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.



1651 book titles targeted to be banned in 2022

Efforts to ban books in US libraries have reached an all-time high with 1651 books targeted so far in 2022, according to the American Library Association, a group of librarians and library professionals.  In 2021 there were 1597 such titles targeted.  PEN America, an organization advocating for literary freedom, concurs.  What is different in 2022 is the increased organization of the groups wanting to ban books and the targeting of not one book at a time but of whole groups of books.

Targeted books fall into three groups, according to PEN America:

  • 41% contain material related to LGBTQ issues or characters,
  • 40% contain main or important characters who are not white, and
  • 21% address racism.

Most of the efforts to ban books have been led by about fifty groups, many  formed in 2022.  Social media is helping to spread the message and to propagate  groups like Moms for Liberty whose branches are popping up all over the country.  Conservative politicians seeking public office are also demanding that books be banned.

This 1,000-piece puzzle by Re-Marks Puzzle shows 55 covers of books that have been banned at various times in the US .

In addition to books targeted because of their 21st century gender content and racial content, many so-called “classic” biographies and novels have been targeted.  Here are some examples:

  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One Texas library has even removed the Bible from its shelves.

This display in my neighborhood bookstore shows banned books.

Celebrate Banned Book Week September 18 to 24 by reading a book, banned or otherwise.


Imitate classic sentences, part 2

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about improving sentence construction by copying sentence structures of good writers.  (See my blog “Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing. ) The type sentences I discussed then were cumulative sentences, sometimes called additive sentences, which informally add more information as the sentence goes on, as this sentence does.

Today I would like to discuss copying the structure of more formal sentences created by careful planning.  They “breathe” conviction and confidence, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence.

One example is the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Another such sentence is the first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Still another is the opening clauses of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  These sentences encourage the reader to pause and consider their meanings for truth, for irony, and for insight.

How can you create your own such sentences?  According to Fish, you should analyze sentences you recognize as great, remove the content and fill in the structure with your own content.  (It’s like baking a potato, scooping out the center, and then filling the skin with your homemade chili.)  To do this, Fish advises you to

  • write short sentences.
  • use parallel structures.
  • use one- or two-syllable words
  • use the present tense.

Here are some examples I wrote:

“When taking a trip with kids, go to playgrounds first before you run out of sunny days and sunny spirits.”  Let’s analyze this sentence using Fish’s advice.

  • Write short sentences.  20 words
  • Use parallel structures.  “sunny days and sunny spirits”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words.  14 one-syllable words, 6 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

Here is another.  “Keep your children close and your spouse closer.”

  • Write short sentences.  8 words
  • Use parallel structure.  “Keep your children close and [keep] your spouse closer.”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words. 6 one-syllable words, 2 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

And another:  “When soldiers drill from dawn to dusk on borders dense with tanks and such,  beware of Trojan horses.”

  • Write short sentences:  18 words
  • Use parallel structure.  “from dawn to dusk,” “with tanks and such”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words.  13 one-syllable words, 5 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

When could you use such sentences?

  • the opening sentences of a novel, short story, or speech
  • the closing of a letter or an article or a chapter
  • a “gotcha ya!” retort from a character or yourself
  • the moral of a story

According to Fish, the more you write these sentences, the easier you write them.  And the easier they become, the more you use them.  (Did you notice?  I just wrote two of them.)

Supplemental college essay prompts vary from none to seven, from matter-of-fact to fanciful, in 2022-2023

For the 2022-2023 college application season, many colleges require students to submit supplemental essays in addition to the Common Application essay.  Some schools, like American University, require just one supplemental essay.  “Why are you interested in American University?” (100 words)  Bard College is more succinct:  Why Bard? (250 words)  So is Yale.  “Why Yale?”

Other colleges require several supplemental essays.  Agnes Scott College in Atlanta requires six essays of varying lengths:

  • Please tell us why you chose to apply to Agnes Scott College? (50-100 words)
  • Describe at least one quality of leadership that you have learned in high school either through direct experience or by observation of another leader? (5-50 words)
  • What global issue can you imagine yourself addressing during your time at Agnes Scott? (5-50 words)
  • Optional: If you are involved in community service, what project has been your favorite and why? (5-50 words)
  • If you could visit anywhere, where would you go and why? (200 characters)
  • What’s your favorite book you have read outside the classroom (not assigned reading) and why? (200 characters)
  • Tell us about a leader that you admire. Who are they? How have they influenced you? (5-100 words)

Did you notice that none of these “essays” should be more than 100 words, and that two of them should be measured in characters?  (An essay of 200 characters?  Hmm.  This paragraph is about 200 characters.)

Here are some other supplemental essays, chosen by me for the brevity of the question.

  • “What is your favorite word and why?” University of Virginia
  • “Be yourself,” Oscar Wilde advised. “Everyone else is taken.” Introduce yourself. Dartmouth College
  • “Share a time when you were awestruck.” Emory University
  • “How did you spend your last two summers?” Stanford University
  • “What is the truest thing that you know?” Villanova University

Williams College has done away with any writing requirement in its application process.  However, it offers the option of submitting a three- to five- page academic paper, completed in the past year.

And then there is Rice University.  Instead of asking students to submit an essay, Rice asks them to submit a captionless image that appeals to them.  Apparently, no explanation is required.

College application season has opened with these essay prompts

If your high school senior hopes to attend a US college next year, he or she can begin the application process now.  Application season for the 2023-2024 freshman class opened on August 1.


Part of that application process is writing an essay—or several essays, depending on the college.  You should check with each college you plan to attend to see which essay prompts they accept.  Many colleges accept essays from the “Common Application” or the “Coalition for College” prompts.  Below are those essay prompts.  An acceptable essay would contain no more than 650  words (two pages, double spaced, 12 point type).

Common Application essay prompts

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Another option would be to describe the effect Covid 19 had on you.

Coalition for College essay prompts

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  2. What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
  3. Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
  4. Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?
  5. What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?
  6. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.