Category Archives: naming characters

Why to we remember–or not–characters’ names?

A week ago I read—blitzkrieged is more like it—through a popular who-done-it that came with great recommendations.  Today I was trying to remember one of the character’s names—any character’s name—and I couldn’t.

Are the names of Cinderella’s sisters important? No.

A month ago, I read my book group’s monthly selection, another highly recommended novel flying off library shelves.  Now, four weeks later, I can’t remember a single character’s name.

In between, I read Oliver Twist, all 600-plus pages—for the first time.  I remember several names:  Oliver, Mr. Bumble, Fagin, and Nancy.

This made me wonder:  Why do we remember—or not—characters’ names?

To answer this question, let’s start with the idea of forming memories in general.  We form memories by forming connections between neurons in the brain.  These connections are called synapses. As synapses grow stronger, memories become stronger.  Synapses grow stronger the more we are exposed to an event like hearing or reading a person’s name.

Suppose the name of a character is a name you have never heard before.  You are likely to forget that name unless you make a sincere effort to remember it and to connect it to something you already know.  That is because the synapse containing that name in your brain is weak.  But the more you hear or read that name, the stronger the synapse becomes, and the more apt you are to remember the name.

Forgetting new names is normal.

Now suppose that name is the name of someone you already know, such as your mother.  Your brain creates an additional synapse from the new name to your mother’s name.  Not only that, but because you know your mother’s name so well and have strengthened the synapses to that name thousands of times over your lifetime, the name of the new character connects to a strong memory and is easier to remember.

Some names new-to-us don’t have other synapses attached to them.  Without strong synapses to other cues, we forget those names easily.

Many times in books, a name is stated but almost immediately replaced by a pronoun.  So even if a character appears many times, we may read that name not much at all.  If we don’t immediately make a connection to a name we already know, the synapse for this new name may stay weak.

In a who-done-it mystery, myriad characters are introduced who are not followed up on:  the hunter who finds the body, the curious neighbor, the doctor who gives a cause of death,  the red herring characters.  They turn out not to be  important, but we don’t know that as we begin the story.  In books like these, I expect to forget names so I make a list of characters as I go along, knowing that I will not need to remember most of them.

Similarly, in novels by Charles Dickens, many characters turn out to be not important.  But they come at you so fast that you need to make a list or become hopelessly lost.  After a while, you encounter certain characters again and again, and for them the list becomes not important.  But for the others, you still need the list.

Consider ways to help readers remember characters’ names.

So as a writer, what can you do to help your readers remember your characters’ names?

  • Introduce characters slowly, repeat their names, and repeat their character traits as the novel progresses.

 

  • If a character is needed only for his work, refer to him by his job without naming him: the undertaker, the black pug, the principal.

 

  • Limit the number of characters. Let some characters perform double duties to cut out the need for more characters.  Let the English teacher be the sympathetic ear rather than introducing a little-used counselor.

 

  • Write about families with the same family name such as Jane Austen did. In Persuasion, for example, there is Anne Elliot, Sir Walter Elliot, Elizabeth Elliot, Mary Elliot Musgrove and William Elliot, about one-third of the characters.  There is also Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove, their son Charles Musgrove, and their daughters Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove.  Within families, give characters distinct first names.

Create characters from families. The family connection will help readers remember names.

  • Limit names beginning with the same letter or that rhyme or that can be easily confused. Consider not using names like Leslie, Robin and Chris that can be either male or female unless that confusion is part of the plot.

 

  • Provide habits or clothing references to help readers remember characters: fearful Piggy with his glasses, asthma and auntie, Ralph with the conch shell, Jack with his hyper-aggressiveness, all from Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

 

  • Create names with meanings that readers can connect to characters. “Snape” in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling sounds like “snake,” and Snape seems like a villain when readers first meet him.  “Hermione” is an unusual name to American ears, but because it begins with “her” and because it is a long name, readers easily remember it as the name of Harry’s  girl friend.

So to answer my original question, “Why do we remember—or not—characters’ names?” the answer is that the more we encounter a name, the more synapses we create in our brains, enabling us to remember that name.

 

 

Jane Austen’s naming style

We writers can learn to compose better by reading the work of recognized authors.  One of my favorites is Jane Austen.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the names Austen uses, and what I can learn about naming my own fictional characters from her novels.

Austen (1775-1816), chooses names from common English first names for her main male characters such as Charles Bingley (Pride and Prejudice), Charles Musgrove Sr. and Jr. and Charles Hayter (Persuasion); John Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, and John Willoughby (Sense and Sensibility) and John Knightly (Emma); William Collins, Sir William Lucas, and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and William Elliot (Persuasion); and George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice) and George Knightly (Emma).

Similarly, Austen reuses common names of women for important characters:  Elizabeth Elliot (Persuasion) and Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Mary Elliot Musgrove (Persuasion), Mary Parker (Sanditon), Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), and Mary Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Kitty Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice); Jane Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) and Jane Fairfax (Emma); Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice) and Charlotte Heywood (Sanditon); Georgiana Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Georgiana Lamb (Sanditon); Anne Taylor Weston (Emma) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion).

Why does Austen repeat the same names when so many others exist?  Tradition is one reason.  Austen writes about “three or four families in a country village” where traditional values are shown by fathers passing down names to their sons and mothers to their daughters.  Names hold communities together. 

(I am reminded of the naming tradition in the Irish hamlets my grandparents came from.  Children would be known by their own first name as well as their father’s and grandfather’s names.  I would have been known as Kathy Tommy Johnny.)

Love of family is another reason Austen repeats names of characters within a family.  Isabella Knightly (Emma) names her children Henry (after her father), John (after her husband), Bella (perhaps after her mother), Emma (after her sister), and George (after her brother-in-law).  Characters’ respect for the royal family is another reason for choosing names.  Many men in Austen’s books are named George. (George I, George II, and George III all served as kings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Austen was writing.)

Sometimes Austen shows who the outliers are in her books by giving them unusual names, such as Augusta Elton.  Women of fashion are named newer names such as Louisa, Caroline and Lydia.

Almost none of Austen’s characters are known by nicknames.  Elizabeth Bennett (Lizzy, Eliza) and her sister, Kitty, are exceptions.  The novels come from a time when people addressed each other by their family names (Mr. Collins, Mrs. Dashwood) or by their titles (Sir William, Lady Catherine).  In a culture of such formality, nicknames were used only at home, and not always then.

In the months before her death in 1816, Austen began Sanditon, a novel set in a fictitious seaside resort which was literally financed and built by characters who come from elsewhere and are not bound by tradition.  For this book, Austen breaks with the traditional names she uses in her earlier books and gives many of her characters names she hasn’t used before such as Clara, Esther, Arthur, and Sidney.  The names seem to say change.

What worked for Austen might not work for us.  But what we can learn is that none of her characters are named randomly.  The name of each character serves a purpose.

For more information see http://www.JASNA for an article in issue 19 of Persuasions by Susannah Fullerton as well as several online articles.