so make those invented words and names simple to read and easy for the narrator to read aloud.
You may not think that matters, but it does. I only have one book that is an audio book, but during the recording of that book, my narrator had trouble pronouncing the names of two characters, because I had written the names so they would look good on paper, not realizing they were unpronounceable as they were written. We ironed that out, but the experience taught me to spell names simply.
In conclusion, don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names, never name two characters names that are nearly identical, and consider making your spellings of names and places pronounceable just in case you decide to have your book made into an audio book.
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Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
Credit: Minor Characters Don't Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 - 2018 The Writers Store ® Incorporated, accessed Mar. 11, 2017.