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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.