Writers in the Storm

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May 27, 2016

What’s in a Name? How to Avoid the “Claire” Confusion

Adria J. Cimino

The biggest complaint about my debut novel, Paris, Rue des Martyrs? All of the “Claires.” Two extremely minor characters—a shopkeeper we see a couple of times and another person who is mentioned once but never seen—were named Claire. Another minor character was named Clara. Since these characters made so few appearances and didn’t play major roles in the story, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t see it as a problem. Until it was mentioned in some of my reviews. Ouch! The good news is most readers said it was a bit confusing but then had other positive things to say. Still. It got me thinking and made me overhaul my whole manner of choosing character names.

In the past, I would consider two factors when choosing a character name:

-Is it appropriate for the cultural background and age of my character?

-Can most people pronounce it?

Clearly, this wasn’t enough. Sure, those points are important, but all of a sudden, as I started thinking about the whole naming issue, I realized that if I hoped to avoid problems in future books, I needed to start asking myself more questions!

Now, I start my search for character names in much the same way as in the past, but that’s about the only aspect of the process that hasn’t changed. So, first stop, baby name websites. Second stop, for older characters, an Internet search for common names from the time period.

And then I consider/do the following before making any final decisions:

-Avoid similarity

Not only do I no longer choose similar names like Claire and Clara, but I avoid choosing names that start with the same letter. So I would avoid Jennifer, Janet and Jane in the same story unless there is a reason for the similarity. If there is a reason, no problem. But if it’s random, what’s the point of adding an element that might create confusion?

-Make a list

It might seem silly to list the characters, as if writing a play, because clearly I’m not going to forget the names of my main characters. But I might forget that I named the shopkeeper mentioned once early in the book Jennifer. And by Chapter 18, I might create another minor character with a similar name and not even realize it. Sure, I would pick this up in the editing process, but it’s always better to be organized right from the start.

-Basic isn’t always the best

When choosing foreign names, I stick by my original idea: If you’re writing for English-speaking readers, choose a name they can pronounce. And one that doesn’t result in gender confusion. For instance, in French, Jean-Marie is a man’s name. However, this doesn’t mean every French girl should be named Claire or Anne. I fell into that trap already! So expand your horizons beyond the basics.

-Take minor characters seriously

It’s unfortunate when an issue with the names of two or three minor characters overshadows all of the author’s hard work. So even if that character’s name will appear one time in my novel, when I create it, I give it just as much attention as the name of my protagonist. Often, one’s downfall can be in the details!

Is my new system complicated or unwieldy? Strangely, no. It’s given me structure, while still keeping the creativity alive. What’s in a name? A lot more than I ever expected.

Have you ever had this problem? Was it hard to wrap your head around renaming a character?

 *  *  *

Adria J. Cimino-author photo 01Adria J. Cimino is the author of Amazon Best-Selling novel Paris, Rue des Martyrs and Close to Destiny, as well as The Creepshow and A Perfumer’s Secret. She also co-founded boutique publishing house Velvet Morning Press. Prior to jumping into the publishing world full time, she spent more than a decade as a journalist at news organizations including The AP and Bloomberg News. Adria is a member of Tall Poppy Writers, which unites bright authors with smart readers. She lives in Paris with her husband, Didier, and daughter, Phèdre. When she isn’t writing, you can find Adria at her neighborhood café watching the world go by.


Website: http://www.adriajcimino.com/

Twitter: @Adria_in_Paris

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AdriaJ.inParis/

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Adria-J.-Cimino/e/B00IBW3X5I

33 comments on “What’s in a Name? How to Avoid the “Claire” Confusion”

  1. I just had to do this, Adria. The main protagonist's name was Carley. One of the other protagonist's names was Camille. Even though I saw them as vastly different, several readers didn't. Goodbye Camille, hello, Lillian.

    Sigh. I loved Camille.

  2. Hi Laura, Thanks for inviting me to the blog... Yes, that's exactly how I was when writing Paris, Rue des Martyrs! I never gave it a second thought as it all seemed fine to me! My characters all had their own personalities and roles in the story. It's funny how we learn these things as we go along... I like the name Lillian, by the way. 🙂

  3. I discovered way too many characters whose names started with the letter "J" in the current WIP, and had to backtrack. I already had a Julie in the series and I'm flat-out in love with another J (Jasper), so the four others (gulp!) had to be renamed.

    I now add the new WIP characters to my master character list of people, canines, and cats. I've updated the list to show the human characters in alphabetical order now!

  4. Good points, Adria. I read a Scandinavian novel in which all the women through multiple generations were named Ann or Anna or Hannah. Oy! I have a list of names, including identifying characteristics and the page/chapter in which they first appear, for my WIP. It's been really helpful for the reasons you cite. One workshop leader suggested that if a character only appears once, they should not have a specific name because it only confuses readers.

    1. Great idea to not name a character that only appears once -- if possible. It's true that once a name appears, it will be anchored in the reader's mind! So even if it seems "minor" to us, it could eventually confuse the reader.

  5. Very good points, it is easy for a writer to forget that a reader can't see the characters as they do and may not get the distinctive differences, so be very careful with names.

    1. And sometimes, unfortunately, we as authors end up learning these things after making the error! It never seems to be an error at the time we're writing of course. 🙂

  6. Excellent points, Adria. I would add one more: don't name every minor character. A waiter can just be a waiter. I say this because a writer/client sent me a manuscript with 76 NAMED characters. The vast majority were minor, like waiters, but the names became really problematic. Not only did he have to vary them (and there are only 26 letters to start names with!), but readers tend to think a named character is someone to recall later, so it alerts readers and makes them try to remember the name. And in real life we don't always know (or care) what everyone's name is.

  7. Adria, you raise very good points, and I think your new system is very workable! On the flip side, I write historical fiction that includes real people from the past. In one story, there were 3 men (friends and compatriots) named George in one room having a conversation - so the POV character thought of each of them by their relationship to her instead of by name so that the reader could parse who was who. The other comment I'd make is that I came across a reference in a historical source of a man known as "Beverly" which today we usually think of as feminine. How times change, eh? And lists! I love lists! When I'm writing I keep a spreadsheet open where I list the character details (name, age, height, body build, scars, job, etc.) as I go so I can keep track. The descriptive details come in handy when it's time to provide them to the cover artist, too. Thanks for sharing your experience with naming! It can be a tricky thing indeed.

    1. Great points, Betty. When writing historical fiction, if three people are named George, you can't change their names just to make it less confusing. I like your way of handling that situation. Even in general fiction, there might be a reason that a few characters have similar or the same names -- and that's fine. We still might face criticism over it, but at least if there is a reason behind the decision, we as authors can accept the situation more easily!

  8. My editor caught that I had a Jim and a James. I hadn't even thought about those being the same names. In one of my WIP's I've changed a main charachter's name to avoid the "same-first-letter" problem, but I'm struggling. He has been Jonas for so long it feels like renaming one of my children. I'm not sure I can do it!

    I also use my style sheet as I write to track spelling. I once turned in a manuscript with my main character spelled two different ways in various chapters. Ouch.

    1. It is so hard to make the decision later in the game, once we know the character well... Best of luck to you! And a style sheet for spelling is a great idea!

  9. Names of characters can be tricky. It was not until I had written several books, that I realized one of my characters in each book was named Susan, or Sue, or Suzie. And these were all stand alone books. I must like that name. Fortunately I have never used it for the main character. Yet.

    1. Ha, ha! It is interesting how we reveal things about ourselves without even realizing it. I've almost used the same names across books too... With all of the names in the world, it's funny how so many of us are drawn back to the same names. 🙂

  10. Great post, Adria! I also have to be careful with some of my secondary character names because I'm writing a series and a minor character in one might become a major character in another.

    1. Ah, yes, writing a series poses particular challenges because from book to book you have so much to remember... I would need a spreadsheet for that!

  11. I keep a list of all named characters, major and minor, and try to make sure no two have names that start with the same letter. If I can't avoid it, I make sure they're different sounds, like a hard and soft C.

  12. That's a very good system you've set up. I once named a minor character with the same first name as the MC. No one but my third beta-reader noticed it. Easy enough to change the second "Daniel" to "Raymond".

    1. I can understand that as I, myself, didn't pick up on the Claire problem in my own book. And it doesn't bother all readers, of course. But I don't like to take the risk of confusing even a few readers...

  13. All great points Adria. I must admit, my heart stumbled when I saw the title of your post. My main character, in my first novel, is named Claire. I did however, do a lot of research on names. I use Scrivener and it helps keeping track of character names, etc. I do like the idea of a spread sheet on characters (as one of the others commented). Thank you for an insightful post. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

    1. I think Claire would have been fine if I just used it once. 🙂 I haven't used Scrivener but have heard lots of great things about it. Otherwise, indeed, making a list of characters the old fashioned way is a good way to avoid any naming problems.

    1. Great point! As someone else mentioned in one of the comments, in historical fiction, that often can't be avoided. But when writing contemporary fiction, I agree it's best to avoid names that create confusion about gender.

  14. In one of my novels, I discovered, shortly before publication, that I had given the name "Sadie" to five minor characters, including one dog. No one had caught the repetitions! I had to scramble to make changes. Now, keeping a list of character names makes absolute sense.

  15. I encountered this problem when my editor pointed out that I had two Mrs. Smiths in my book. I was totally unaware I had done this!

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